With “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” leading into the “Avengers” cinematic universe and the “Avatar” and “Pokemon Go” mania taking over our smartphones, it’s arguably been a decade since the superhero movie was at the top of its game. While the genre certainly hasn’t disappeared, it seems that the superhero movie world-building of the 2000s has evolved into something more streamlined and realistic.
Take a look around you — have we really become this cynical yet? Social media and clickbait click-farms have done wonders in terms of making people more aware of the world around them and how it functions. Movies like “Captain America: Civil War” and “Spiderman: Homecoming” reflect this newfound realism, opting to focus on the interpersonal conflicts that often come with being a superhero (or villain, for that matter).
Superhero movies used to be about a bunch of dudes in spandex smashing into buildings and pulling off miraculous saves. Now, we have a much more in-depth understanding of how the whole world works. Sure, it’d be fantastic to have a team of superheroes fighting crime and injustice whenever we need them, but we also need to remember that we’re the only ones who can stop the bad guys — and sometimes, we’re the ones who need to be saved. This self-awareness is a far cry from the idealism of the superheroes of the 1940s and ’50s.
Another way that this realism manifests itself is through an emphasis on character. Take a look at “The Avengers” and how it distinguishes itself from other superhero movies through a finely tuned, nuanced screenplay by Kevin Feige and a near-flawless cast. The movie understands that it isn’t just about throwing a bunch of actors in a room and having them punch each other (apart from the occasional hiccup like Robert Downey Jr.’s alcoholism, which is thankfully acknowledged and addressed through his character arc).
The line between good and evil is never black and white, and it’s one of the major themes of “The Avengers.” One of the leaders of the group, the Vision, observes:
The real world is more complicated than that. Sometimes, a good guy wears a mask and fights evil… Sometimes, evil wears a mask and fights good. It’s more complicated than that.
This sentiment is echoed throughout the film, with the heroes and villains alike exhibiting shades of grey in their personalities and actions. Even superheroes have personal flaws that prevent them from being completely perfect.
This is the kind of complexity that today’s audiences can relate to. No longer are we simply presented with good vs. evil. We’re given multi-dimensional characters who we can identify with and whose lives we can somewhat relate to. Even better, these characters interact with realistic, three-dimensionally modeled sets and props, creating a more immersive experience.
It’s not just about the storylines either. Visual effects pioneer Stan Winston is credited with creating the visual effects for “The Avengers,” and he’s not alone. Other major movie VFX companies like Industrial Light & Magic and Weta Workshop followed his lead, using practical stunts and sets to give the illusion of otherworldly creatures and settings (think dinosaurs and jellyfish).
The VFX industry continues to evolve, pushing the boundaries of what is possible using computer power. It’s not just about the practical effects anymore. Now, we’re seeing companies adopt a digital approach, using tools like ZBrush and Houdini to create fully realized creatures and environments that interact with the live action elements of the scene (think dragons breathing fire or creatures transforming into other forms).
This evolution has allowed for a level of artistry that was previously impossible. We’re no longer limited to the practical effects of old-school sci-fi and horror movies. The possibilities are truly endless.
This evolution of the superhero movie has also given birth to a sub-genre that focuses more on the political and social commentary present in the source material. This commentary can be satirical or it can be more earnest, but there’s definitely something for everyone. If you’re a fan of Mark Twain’s novels, you’ll feel right at home with “Black Adam” (2017), whose plot revolves around the idea of white supremacy and the legacy of slavery in America. It makes for interesting viewing, although the movie doesn’t always pull off the humor as effectively as it could have.
This earnestness and attention to detail is what gives rise to films like “Captain America: Civil War” and “Doctor Strange.” The line between comedy and drama is blurred, with characters switching back and forth between the two throughout the movie. While “Black Adam” is a commentary on American history, “Captain America: Civil War” tackles some pretty heavy subject matter, including the effects of global warming, cost-benefit analysis, and the morality of war.
Even “The Dark Knight” (2008), which many consider to be Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus, was a biting comment on the financial crisis of the late 2000s. While the Dark Knight isn’t explicitly stated as being political at the time, it certainly is today. Between Bane’s “revolution” and the Occupy movement that was gaining traction at the time, it’s impossible to watch this movie now and not see it as a political statement. It made a huge impact back when it was released and still resonates today, particularly with younger audiences who were affected by the recession.
While the superhero movie was primarily about entertainment in the ‘00s, today, it’s all about making a statement. This evolution hasn’t diminished the fun of watching a great movie — heck, if anything, it’s made it more interesting.