In the past 13 years, a specific genre of movies has absolutely overrun theaters and redefined pop culture. There was a point in time when comic book superheroes were staunchly uncool, but the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, to a lesser extent, the DC Universe have created a new popular landscape.
Superheroes are cool. New superhero movies are a big deal, ushered in with reverence and love for the source material. And, most importantly for the studios making these films, they make a ton of money. What happened? How did superhero movies take over the world?
Everyone wants to be strong. More than that, everyone wants to be strong enough to be free to do what they want. Spider-Man web-swinging through the city is free to fight injustice and make his own way in the world. Iron Man, clad in an indestructible suit of armor, can fly around the world and save people who are in trouble.
It’s only natural to want to be strong. Kids, in particular, are drawn to escapist fantasies, as they allow them to imagine a world that is much more fantastic than our own. As we get older, these stories might lose a bit of their appeal, on their surface. But, there is a point at which age gives way to another force: nostalgia.
Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. It’s the feeling of longing for a bygone era, and it can be a huge factor in making some aging franchises relevant again in the modern era. Many modern-day audiences for superhero films are made up of adults who grew up with Marvel superhero comics as a normal part of their reading rotation.
So, between children’s love of escapist fantasy and adults’ love of all things nostalgic, it’s easy to see why superhero movies got to where they are. Now, it can be argued, they fill a very old niche for our culture.
Marvel and DC superheroes and modern-day American myths. The ancient Greek pantheon, the Norse gods, the old gods of Egypt: these pantheons all played a major role in the culture of their eras. Now, instead of telling stories about Thor around a campfire, we watch Thor fight demons and dragons on the big screen.
So, will superhero films occupy their major position in pop culture forever? Probably not. The odds are in favor of superhero films falling out of fashion in favor of something else entirely, in much the same way that the once-ubiquitous Western genre fell out of favor in the late 1960s. Whatever replaces the superhero genre, however, will likely speak to the same part of us all: the part that wants to escape the mundane world to become truly powerful.