Why are we going to movie? What do we want from spending two hours in a room with a screen and a (hopefully) comfortable chair?
The answer is never just one thing, it is often a series of opposing impulses. We want to take root for justice, but we do not want our morality to be too simple and watered down. We want action and spectacle, but we also want well-developed characters and interpersonal drama. We want to immerse, feel challenged, some serious, raw, potentially disturbing emotions, but to finally walk out of the theater better than when we walked in. It’s hard to meet these criteria, but if a movie experience manages to push all those buttons, you’ll probably watch a superhero movie. It’s hard to deny that we are currently living in a golden age of superhero cinema (even though some call it a contradiction of terms), mainly due to the unique multiverse that connects the films. This universe is artificially composed thanks to a combination of meticulous writing, meticulous planning and insanely large budgets, with the result that the amount and the overall quality of hero media is definitely at an everyday peak.
Everything is connected
Marvel Studios is not the only group in Hollywood that makes great superhero movies, but they is make many of them, and they are apparently very good, if box office numbers and critical acclaim are any indication. They have 31 projects in development from September 2021, two of their films were the highest income of that year, and only one of their films has $ 2.8 billion made. It’s clear they’re doing something right.
The appeal and success of these movies today is the same as it was for their print predecessors for a similar reason – interconnection. The ‘Marvel Comics’ era began in the early 1960’s and has grown ever since. A bunch of episodic stories about brightly dressed do-gooders have managed to keep expanding and gaining popularity for decades, mainly due to fans’ appreciation for the variety and scope of their shared universe, where different characters mixed in surprising ways . This also applies to DC comics.
You can walk halfway through a Spider man comical, when Thor suddenly storms in while riding on the Hulk’s shoulders, helping to spill Doc Ock or whoever was in New York that week. It was unexpected, and it was amazing. When some obscure hero or villain has entered the battle, such as Great Bertha (you are welcome), a small cartoon Stan Lee would pop up and say: “readers will remember Big Bertha from West Coast Avengers, Vol II, Issue # 46, ”And everything was fine. That technique is much more difficult to perform with high-budget action films; so much is obvious because it is extremely difficult to pick up an extensive film universe. The films must be stand-alone entries at the same time, but also hyper-linked. Plot threads have to jump between stories while remaining coherent. Robert Downey Jr. will have to clean up his schedule for something like eleven years. It’s hard! But that’s how they did it.
Connect the dots
During the early 2000s, Marvel teamed up with all sorts of studios and distribution companies to make standalone films based on comic book characters, which turned out to be interesting. There was no specific locus of creative control. That of Sam Raimi Spider man movies were fantastic, but then Sony owned the rights to the character, which prevented any kind of crossover success. The X Men movies was cool, but Fox owned those guys the same way. Meantime, The Fantastic 4 was boring and tonal down, Ben Afflek made a horrible Daredevil, and there were several very dubious Hulks running around. It was a mess. That’s when Avi Arad, the head of Marvel’s film division, founded the specialized independent film studio, Marvel Studios. In this way creative control was gained.
Creative control was the key to delivering a truly successful film universe by ensuring that the same teams of writers, directors, producers and continuity supervisors (an underrated role) had a hand in creating and distributing every movie in the MCU. Kevin Feige, Arad’s second in command, has the extremely ambitious idea of gradually giving audiences to the core members of the Avengers, as well as Nick Fury and the looming shadow of SHIELD, and then bring them all together for the biggest, worst team movie in the history of superheroes. Arad had his doubts. He resigned within a year, and Feige took over as studio manager. He immediately appointed a dedicated committee of six senior staff members who knew Marvel comics inside and out. The committee included Joe Quesada, Marvel’s creative chief executive, and Alan Fine, the president of Marvel Entertainment. It was top level good. Their job was to make sure that the next wave of Marvel movies would intertwine wonderfully, stay true to the comics, and capture the essence of their most iconic characters.
