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The Enduring Appeal of Superheroes

19 July 2017

Little White Lies contributor Kambole Campbell charts the evolution of the popular SuperHero genre.

Wonderwoman press shot

With the popularity of Wonder Woman, Logan, Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and the looming releases of Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, it seems that we’re in the next phase of superhero storytelling in film, as the genre opens up to a new demographic as well as a newfound focus on giving each hero a distinct voice and backdrop.

For the quickest insight into how superhero cinema has evolved during the 21st Century, these films are probably the best example of what has changed in this weird and wonderful genre since 2000.

X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000)

X-Men acted as a broad, fantastical parallel to minority groups, evoking in particular the Black Civil Rights movement in the US (Professor X and Magneto acting as parallels to Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X), wrapped within the classic “save the city/world” narrative.  A superhero film for a post-Matrix audience, Singer loses the iconic yellow tights for all black leather costumes – favouring a loose approach to adaptation, and cobbling together an enjoyable blockbuster from the X-Men’s greatest hits.

Blade II & Hellboy (Guillermo Del Toro, 2002 & 2004)

Both directed by Del Toro and lead by heroes fairly unknown by the mainstream, these two bizarre cult films fully embrace the gothic. Known for his love of fantasy, Del Toro uses the gothic and the grotesque to create a stylish and unique take on the superhero narrative (again, with plenty of leather).

Spider-Man & Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2002 & 2004)

With Spider-Man, Sam Raimi captured the spirit of golden age comics via his signature style, turning the superhero film from weird action flick to grandiose, emotional blockbuster – all the while mashing classic imagery from beloved Spider-Man issues with his sensibility for horror – the scene in which Peter discovers the spiny, spider-like hairs protruding from his fingertips plays like12A David Cronenberg.

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

Potentially the best proof that superhero films could be molded to these other genres is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). This was not just hailed as a superhero film, but a crime film in the same vein as Michael Mann’s Heat; with the addition of the figure of the Joker acting as an allegory for the fear of urban terrorism post 9/11.

Avengers Assemble (Joss Whedon, 2012)

Avengers Assemble marked a turning point both in superhero and blockbuster film. Marvel Studios essentially converted the appeal of their comics to the medium of film, with a several yearlong build up familiarizing the audiences with the drastically different characters, before throwing them all together. The result has been a decade long franchise with over 20 films (and a small country’s worth of ticket revenue) and a colourful cast of heroes, that only looks to continue expanding and changing.

The lasting appeal of superheroes seems to lie in how changeable they are. As long as the iconography (Superman’s ‘S’, Spider-Man’s mask) remains intact, and the morals and core of the character remain the same, superheroes can be anything to any audience. Rejecting the male gaze that audiences have become accustomed to in blockbuster films in general as well as superhero films, Wonder Woman Diana and sidekick Steve Trevor act as an inversion of the dynamic of Superman and Lois Lane, though minus the memory-erasing kisses and Super-Cellophane ™  in Richard Donner’s films from the 1980s.

The lasting appeal of superheroes seems to lie in how changeable they are. As long as the iconography (Superman’s ‘S’, Spider-Man’s mask) remains intact, and the morals and core of the character remain the same, superheroes can be anything to any audience

While Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman leans towards the example set by Donner’s Superman with somewhat more straightforward, inspirational stories of heroism, other more recent releases have led these stories to be applied to different contexts and genres. Spider-Man: Homecoming, directed by Jon Watts, tackled the teen movie – choosing to focus on smaller scale issues in Peter Parker’s life as he tries to balance superheroics with high school. The upcoming Thor: Ragnarok appears to be a madcap blend of Taika Waititi’s signature irreverent style humour with fantasy, 80s sci-fi, and even a road movie (not forgetting its inclusion of the titular Norse apocalypse). Logan told a darker, more specific story – this time, mixing the visual styles of westerns along the lines of Unforgiven with post-apocalyptic imagery, held together by a weather-beaten Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).

There are also twists on different characters such as Miles Morales, a Spider-Man of Latino and African American descent (soon to get his own animated film)), and Jane Foster taking up the mantle of Thor. Black Panther, slated for release in early 2018, has a predominantly black cast, which is somewhat unprecedented for superhero films to this point (on television, Netflix’s Luke Cage has already broken this boundary). With the trailer displaying a heavy influence from Afro-Futurism, Black Panther may once again prove the ability of comic book heroes to incorporate influences from different genres to inspire a demographic all too often forgotten about in Hollywood.

They can be inspiring and thrilling to any demographic, and approach the hero narrative from any style the filmmakers choose. Though a lot of the power of these films lies in iconography and ‘staying true’ to the nature of their adapted characters, the superhero film has proven to be as malleable as any other genre of cinema.

Words by Kambole Campbell