Disclaimer: This is not meant to slight the DC Universe. The DC Universe just doesn’t resonate with me as much as Marvel’s does, so I have more experience and knowledge in the MCU. I did not want to include specific DC examples without having any direct sentiments to back up written claims. However, DC superhero movies fall into my defensive stance of the genre written in this piece.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has had no shortage of critics since their groundbreaking debut in 2008 with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. Certainly some have been disappointed in quality or storylines, character development or entertainment value, all of which are to be expected. However, superhero movies go through another scrutiny all of their own — their place amongst cinema as a whole.
Viewers and members of Hollywood alike debate the human authenticity of superhero films. It has been said by some that they’re “despicable”, silly and lacking conviction, others that they’re devoid of human emotion and experiences, all while being compared to theme parks and two hours of unnecessary theatrical destruction and hyper-machoism too far-fetched to be taken seriously. These words insinuate that superhero films have no business being compared to dramas, thrillers, and other action/suspenses — and why is that? Does super soldier serum rob Steve Rogers of his humanity, humility, and resilience? Or does a successful business and genius brain to boot leave audiences unable to connect to Tony Stark? Is Wakanda too futuristic, too awe-inspiring, to motivate someone watching to never stop reaching or learning and experimenting? Was female Air Force pilot Carol Danvers too implausible to be relatable? The short answer is no.
Superhero movies have been connecting with audiences for decades. From Christopher Reeve’s Superman, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Spider-Man 1, 2 and 3, and now the MCU, superheroes have drawn people to the theater regardless of age, social status, or, for all intents and purposes, “nerd status.” Whether they are casual fans or regulars at comic conventions around the world, these films keep attracting massive audiences to the theaters, and it isn’t for no reason. Pure luck can be ruled out at this point, Marvel is just good at what it does. Plus, it isn’t just audiences that are granting praise; critics and the Academy Award committee alike have awarded Marvel films glowing reviews and prestigious award nominations — such as 2018’s Black Panther that earned seven Oscar nominations, including the first superhero nomination for Best Picture. They’ve drawn some of the biggest stars in the business, not limited to Angelina Jolie, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Douglas, and Glenn Close, and watched along as other performers metamorphosed into household names. We’ve seen talented performers skyrocket to fame on the momentum of their Marvel appearances, which in turn only broadens the options for casting directors when looking for that talent with a big enough name to draw an audience. But for some, that still doesn’t earn enough credibility for the genre.
There’s no denying that Marvel films are larger than life. They’re implausible, impossible, fantastical — but so are how many other Hollywood big-hitters? Avatar (who held the crown of highest grossing film before being dethroned by Endgame) was a film about aliens, Star Wars (whose first installment holds the second highest grossing spot when adjusted for inflation) brought us to other universes, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the lists go on — transporting audiences to another world sells.
However, financial and box office successes are only half of what these projects bring to the table. Yes, studios and actors are getting paid, merchandise is being slung, and Blu-rays are flying off the shelves, but what’s more important is the effect they have on their audience. Why do people flock to the theaters for each and every Marvel (and/or DC) release? Because they flaunt impressive CGI with a decent enough story to draw us back in? Or is it because at the end of the day, we’re all looking for respite from the mundane, a break from the evil of the world, and a chance to see the good guy reign victorious — we want to be entertained, and we want that entertainment to have some meaning.
When Tony Stark defeated the Iron Monger in Iron Man all the way through to his sacrifice to stop the mad titan Thanos once and for all, the villains he faced, the relationships he formed, the flashy tech he constructed, and the character development of Stark himself kept Downey’s character a fan favorite through 11 years of film. That’s no easy feat, and we see that same motif with each new character Marvel introduces into their cinematic universe. Marvel has given a certain humanity and empathy to these superhuman characters, making them more than the hypo-machoism they’re accused of being. But not only are their heroes multifaceted, their villains are as well. We see the fury and the betrayal behind Killmonger in Black Panther, a longing for acceptance and control in Loki, and the distorted perceptions of saving the universe in Thanos, and for a moment we sympathize with them. We understand them, albeit in disagreement, but their motives are clear and for some, it is not pure evil. The greatest example of their stories being a delicate medley of grays versus neat black and white is in Captain America: Civil War, where our heroes are pitted against one another in a moral battle where neither is right or wrong. This makes for good, meaningful entertainment — something during the plot made us sit back and contemplate a better understanding of these characters and their motivations.
