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An Explanation for the Proliferation of Superhero Movies and TV Shows

The previous decade has seen a large and unprecedented increase in the number and relative percentage of movies and TV shows made in USA which are centered around one or more superheroes. In fact, it is now possible to find critiques of this seemingly endless glut of superhero-based movies in allegedly “respectable” magazines as well as on clickbaity sites. In other words, the belief that too many superhero movies are being made is now a mainstream viewpoint.

But how did we end up here? And more importantly, why? Sure.. superhero movies have been around since pretty much the dawn of cinema. However for many decades, especially until the late-1970s, the number of superhero movies was rather small. The first significant increase in the number of superhero movies came in the late-1970s and early-1980s. But even then, it was unusual for more than 2-3 superhero movies to be released per year.

The current glut of superhero movies can be traced to a few hugely profitable movies of that genre made in the early-2000s. It also helped that the same time period saw huge improvements in the quality of computer-generated special effects as well as a steep decrease in the cost of creating them. Since then, there has been a never-ending avalanche of movies and, increasingly, TV shows based on some superhero or the other- as well as tons of sequels, “prequels” and reboots.

But why? Why would movie studios and TV show production companies devote so much of the budget and resources to churning out even more productions full of men and women in tights and tons of computer-generated effects but without memorable characters or coherent plots? What is in for them? And why now?

Before we go to my explanation, it is worth quickly recapitulating the conventional explanations which have been put forth to explain this phenomenon. One popular explanation is based on the idea that such movies make more money around the world, especially in large non-western markets like China. To be fair, predominantly visual movies or shows are likely to sell better in countries that are linguistically and culturally different from those of their origin.

However, that does not explain why so many of these productions are set in the USA. I mean, would you not make even more money by creating superhero movies tailored to individual market like China? Another explanation is based on the ever decreasing cost of using high-quality computer generated special effects. Once again, there is some truth to the idea that reductions in cost of computer generated special effects being responsible for part of the increase in this genre of movies and shows. But that does not explain why movie studios and TV production companies seem to now favor this genre over other previously profitable ones.

Then there are those who point out that a significant number, and percentage, of superhero based production (including sequels and reboots) make a decent amount of money and more importantly- profit. Now.. it is no secret that any success of a new genre in the entertainment sector always results in tons of imitators as well as attempts to milk the original success to the limit. But we are now in 2017, not 2007 when the imitation hypothesis would have been sufficient. Furthermore, the number of superhero- based movies and TV shows has kept on increasing rather than stabilizing, let alone decreasing.

But perhaps even more importantly, none of these conventional explanations even attempt to answer the main question- which is as follows: Why do movie studios and TV production companies keep on making an ever-increasing number of superhero movies and shows while simultaneously cutting back on other genres including those which were responsible for the majority of their profit in the past and still appear to be capable of delivering it?

My explanation for this phenomenon is based on a somewhat unconventional analysis of the current zeitgeist, especially as it relates to changing patterns of general belief in society. To make a long story short, it is increasingly hard for people in USA to mentally associate themselves with traditional protagonists in films and TV shows. As you might recall, the protagonist in most films and TV shows made in USA has traditionally been somebody who (or willing to be) part of institutions that were once considered to be respectable or otherwise desirable.

That is why the protagonists of so many movies and shows are either in (or associated with) the army, police, FBI, CIA, medical profession, legal profession or some other american institution. Even movies or shows set in other eras (historical movies), domains of alternate reality (LOTR, Star Wars, Matrix, Harry Potter movies) or the future (Star Trek, back to the Future movies) end up replicating that institutional structure. To put it another way, the superhero movie genre is the only major one that ‘works’ without the presence of functional and recognizable american institutions.

In fact, the superhero genre requires conventional american institutions to be dysfunctional, incompetent or absent. And this brings me to what I think is the real underlying reason behind the proliferation and continued success of superhero-based films and TV shows in the previous decade. Simply put, it has become hard to sell protagonists who are connected with discredited american institutions- all of them. And that is why superhero- based movies and TV shows have taken off in such a big way over the previous decade.

I mean ask yourself.. what are the first images that pop up in your mind when you think of police in USA? People who protect the innocent or roid-driven murdering racists? What about somebody who is part of the CIA, FBI or any similar three-letter agency? Patriots or greedy power-crazy asshole of dubious competence? What about doctors or lawyers in USA? Pillars of society providing important services or greedy extortionists of questionable competence? I could go and on.. but you get the point.

That is why, for example, we see few (if any) highly profitable movies or TV shows that glorify mass murderers depicted as such or slave owners depicted as such. Human beings, even evil ones, like to believe that they are good and moral. They, therefore, do not want to associate with protagonists who are severely tainted or otherwise discredited. Superheroes are, by definition, not really a part of the institutions they belong to- even in their respective fictional universes. Hence it is far easier for audiences in the post-2008 era to mentally associate themselves with such protagonists.

To summarize- it has become much less profitable to sell movies and TV shows in USA (especially to younger audiences) in which the protagonists are somehow positively connected with any of the many american institutions which have been publicly discredited within the previous decade. And that is why we now have an avalanche of superhero-based movies and TV shows.

