Why are Superhero Movies so Popular?





Why are Superhero Movies so Popular?


The American film industry is the largest in the world, raking in billions of dollars annually through moviegoers from the United States and the rest of the world. Through the films that the industry creates, America is also able to export its heritage to the rest of the world and make significant contributions to the global pop culture. Some of the most iconic cultural contributions that the US has made to the global pop culture are the superheroes from popular comic books. Characters from popular American comic books such as Batman, Superman, Spiderman and Thor have become very popular around the world. Part of this popularity has been the result of hit films featuring the heroes. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, superhero films have become increasingly popular in the United States and the rest of the world. Films such as Man of Steel, The Avengers and The Incredible Hulk have performed very well at the box office and raked in millions of dollars. The fact that many superhero movies have been successful enough to spawn multiple sequels also demonstrates their increasing popularity. Since 2000, movie studios have released several superhero movies that they followed up with sequels such as the Iron Man, Batman, Spiderman and X-Men trilogies. The increasing popularity of movies from the superhero genre is the result of the inspiration, escapism and satisfaction that the films provide for people of all ages.

The Superhero Genre as a Source of Hope and Inspiration

The fact that the resurgence of the superhero genre occurred after the 9/11 terror attacks in the US is not a coincidence. In the decade before the attack, superhero movies hardly pulled in the crowds that they have been attracting since the onset of the twenty-first century. The most successful superhero movie of the 1990s was 1995’s Batman Forever. In contrast, the years since the 9/11 attacks have seen a resurgence in the genre as many superhero films top the box office in the United States (“Theatrical Market Statistics 2012” 17). Since the attacks, six of the thirteen top grossing movies in the United States were based on comic book superheroes such as Batman, Spiderman and Iron Man. This resurgence reached its zenith in 2012 when the two highest grossing films in the US were from the genre, with a third superhero movie placing sixth on the box office charts (“Theatrical Market Statistics 2013” 21). Accordingly, industry statistics seem to indicate that the growth of the superhero genre over the past decade shares an intricate connection with the 2001 terrorist attacks in the nation.

The connection between the resurging superhero genre and the 9/11 attacks comes through the hope and inspiration that such movies provide in light of such tragedies. After the 9/11 attacks, Americans came upon the realization that significant and powerful threats to their safety and freedom existed outside their borders. The traumatic events of 9/11 saw Americans turn to different directions for consolation. For some Americans consolation came through the government’s actions while others found solace in religion. However, some Americans turned to pop culture, particularly superheroes, during that period of desolation and suffering. Mancelos states that the years after the 9/11 attacks saw a boom in the sales of comic books, movies and videogames that feature superheroes (166). For Americans, these heroes represented figures of hope and protection against the sort of threats whose existence they were now aware (Mancelos 166). While heroes in films like Spiderman protect New York and the United States from various threats, other superheroes guard the entire planet from external enemies. Movies such as Thor, Avengers and Captain America feature heroes who stop villains that were threatening the whole world. In Thor and Avengers, the threats were extra-terrestrial entities trying to dominate the human race. Captain America featured a different kind of threat, however, as the hero saved the world from the Nazi regime. This increases the film’s popularity by making their stories appeal to audiences around the world, even though Captain America also contained some American World War II propaganda.

In addition to providing hope in post-9/11 America, the superhero movies also became popular because the characters live in worlds that struggle with crime. Superheroes such as Superman in Metropolis and Batman in Gotham are constantly struggling to reign in the out of control crime in their resident cities (Vollum and Adkinson 99). This is an issue that many people can relate to because of the crime that occurs in many cities in the United States. Accordingly, superheroes act as sources of hope and inspiration to the viewers because they are solutions to the crimes in their own cities. In some of the superhero movies, the heroes are able to transform their cities and rid them of crime. For instance, Superman is a very effective crime fighter, as he is able to clear most of the crime that was occurring in Metropolis before his arrival (Vollum and Adkinson 101). Accordingly, movies based on superheroes provide the hope people need to survive in the modern world and are, therefore, becoming increasingly popular.

Escapism through Superhero Movies

Another reason superhero movies are increasing in popularity is the escapism associated with them. Films from the superhero genre normally feature highly imaginative worlds that break most of the rules. In these films, humans have incredible abilities that make them much stronger, faster and smarter than the average person. Some of the characters in these films are also unique in other ways, such as Superman who is an alien from an extinct planet and Thor, who is a god. Mancelos argues that the otherworldly nature of these films provides the viewers with welcome distractions from the fears, troubles and limitations of the real world (167). While this fact is true for most films, movies from the superhero genre magnify this effect by using a formula that shows a weak character gain incredible abilities that help him conquer his troubles. Indick explains that this formula features in many narratives regarding heroes including those from past times (93). However, its successful application within the modern superhero genre shows the effectiveness that such escapism has when it comes to attracting and connecting with viewers. This is because many of the films show characters facing problems to which normal people can relate. For instance, when they are their normal selves, Spiderman (Peter Parker) and Superman (Clarke Kent) struggle to attract the attention of their love interests. Captain America faces a different problem as he lacks the physicality to match his strong will to serve in the armed forces. Accordingly, the fantastic solutions that these films provide for their characters appeal to their audiences, as the escapism acts as a form of solace from the troubles of the real world. The audiences admire the heroes that the films present and even envy their lives, in many cases wishing they had similar ones.

