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The modern Superman

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The modern Superman

Rune Torgersen, Copy Desk Chief

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It’s no secret that we live in a golden age of superhero films. In the early to mid-2000s, movies about what were widely considered modern fairy tales for children suffered from that label, often ending up as unpolished, cliché-heavy flops, like “Daredevil” (2003) starring Ben Affleck, or “Catwoman”(2004) starring Halle Berry. Besides Batman and Superman, who had at that point featured in enough big-screen productions for production companies to consider them a safe bet, superhero movies were to the box office then as video game adaptations are to it now. Everyone knew they were going to be bad, and nobody was surprised when they turned out to be precisely that.

Sam Raimi’s Spider-man trilogy, followed by the first Iron Man film in 2008, changed all that. Marvel managed to make their heroes more nuanced than they had appeared in the past, and therefore, the movies made for better narrative experiences. Tony Stark is a hero, sure, but he’s also an ego-driven jerk. Spider-man has super strength and can climb on walls, but he’s also chronically behind on rent and gets pushed around at work by his blowhard of a boss. Rather than telling the tales of extraordinary people who are better than the rest of us in every single way, films started to focus more on the ways in which these “superhumans” are still human (or humanoid aliens.)

This shift was one of the reasons the Marvel Cinematic Universe broke through in such a big way. After taking a couple of movies to establish these deeply sympathetic characters, all the audience wanted was to see more of them in action, so when the first Avengers film was released, people were absolutely over the moon. All the characters they had come to love were joining forces to fight aliens! The movie made silly amounts of money ($623 billion at the box office alone), and the market heard the message loud and clear. Superhero films are a gold mine, the perfect storm of nostalgia, action, and character development, when done right. All the stories have already been written, it’s just a matter of adapting them to the big screen and you have yourself a license to print money.

Of course, since then, we’ve seen the genre take on a life of its own, as innovation is necessary to keep the magic alive. Since a superhero flick is inherently about its central character(s), as opposed to some larger event (like in a disaster movie for example), the change has primarily been in how we define a hero. Most of this has come about within the last couple of years, starting, in my opinion, with the “Defenders” (2017) Netflix series, and continuing on to the big screen in the form of non-heroic heroes like Wolverine in “Logan” (2017) and Deadpool in, well, “Deadpool” (2016). Neither of those guys are afraid of good old-fashioned murder, and mostly tend to do things for their own benefit. Likewise, straight-up villains seem to be getting a larger share of the spotlight as well, such as in “Suicide Squad,” “Venom,” and the upcoming Joker origin film starring Joaquin Phoenix.

Protagonists no longer have to be sympathetic, at least not right from the beginning of the film. It’s possible to write a compelling narrative starring someone society might define as “evil,” and if this trend of innovation within narrative conventions continues, our superhero films will continue to improve in complexity and intrigue.

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