What do you think? Comments?

  1. July 2, 2017 at 6:09 pm

    Superheros may also be the only remaining characters whom contemporary US audiences find believable as self-sacrificing saviors. Modern audiences no longer believe that the police, the CIA, the military, scientists, doctors,leaders, or other representatives of various US institutions are interested in helping anyone but themselves, therefore audiences dismiss those characters as being the noble champions selflessly protecting ‘the little guy” they were formerly seen to be.

    Further, it may be that superheroes possess what most modern moviegoers feel a lack of: the power and strength to fight back and overcome formidable villainous forces. Modern citizens feel impotent and crushed — superheroes, who not only possess the ability to withstand those crushing forces but to defeat them, represent what modern audiences wish they themselves could do against the economic, social, societal, governmental, and relational “evils” facing them..

  2. P Ray
    July 3, 2017 at 11:24 am

    But the other interesting thing is how many of those superheroes happen to be rich or influential within their own societies:
    Iron Man (Marvel) and Batman (DC): Own their own companies, develop technologies singlehandedly, also commit huge blunders for “good reasons” (e.g. Ultron in Age of Ultron), never get called out for it

    Black Panther (Marvel) and Wonder Woman (DC): Royalty in their own countries.

    Taken that way, these people are managers’ wet dreams: They never say they can’t do something, kill others with impunity and don’t take too much time to think. Being decisive in these movies is not too far off from “being impulsive”. Actually, many managers think they are the Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne of their own companies, when they’re really just Iago’s or Macbeths.

  3. July 4, 2017 at 11:32 am

    As Sam Fryman once commented in his ebooks, the reason action hero movies are so popular is that the men (and increasingly women) are doing on-screen what the (particularly male) audience members wish they could do (but can’t) in real life. Doing stuff that would land anybody else in jail is a thrill the audience gets to vicariously experience for the price of admission.

    The police generally frown on vigilantism; even the real-life phenomenon of people dressing up as superheroes and doing neighborhood patrols is a gray area – just ask Kick Ass.

    Another thing I noticed is that compared to the action movies of the 80s and even the 90s, the line between good and evil is getting blurred. Heroes are acting like villains, and villains seem to be the sympathetic character. I guess people like more complexity in their fictional characters, more moral ambiguity…a reflection of real life? Maybe. But when once of the most popular characters on TV are a forensics technician who’s also a cannibalistic zombie who solves crimes but absorbing the victim’s last memories by (you guessed it) snacking on their organs (iZombie), or a serial killer whose only redeeming virtue is that he vents his bloodlust on other serial killers (Dexter), you’ve gotta wonder where this is going.

    • July 8, 2017 at 4:51 pm

      “…you’ve gotta wonder where this is going.”

      As a 61-year-old who was a precocious 8-year-old, so was aware of societal trends as early as 1964, I recall adults back in that era asking that very question due to the TV shows and movies with their respective characters.

      One of my vivid memories is a 1969 Readers Digest magazine review addressing what was considered the outrageous graphic violence of the then-newly-released classic, “The Night of The Living Dead” (you can see that review here:
      http://barebonesez.blogspot.com/2011/01/night-of-living-dead-archive-june-1969.html ) — a movie which, when viewed by young audiences today, seems almost boringly tame.

      People of that era were alarmed at the movie and TV trends of violence, sexuality, gore, and blurring of “right-and-wrong” (for example, Hammer Studios 1960s horror movies were considered explicitly bloody and gory… Clint Eastwood’s detective hero of 1971’s “Dirty Harry” was seen as an anti-hero who behaved contrary to”‘the establishment”).

      All meaning, Nothing is new under the sun, essentially.

  4. barrkel
    July 4, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    I think it has more to do with postmodernism. Plots are constructed out of symbols to the point of predictability, and in superhero movies the “characters” are themselves are symbols beyond all empathy – they are not human. Battles are graphical depictions of superhero attributes being compared and traded off against one another. Superpowers are existential statements made virtual flesh. The modern superhero movie has less in common with drama than it does abstract art; every scene can be reduced to a mathematical balance of symbols, every talky scene is just dragging out anticipation for the next game of top trumps.

    Why are they popular? Why is fast food popular? Take the perfectly seasoned french fry; it’s hot, crisp, salty, savory; the Maillard reaction, the combination of salt and fat and sugar, it’s got all the attributes of great food. But it’s a simulacrum. It’s fake. There’s nothing behind it; it’s all attributes, no substance.

    So too are superhero movies; they have more crispness in their battle scenes than has been seen in any real fight, and the mook getting sucker punched is like a crisp fry, and seeing the mook doing something nasty to someone innocent beforehand is just seasoning, making the bite just that much more salivating.

    But it’s fake, it’s all crunch and fat and salt. There’s nothing in there that moves the soul, only stuff that juices your adrenaline.

    Baudrillard explained it, then the Matrix made it flesh in a knowing self-parody. Everybody else fell into line.

