For the past few years, superhero films have been in the forefront of international box office success. Their position in achieving box office gold has been solidified by last year’s incredibly successful, billion dollar grossing The Avengers. Superhero films used to belong exclusively to classic roles, such as Adam West’s Batman and Christopher Reeve’s Superman. But, more daring and more obscure characters have gradually made their way into the superhero film market. Blade, a superhero film starring Wesley Snipes and released in the nineties, is underrated in its aid in brining superhero films to mass markets. X-Men followed Blade’s success, proving that ensembles could also work effectively in superhero films. However the superhero film market was, in my opinion, given a proper place in film genre by 2002’s Spider-Man, directed by Sam Raimi. Not only did it bring in a huge gross, it also received stellar reviews. But not all superhero films are well received. And even the ones that are well received suffer from a common point: they’re about superheroes. For some reason, despite their integration into the film world, superhero films have been unable to achieve success on an Oscar worthy level. This begs the question; do they deserve that kind of praise? And if so, why aren’t they getting it? Maybe we still haven’t gotten over Joel Schumacher’s “interesting” take on Batman…
For those who don’t follow superhero films as avidly, allow me to enlighten you on the formula. Let’s start with subject matter. Usually they follow a single protagonist, sometimes amongst several other protagonists, confronting a larger than life force. To combat the force, they must embrace their own unique abilities. Eventually they overcome this force, and the world is saved. Usually a love interest is involved. What’s important for studios is to establish a franchise. That way, other films (often a trilogy) will be released and make even more money. There have been quite a few very successful superhero film franchises. Some of the most notable have been Spider-Man, x-Men, Christopher Nolan’s Batman, and The Avengers. Notice how most of those listed are Marvel…ok that’s my own bias. But anyhow, superhero films have been becoming gradually more common because of their ability to spawn several other features. The Avengers all started with 2008’s Iron Man. And now Joss Whedon is even helming Agents of Shield this fall on ABC(which I am so so so so unbelievably excited for!)
But, there is a risk involved. Superhero films don’t always have monetary or critical success. They are often expensive to make, and can seem alienating to audiences. Ryan Reynolds portrayed the Green Lantern to awful reviews and a disappointing gross. Superman Returns also underperformed. X3: The Last Stand did make a ton of money, but suffered from lackluster reviews. However, some superhero films defy modest or even good critical success and go far beyond. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are exemplary of this. Not only did they rake in over 2 billion dollars all together, but they also received outstanding reviews. So what makes some superhero films good and others bad? Well, it’s the same reason for ‘normal’ films. Writers and directors need to take their characters and environments seriously, or else you suffer from one-dimensional characters in very artificial worlds. While they may be super, you must treat them as if they were real. This is why Nolan’s take on Batman was so accessible to audiences. While Batman is obviously fictional, he placed the character in a very real world context. In my opinion, 2009’s Watchmen is severely underrated in this context. For anyone who hasn’t seen that film, ignore the constant jabber over its giant blue character’s nudity, and check it out (I recommend the outstanding graphic novel first of course).
So with films like The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, and The Avengers, why haven’t they been able to garner any success on an Oscar style critical level? Well, it’s the same reason some superhero movies fail. People still don’t them seriously. While some superhero movies have some of the best acting I’ve ever seen(Christian Bale as Batman, Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach, Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man), people still don’t find the films accessible enough to give them the proper respect they deserve. For now, most audiences have the perspective of “wow that looks amazing, I wish I could be that” rather than “I feel like I can really relate to the internal struggles of the character.” It may sound like a stretch, but I swear that every time I see Tobey Maguire play Spider-Man, I feel like I’m seeing me only with superpowers. Give it ten more years after superhero films continue to flood the film market, and I honestly believe that critics won’t be given any other choice than to give them the proper amount of respect. Maybe one day the Oscar for Best Actress will be going to someone for their portrayal of Wonder Woman.
— Nicholas Graves