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An Explanation for the Proliferation of Superhero Movies and TV Shows

July 2, 2017 10 comments

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?