The Rise of Superhero Films

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“Wonder Woman.” “Iron Man.” “The Avengers.” “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The past decade or so has seen an influx of superhero films based on comic books — major big-studio movies starring the highest-paid actors in the world (think Jennifer Lawrence and Robert Downey, Jr.) and outperforming any other movies released. This week, the world will enjoy a new addition to the superhero film repertoire: “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” featuring the work of NYFA alumnus Francesco Panzieri on special effects!

While 1990s blockbusters like “Jurassic Park,” “Titanic,” and “Braveheart” were standalone epics based on books or historical events, today’s highest-grossing films are primarily superhero movies, based on a combination of factors such as escapism, cutting-edge special effects, and an older, wealthier population of comic-book fans.

The most significant, and grim, factor behind the rise of superhero movies has been the economic crash of 2008. There were popular superhero movies prior to this, such as “Spider-man” and Christopher Nolan’s excellent “Batman” series reboot, but following the economic downturn — in which many people lost their jobs and homes — superhero movies went into orbit.

People suddenly wanted escapism into a different world where the hero always triumphed and where distinctions between good and bad were easy to tell. Blockbuster epics with tragic endings like “Braveheart,” and “Gladiator” fell out of fashion, as no one wanted to compound the grim economic situation with an equally depressing movie. Comic-book superhero movies, in which the hero triumphs over evil, became more appealing to the general public. (While our economic downturn is not as severe as the Great Depression, it’s notable that the popularity of comic books in the 1930s mirrors the popularity of superhero movies today.)

With the rise of computers, special effects have become more realistic and believable — something that previously limited superhero movies. Compare the stiff, lumbering shark of “Jaws” — a movie that had exceptional special effects for its day — to the beautifully computer-generated creatures and atmospheres of today’s superhero movies.

Special effects designers have a wider range of options to work with, as well as better software and technologies, than they did 20 years ago. Need Captain America to soar to the heavens? Stand the actor in front of the green screen and virtually create the sky behind him. Need Ant-Man to fly through Iron Man’s suit and sabotage it? That can be achieved realistically as well.

Whereas “Titanic” required a replica ship, today’s computer generated imaging can produce entirely believable superhero action scenes through the digital manipulation of pixels.

The third factor in the popularity of comic-book superhero movies is the older age of the audience. Today’s superhero movies — even if they’re rated PG-13 — are primarily made for adults who grew up on comic books and now have a disposable income. These adults are mostly Generation X-ers and Millennials who read comic books as children during the 1970s-1990s and now have the money to see films and buy paraphernalia. While kids can beg Mom and Dad to buy movie tickets and Mom might possibly agree, adults can always purchase tickets and attend films — creating a great source of potential viewers who have fond childhood recollections of their comic book superheroes and villains.

What are your favorite superhero films? Let us know in the comments below! And if you’re ready to learn more about creating incredible films, study filmmaking at the New York Film Academy.

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