Movies & Television

Why So Serious? The Superhero Film's Slide into Solemnity

Superhero films used to be hilarious! But then, something happened. A lot has changed between the campy Adam West Batman television show and Christian Bale growling “pray to me!” Superhero films are the only genre that has become more serious, but they have experienced the widest tonal shift.

Compare Superman on film with his appearance in the comics. The difference is striking. The films are dark, rejecting the comic’s attitude of wholesome fun. Superman’s armor is black, with only the most subtle red and blue accents replacing his underwear-on-tights outfit of yesteryear. He cries and screams and nearly kills Batman. There’s only one question we can ask: What the hell happened to superhero movies? Why did they become so serious?

Prestige TV Revealed Profits in Maturity

Shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad proved there was major money in well-made, dramatic entertainment that took itself seriously. The runaway success of shows like these flew in the face of the television industry maxims about the idiocy of the consumer at large, but the Hollywood learned quickly. Soon, higher-brow films were released showing likeable protagonists doing difficult things. While the results of this change is still unfolding, the base level of intelligence in cinema has risen slightly over time. There’s still plenty of dumb Michael Bay films, subsisting only on a spectacle for slack-jawed yokels, but those are the exceptions rather than the rule.

A Day to Remember

A post-9/11 audience didn’t see the world in the same way as a pre-9/11 audience. It’s true, the late 90s saw a rise in man-against-the-world, anti-corporate, big-brother thrillers like The Matrix. But big-budget, triumphal action films were the main draw in the blockbuster season. Once we actually saw New York destroyed in real life, we suddenly lost our appetite for seeing it destroyed in cinema. After 9/11, films became obsessed with dystopia. A quick scan of modern television and movies shows a society-wide fascination with the world beyond the grave, both for individual people and for society at large. These are not concepts that lend themselves to screwball comedies and aw-shucks antics we saw in the days of glossier superheroes.

Horror Films Are On The Rise

In the 90s, the “default” movie was a buddy comedy. Today, it’s the girl-in-house horror film.  The inexpensive jump-scare-driven genre has become the movie of our times, both due to the potential for Paranormal Activity style profit and the ease with which the films can be turned out. Furthermore, the tension and suspense are well-suited to the difficult times the world finds itself embedded in. Which brings us to our next point.

Fits the Fractured Zeitgeist of the Times

The times we live in are far from peaceful. Worldwide, fascist thought is on the rise. An objectively incompetent man is leading the dominant superpower. It’s a topsy-turvy land and making “Airplane!” today feels tone-deaf, like holding a stand-up comedy night the day after 9/11. We look at the world around us, and we don’t see easy street. We don’t see avenues paved with gold or possibility around every corner: we see difficulty. In times like this, films with more mature, meaningful messages will better reflect the mood of the public. This only works up to a point: it turns out, for example, that people living in a war zone are less likely to watch war films. But today’s movies deftly capture the mood of uneasy discomfort that our evolving society embodies.

Mature Fans Demand Mature Entertainment

If your franchise fans are all in elementary school, you need to follow some guidelines. If you’re franchise fans are in the twenties, on the other hand, they’ll be craving more realistic, relatable stories that fit within their worldview. Movies are still made to target the same demographic of young males with disposable income, but the tone has changed. Take the Avengers doubleheader with Infinity War. No spoilers, but the plot of those films was considerably darker and more meaningful than anything we’d seen in superhero films up to that point, and Endgame is now the undisputed top-grossing film of all time. Studios have realized that fans want meaningful stories, not dazzling kaleidoscopes they can recreate by smashing action figures together in their basement. Hopefully, that’s a trend for the better.

You might also be interested in the following posts:

The Dumbest Things in the Star Wars Extended Universe

3 Famous Video Games That Are Christian Allegories

Super Mario Bros: Sonic’s Cautionary Movie Tale

Featured image credit: Ludovic Bertron [CC BY 2.0]

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