Over four glorious years, Marvel Studios later introduced the punk rock Iron Man, the boy-next-door Captain America, the sweet clueless Thor (radiated by his even more sweet brother, Loki) and The Hulk (do not worry if he turns) Mark Ruffalo). The stand-alone origin films were brilliant and unique, yet they carried a sense of tonal and visual togetherness. Ignore The Hulk, they also all appeared Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury while running around collecting ‘powerful individuals’ to assemble some earth defense force. He keeps talking about something called ‘The Avenger’ initiative. Everyone knew what was coming – comic fans informed their non-comic friends, those friends all informed differently, and all of us were ready for the superhero genre to be widely blown away, which is exactly what happened.
Boom, there it is
Boom, indeed. The Avengers was incredible, with so much for hardcore fans to love, while also being accessible to new viewers. It was both witty and dramatic, and it introduced us again to each hero with an extra special new ingredient: chemistry. Bruce Banner finally showed us that other people can compete with Tony Stark in intelligence and skill, but Bruce did not have the arrogance and narcissism of Stark, which forced Tony to reconsider his chronic frenzy. Steve Rogers was an example of justice, deeply committed to one fundamental rule (‘be a good person’), which created an extremely watchable and nuanced friction against the somewhat ambiguous morality of Stark and even SHIELD. More of these crossovers were all anyone wanted to see, and with good reason. They were famous and their jokes were fun at sitcom level, but they were also stronger as a team than as individuals, which made the villains and interests much bigger and higher.
From that point on, a new precedent was set. The MCU flourished from this first crossover, and the movies that followed could be more varied and stylized without breaking the continuity of their shared universe, both of which are essential for longevity. The launch of the universe worked, with mainstream audiences even sometimes accepting strange premises, and the films met casual viewers halfway through, always redefining certain key details or re-introducing lesser-known characters. On top of that, even more exciting talent was added to Marvel’s behind-the-camera list, which led to more variety and perspectives. Winter Soldier was sincere, complex and even a little dark thanks to the Russo brothers. Meanwhile, comedy mavericks like Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish have written the hilarious Ant Man debut, and the Oscar-winning funny man Taika Waititi brought charm and his own strange wit Thor: Ragnarok. The MCU had a lot to offer, and if your taste was a little spicy, DC was in the next theater with a bone-chilling Batman trilogy.
The spice of life
This sense of interconnectedness is just one of about 80 decent reasons why superhero movies are so popular today, but it’s an absolutely important one. These movies are exciting and funny to any audience, but the vast universe adds layers of complexity to those who want it, along with sweet anticipation for those who can’t wait to see who crosses next. Diving deep into Marvel’s interrelated web of stories and their many details is one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences any viewer can have. Nowadays, just over 10 years since that first badass crossover, the wealth of references, easter eggs, en background details in any superhero skirt is really delicious for most fans. But, even for the fully uninitiated, the series of stand-alone movies that still hit theaters will definitely have something for everyone, especially as Marvel continues to strive for more cultural representation. They use the versatile premise of the ‘superhero movie’ to tell stories that, although large in scale, also explore and celebrate different cultures and traditions, as well as to find many brilliant people of color to play in and create them.
Perhaps this versatility is the true key to superhero movie success today. No matter how high concept a film is, no matter how far a piece of fiction may be, great art reflects us and our reality. Superhero stories are still human in their hearts. The epic input and fantastic intrigue give us the spectacle and action, while the people behind the masks are real, three-dimensional characters with whom we make contact, sympathize and fall in love. While we will never jump from mountains like Black Panther, or to exterminate foreign armies like Captain America, we can identify with T’Challa’s sadness for his father and desire to keep his sister close and safe, or relate to Steve Rogers’ feelings of alienation from the unknown, technology- crazy world around him. This is the beauty of the superhero movie – an epic setting, but a well-founded story, which should be the mantra of any good superhero movie, Marvel or not.
2021 was an exceptional year for superhero movies. Let’s look at the top ten, ranked.
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