Superhero movies and genre, what works?


I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but not all superhero movies are created equal. Whenever I get dragged into the Batman vs. Superman argument and why Nolan’s Batman worked better than Singer’s Superman, the question of believability gets dredged up. “Batman works better because he’s more believable”, I often hear. While Batman is more believable‚ĶI guess, the character still represents the four color world of the comic book. A world that still shares space with Superman.

If I’m to be completely honest, I find this argument a little short sighted, simply because it’s hampered by the fact that superhero movies are a full blown genre now, on par with the western or the musical. The problem with giving them their own genre, however, is that studios and directors often become lazy, using the term superhero as a catch-all shorthand. This negates the real and separate genres these characters were based in to begin with.

Batman Begins worked, not because Batman is a more believable character* or because the films are darker in tone, and that somehow made the movies more palpable**, but because Christopher Nolan didn’t play the superhero genre, he played the adventure and crime genres.

Cleveland worlds fairWhen the character of Batman first appeared in 1939, comics and superheroes were still a new concepts. The 1930s was the golden age of pulp fiction, and most people were familiar with characters like The Shadow and Zorro, mysterious men of action who fought thugs with wits, intimidation and theatricality. This is the genre with which creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger were familiar as they were coming up with Batman. They wanted a pulp hero, a man in disguise fighting street crime as well as that of corrupt politicians and scientists. This is the genre Nolan tapped into when he created his Batman films and the movies were better for it.

Because Superman is credited as the first superhero, it is sometimes easy to forget that he comes from another planet. This is why it is imperative to capitalize on the sci-fi element of the character. Superman can’t inhabit a world that is ‘just like ours’, because the Metropolis in which he lives, is a future world as imagined by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Cleveland high school students still imagining the splendor of the 1937 Cleveland World’s Fair. Because of this, the moments in Man of Steel that worked best are the science fiction elements. The opening sequence on Krypton gives us an otherworldly element that is necessary to the character. Even now, in our cynical modern era, Superman exists as a beacon of futuristic optimism and the hope for space exploration. Simply put, it’s in the characters DNA.

You can see this method work in other ‘superhero’ films as well. Singer’s Xmen films work because they get to the characters roots of political and social stories, told through the lens of science fiction***. Spiderman works best when treated as a teen soap opera and Captain America as pulp action on par with Doc Savage. These character may be superheroes, but to treat them simply as that is to short change the characters as well as audiences.

For these characters to work on screen (and on the page) the storytellers would do well to remember their roots. Not as superhero properties, but as stories created out of specific genres.


*The Burton Batman films work, even though the world they take place in doesn’t resemble reality at all. Despite the heightened universe, characters and action, the movies are still enjoyable and valid.


*** Not unlike Star Trek, a show of which Bryan Singer is a huge fan.

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