These films and these timeless characters have also facilitated connection. Whether it be between parents introducing their children to these superheroes they grew up reading about in comic books, or friends you’ve met at a comic con or online forum, they’ve created an entire fandom of people who band together with one common interest. They’ve come to shape an entire generation. Now, that may be a slight over-exaggeration, but in reality the paragons set forth by the morals held in these stories and the relationships formed because they exist are very real, and they affect people. If one person’s life is improved because T’Challa exists, who is anyone to belittle that? These heroes gave hope to an entire generation, and they still are — why would anyone want that altruism to cease to exist?
Along with the films themselves, I think it’s important to note the work of the actors behind these beloved characters. And I don’t mean acting work, but their work in philanthropy, education, and awareness. We see Mark Ruffalo constantly battling and bringing eyes to the climate and the risks that come with continuing to abuse the Earth in our current patterns. He fights for indigenous tribes, the rainforests, the very air we breathe using a platform highly boosted by his presence in Marvel films as Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk. Then there’s Don Cheadle and Chris Evans, fighting hypocrisy and injustices in our current political climate. Despite if you agree with their claims or not, their words are motivating people, notably young voters, to the polls to make their voices heard. Evans is currently in the process of launching a website to help educate voters with an unbiased platform, entitled A Starting Point. Its name is perfectly fitting for its purpose, as he’s been interviewing politicians on Capitol Hill of both parties alike to create a database to hear these public servant’s words straight from them, without giving the media a chance to misconstrue their words before being dispersed to the public. And then Captain Marvel star Brie Larson is known for her quest in female empowerment and her work as an advocate for sexual assault survivors. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the work Marvel stars are putting into their communities and the world.
With these actors’ popularity comes money flooding into their charities of choice as well. Tom Holland and his family founded The Brothers Trust, an organization dedicated to getting funds to reputable, but small, charities that deserve funding as much (if not more) than the larger, more well known ones. Chris Evans works closely with Christopher’s Haven, a small organization in Boston that provides low-cost housing for the families of children needing cancer treatments in the city. Robert Downey Jr. is known for his work with those suffering from addiction and Karen Gillan works closely with Mikeysline, an organization dedicated to helping those suffering with mental health difficulties. Not only are the stars involved, but the directors are as well. Currently this NFL Football season, the Russo brothers, directors of two Captain America films and the final two Avengers, formed a Fantasy Football league and donated $100,000 dollars from their production company, AGBO, to be divvied up between the charities of all the players (all of which are actors in superhero films).
Superhero movies are important. They bring hope and strength to those facing adversity, and a break from reality to everyone who steps foot into that theater or streams a movie from the comfort of their home. Captain America showed us that a world with one man left fighting has yet to lose. Wanda Maximoff and Natasha Romanoff substantiated that through our darkest hour we can fight through and come out better than we were before, no matter the losses we suffer or the red in our ledgers. Bucky Barnes proved that everyone is worthy of redemption and a second chance, even if you don’t think you deserve it yourself. And who else was better to showcase that brainpower is a superpower than Tony Stark or Shuri? Or that our own worst failures don’t define us, just like Bruce Banner. Captain Marvel reached for the sky, and then went higher while Nebula and Gamora proved that we can break free from the shackles of our families and be our own individuals. And Thor demonstrated what it truly meant to be worthy, and that it isn’t based on what others expect of us, but instead holding true to ourselves. There has been and always will be more to these films than what meets the eye, you just have to look for it.
In the end, people are always entitled to their opinion. Many of these classic filmmakers are set in their ways and viewpoints, and who are we to argue with what they enjoy? Tastes differ from person to person and everyone’s opinion is their own to have and covet. However, it’s unfair to use ones influence to demean and condescend what others find joy in just because it isn’t something that speaks to you. The old adage holds true — if you have nothing nice to say, then don’t say anything at all. It doesn’t matter who else loves these films, only if you do. Whether it be a friend, a stranger on the internet, or a world famous, award-winning director, don’t ever let anyone make you feel the need to defend the stories and characters you hold dear. The only requirement is that you do the same to others. So watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier for the 100th time and enjoy every second of it, be at the midnight premiere of the next superhero film even if you have work the next morning, or go to that comic con a few hours away and rock your cosplay like you’re Spider-Man himself, and if anyone judges you, that’s on them. There’s nothing wrong with loving superhero films, in fact, there’s a lot that’s right about it. Excelsior!