Marvel and D.C movies have become compulsory entertainment for young audiences, which can give a false impression that superhero films are new. They are far from it; the first superhero film, Batman, was in 1943. For still two years after its release the second world war raged. The conversion of comic book hero to screen hero, then, is decades older than comparable media phenomena, franchises like Star Trek (1966) and Star Wars (1977) and Harry Potter (1997). And though for a while it seemed Harry Potter would not fall into a pattern of ever-expansion and offshoots—it has. Fantastic Beasts joined a trend for whole world or universe franchises that so attract generations of fictional characters and literal fans to participate and perpetuate for decades. To the contrary of this era being the superhero era for cinema as a new invention, a fresh era, its popularity merely reveals how bundled our media led history is.
The period of 2008, The Dark Knight, to 2018, Infinity War, has had recurrent releases of save-the-world films. But while Infinity War, for example, is a new product it is part of an older tradition just as Batman is—one that is inevitably derivative, and creative at the same time. (The majority of disaster films, remarkably, came out soon after The Bomb was dropped from Enola Gay). But some, like The Dark Knight, are more creative, original and novel, than others: Nolan’s Batman made very popular and legitimate a marginal genre.
On reflection, the massive growth of superhero movies is peculiar given how few have read enough superhero comics to grasp the web of characters and narratives that are the fabric of these connected movies; and given what was once the exclusive realm of nerdy and geeky (though before then, fashionable, in the fifties), has now become obligatory for everybody. Marvel movies are popular time again much as rehashes of other franchises are, but that they are popular regardless of their output—fans attend screenings of most, and attend to lesser films in Marvel franchise forums—suggests something about the incestuous dominance of film, the tribal nature of manipulated consumer demand and the dubious future of newer worthwhile films.
It is often said print media is dying, but more accurately read material is ailing. The media is there; readers are not. It is not just prose writing that is evermore ignored, but comics and graphic novels. Audiences who discuss their favourite hero and declare a love for Marvel or DC, have little inkling of the fabrics of the universes of which the film scripters and designers feed. (Star Wars even stretches back to the thirties: George Lucas credits Flash Gordon as its prime mover). Paper graphic art is becoming less valued in the United States and the United Kingdom compared to the screen. Whereas in France and Japan comics and graphic novels are lifestyle products of the majority, The US and UK prioritise screen watching as lifestyles of the majority, and the written and drawn well-springs of much film art are marginal, elided and subsumed, by such serial movies as The Avenger characters. Paper art revivals are just that: revivals. Revivals against a general decadal decline of what media people spend their time and money on, and what medium artists aspire to create in, and big-money, of course, encourages.
On the one hand, the popularity of such films is good because viewing is pleasurable and fun, but on the other, having such movies as the (statistically) dominant engines of culture clouds over any newer, possibly more pleasurable and fun, films or alternative media. Franchise dominance even delimits what can be made, because of financial pressures preferring what reliably pays, rather than what pleasures or edifies. And the dominance of the screen, cinema itself, compromises the long-term integrity of cinema for each media (written, drawn, shot) complements the Marvel franchise and perpetuates an omnipresent popularity of being everywhere, and the potential of many stories and possible timelines to make use of, and profit out of, from prose and graphics. All media contributes to the fabric of the franchises universes; as it were to genetic diversity that allows newer, still interesting rather than duplicate, combinations.
With the decline of consumption of other franchise media—already mentioned—ossification, recycling rather than creation, will feed back into the production of less worthwhile films and the further lowering of audience expectations, for novelty and the fresh stories. Not to speak of the newsy Marvel movies popularity taking the limelight, popularity, away from other films with more sociopolitical worth, such as American History X (a film which brings to our eyes the contingent cause-of and heartening recovery-from Neo-Nazism in impoverished Los Angeles). Taken altogether the Avengers and DC comics become-screen-universes address pervasive problems of inequality, failure of state security, terrorism, globalisation, urban danger indifference, and the role of leaders, celebrities, idols—superheroes. But what these movies have to say about such problems is dubious, if ‘saying’ is even the correct word for cutting and interleaving the very serious into the experience of the very fun and fantastical; audiences come for the experience of spectacle, rather than to be persuaded to a cause or to learn.