Other superhero films offer a different kind of escapism as they try to merge the realism of the real world into the solutions for the characters’ problems. Some of the more popular superheroes such as Superman and The Incredible Hulk exist in fantastic universes where most of the problems and their solutions are not realistic at all. However, other heroes deal with problems of human nature and apply solutions that may not be practical, but are somewhat rational. For instance, Iron Man and Batman are both superheroes that often have to conquer human enemies. In Iron Man, the titular hero comes up against an envious friend and aide of his while Batman has to fight a nihilistic cult led by one of his former trainers in Batman Begins. Both movies feature problems that are practical and solutions that are not practical, but slightly plausible. Russell and Leslie explain that the escapism in the Batman trilogy is unique because it does not have any fantastic elements in it (127). The hero is wholly human and has no special abilities, and he comes up with problems from the real world, specifically organized crime and police corruption (Russell and Leslie 128). This sort of escapism appeals to the viewer because he or she can understand what the problems are like. Even more significant is the fact that some of the superhero movies see the hero solve their problems without having to gain any special powers. For example, Iron Man and Batman both use their ingenuity and wealth to overcome evil.

Lastly, the superhero movie genre also provides the viewer with an escape from some of the more overwhelming problem that they face in the real world. This form of escapism contrasts sharply with that where the hero becomes an all-powerful figure that can conquer any obstacle including aliens from foreign planets (as seen in The Avengers), evil scientists (such as the threats in (The Amazing Spiderman), and maniacal military figures (The Incredible Hulk). Instead, some superhero movies engage the viewer with a form of escapism where he or she watches the hero conquer over a problem from the real world. For instance, corruption and inequality were some of the problems that Batman had to deal with in the Christopher Nolan trilogy, while some of the problems that plagued The Wolverine included a traumatic past and childhood. These films appeal to the audience because the problems that the heroes face are not fantastic or otherworldly but issues to which many of the viewers can relate. According to Coogan, such heroes have the additional appeal of being representative of a call to the authorities to tackle a certain problem that normal citizens cannot handle themselves (235).

The Genre’s Appeal to all audiences

The superhero genre has also become resurgent because of the way that it appeals to a wide range of audiences. Many of the superheroes that the modern movies feature are characters that writers developed decades ago. Comics like Batman, Superman and X-Men, have been in circulation for decades now, meaning that multiple generations have grown up reading them. This makes the movie appealing to audiences of different ages including mature viewers. The movies are also increasing in popularity because they offer virtuous characters that can act as role models for young viewers. Characters such as Superman, Thor and Captain America do not have any significant flaws and seem to make the right choices in all of the situations that they face. The fact that Superman never kills any people only serves to increase his virtue. Jones states that such characters are preferable role models to children than the anti-heroes presented in some of the more popular modern films such as No Country for Old Men (15). With better role models available through the superhero films, the genre’s popularity is increasing.


The superhero genre has become very popular over the last one decade as movies like Spiderman, Iron Man and Thor spawn various sequels that have earned a lot of money. The popularity of these films is attributable to three key factors. Firstly, the films offer hope and solace in light of the 9/11 attacks that left Americans feeling vulnerable. Indeed, the genre’s resurgence began after the attacks had occurred. The movies are also becoming popular because of their escapism and idealism that they propagate. Lastly, superhero movies appeal to all generations because comics are a long lasting aspect of American pop culture. For children, the movies have the added appeal of presenting admirable and virtuous characters as ideal role models.

Works Cited:

Coogan, Peter. Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. Austin: MonkeyBrain Books, 2006. Print.

Jones, Sigrid. “Superheroes and Children’s Culture.” Diss. University of London, 2006. Print.

Indick, William. “Classical Heroes in Modern Movies: Mythological Patterns of the Superhero.” Journal of Media Psychology 9.3 (2004): 93-95. Print.

Mancelos, Joao. “Who Needs a Superhero? New Trends in Action and Adventure Movies.” Atas do III Encontro Anual da AIM. Eds. Paulo Cunha and Sergio Dias Branco. Coimbra: AIM, 2014. 162-170. Print.

Motion Picture Association of America [MPAA]. Theatrical Market Statistics 2012. MPAA. MPAA, 2013. Web. 15 July 2014.

Motion Picture Association of America [MPAA]. Theatrical Market Statistics 2013. MPAA. MPAA, 2014. Web. 15 July 2014.

Russell, Christian and Paul Leslie. “Heroic Moments: A Study of Comic Book Superheroes in Real-World Society.” Explorations 8 (2013): 121-131. Print.

Vollum, Scott and Cary D. Adkinson. “The Portrayal of Crime and Justice in the Comic Book Superhero Mythos.” Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 10.2 (2003): 96-108. Print.

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