  5. Shiningtime
    July 7, 2017 at 1:05 pm

    I disagree with this analysis. Super hero movies keep getting made because they earn the most money. That and that alone. GenX and Millenials are now adults and we grew up on cartoons and video games that were based on Marvel/DC/Hasbro/Mattel intellectual property.

    Hollywood doesn’t need to think deep about the stories. They are all essentially the same. This is a good guy. This a bad guy. They fight. Good guy wins. Fcks the girl. End credits. Teaser trailer for next movie. Rinse. Repeat.

    Americans, contrary to self belief, are quite dumb. Hollywood knows this better than anyone. They won’t say it openly, but they know it.

    I don’t like most superhero movies because they lack much of the internal strife that come with having godlike powers. The movies always feel morally sterile. The bad guy is bad because he’s a bad guy.

    A superman could not exist. Any human with godlike powers would become tyrannical almost immediately.

    • July 7, 2017 at 3:03 pm

      “Super hero movies keep getting made because they earn the most money. That and that alone. GenX and Millenials are now adults and we grew up on cartoons and video games that were based on Marvel/DC/Hasbro/Mattel intellectual property.”

      The question for this discussion hasn’t been, “Which movie genre earns the most money?” nor “which movie genre did GexX and Millenials grow up on?” Nor even, “Does Hollywood have to think deep about superhero plots?”

      Rather, the questions are, WHY do superhero movies earn the most money?…WHY were those cartoons and video games so popular then and now?…and WHY do such simplistic plots nevertheless attract so many viewers (despite the fact people realize superheros could not exist)?
      You’ve merely stated the facts obvious to most any of us, but you haven’t offered any reasons WHY those are the facts.

      • Shiningtime
        July 8, 2017 at 12:04 pm

        I clearly stated why superhero movies get made. They earn the most because many people are already familiar with the characters and plot having grown up on the cartoons and video games. Is it really that hard to understand. There’s no grand conspiracy. What makes money gets made. Xmen reels in upwards of 1/2 billion every time. Hard to argue with a $300 million dollar roi.

      • July 8, 2017 at 12:29 pm

        Nope, SHININGTIME, you haven’t yet explained WHY they were popular as cartoons and video games — other things that people grew up with haven’t stayed popular like the superhero genre has. All you’ve said is, “People are familiar with the characters and plots”. You haven’t offered any explanation for WHY people were so attracted to those characters and plots that they became familiar with them.

      • Shiningtime
        July 8, 2017 at 1:39 pm

        Alright. I have no interest going back and forth with you. Bye

  6. Jean
    July 27, 2017 at 5:49 am

    A few things there things are at play as well.
    As an example, zombie stories are more and more popular, too. Liberals and Conservatives see ether horde as their opposition: slow, stupid, useless eaters… Added to that is the far you could become one of THEM. In-group politics, or us vs them, to the extreme.

    But superheros…
    They can rebel against the corrupt government. They aren’t tied to a country, culture, or era. Culture (defined by our commonalities, like language or race) isn’t that popular in the US, either, since we are a nation of mini-nations (mostly defined in broad ethnic terms, e.g. white vs black vs Hispanic vs oriental). Ain’t multi-culti great…?

    It also plays to some of the worst hubris of humans, pretending they are gods and goddesses and answer to no one (look at the fast and the furious franchise for another take on it, or Chronicles of Riddick.)

    That reinforces the lack of allegiance to anyone, and the “I’m god” / “you’re not the boss of me now” methodology being used to atomize (destroy) the underpinnings of society, starting with the family…
    And I fear it won’t be long before we see a replacement of princess Diana… With a white beta-boi, and like in manga or the old 70s Wonder Woman, there will be a transformation scene where white beta-boi spins around and is transformed into Wonder Shemale…

    It is disgusting what those with an agenda will do to destroy the host culture. Figurative and literal leeches (White Wolf publishing, slang for a vampire… World of Darkness wasn’t as dark as reality is right now.)

  7. Radium
    August 4, 2017 at 5:02 pm

    Insightful analysis! Of course part of the attraction is superhero movies play upon the base biological impulse we can observe in children. Boy gravitate toward superhero Halloween costumes and girls gravitate toward princess costumes. However, this isn’t exactly how superhero movies play out. There is a feminist equalist element to nearly all. We know the media response to John McEnroe’s comment about Serena Williams was to deny any gender differences between the sexes. Likewise, superhero movies is a perfect place to play upon the idea that women can do anything a man can do but only better.

    I’m not sure that profit trumps feminism in Hollywood. Movies have to make money, but do they necessarily need to maximize profit? I’m not sure that ideology is not often more important than maximum profit.

  8. P Ray
    April 17, 2020 at 3:53 am

    A lot of superhero movies would simply become less palatable when the biological fundamentals required to be a superhero are exposed.

    Like this:

  1. June 16, 2018 at 5:24 pm
  2. March 31, 2019 at 8:37 pm
  3. May 19, 2019 at 9:55 pm
  4. January 26, 2020 at 7:59 pm

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