Where before, in the days of more rampant organised crime violence, world war two, and the cold war; when superheroes played a role fighting against mob bosses, Nazis and would-be Soviets, the role of such fantastical media was clear: good guy aspirants beating shameful bad guys. Now the position of how superheroes and their films relate to anything broader than themselves is dubious. Some serious interpretations of the Marvel films in terms of, say, groundbreaking all-black representation in Black Panther are valid: it is a film with all black people cast which inverts the Hollywood prejudice to cast white richer stars as nearly everyone, albeit in a film that aggregates African culture into an Amerian mould for entertainment purposes; it is not zero-sum, either good or bad, in its political representation.
But that some interpretations of the films are serious and learnedly critical, means just that: some, rather than most. Surely, the very lack of coherence and a logical world and seriousness is what appeals to audiences who want the very serious reality to be made light of, the way easy-to-view fantasy and parody and violence against things and villains (not humans, not people) can only achieve. Marvel and DC universes provide a safe, somewhat nonsense, space for escape and cathatritc—emotional cleaning—experience, rather than progressive engagement with the film acting with an ulterior motive beyond pleasure. Using, for example, the pleasure of viewing to advocate against nuclear weapons.
And that viewer experiences of franchises are familiar and friendly and predictable is comforting. Comforting in a way, disappointing reality seldom can be. This is a truth: the most basic stories patterned on earlier patterns with impossible characters, implausible narratives and plenty of violence and smidgens of sex appeal will draw huge audiences and be satisfying viewing exactly because its genre is predictable and silly; what people do view is different to what they say they want to, or even what might be best for them to watch were they willing, or provided even the opportunity, to broaden their palate. Nonetheless, the aforementioned characteristics characterise every massive franchise—even if the audience imposes it via fanfiction as in racier Harry Potter prose adaptations where Hermione has a lustful crush on Malfoy. And interestingly this simple model of art as functional entertainment fits the Aristotelian idea of drama formulae, a theatrical narrative with rules and with a cathartic purpose. Marvel and DC, moreover, fit the notion of Greek Tragedy more than recent realism, surrealism, or naturalism in terms of sheer emotions and melodrama, but Marvel offers an easy unreality which allows for audiences to more happily overlook the serious that is delivered too much in headlines, or via handphones or via inflation-impinged bills anyway. A film can be a temporary escape. Many of the same thread, the same world, an even longer and revisable, escape.
The aforementioned reasons explain some of the Marvel franchise popularity (especially with human biases like the mere exposure and halo affects: to like the familiar and good-looking), but what I believe most makes franchises, and the ‘Marvel-industry’, so huge is not the marketing of huge money, nor a set of tick boxes for sex appeal and violence, although they certainly help. No, I believe those are shallow for the purpose of serving something much deeper: Marvel and DC, and other franchises provide a shared basis of interests, friendship and even loves (there are such rituals as superhero, and from Star Trek, Klingon, weddings) which satisfy human needs for belonging and community. What else is a fandom, afterall? What holds us together, makes solidarity and contributes a coherence to our shared, and necessarily quite messy lives are—to a degree—franchises, our myth-producers.
Where other epochs and cultures have had their gods and myths, like Ancient Greece did Athena, we have a repackaged Athenian: Wonderwoman. We have our own repackaged Thor and Loki, and heroes with powers (be it Aristocratic, Thor; meritocratic, Iron Man) for satisifiying admiration and envy by grown children who crowd together at cinema screens time-again. Each new release – and Infinity War is, no joke intended, no different on a bigger scale – tends to be a little vacuous, but the lightweight releases do fulfil a heavyweight need. For each new film provides a compass point, and a common ground, for a social world which sustains them and is sustained in-loop by them in turn. Each true fan cherishs these myths, especially when criticising them. It shows they care. And I’m a happily privileged fan to praise and complain about a powerful mythology which while we are all enlightened in the twenty-first scientific century, we all nonetheless want to escape together from reality time again – and again, and again, and again.