The Superhero movie. An ordinary hero, the discovery of powers, the ethical dilemma, the mirror-image supervillain, the down-to-earth helpers, the epic fight. If we know to expect these basic beats, why do we keep coming back for more?
Why can’t we get enough of superheroes? Despite all the voices predicting “superhero fatigue,” the figure continues to reign supreme across movies and on TV, from 10-cent comic-books to billion-dollar theme parks. Meanwhile, the superhero film has developed into its own genre, defined by a reliable set of tropes and familiar plot points. Though the heroes may differ, their stories tend to follow a similar path.
First, the superhero’s powers are introduced. Whether their new abilities are born of tragedy, ingenuity, or a radioactive spider, superheroes tend to start off ordinary and become extraordinary. With that power, the superhero confronts an ethical dilemma in grappling with how to use their new abilities- and whether they even want to. But that decision is usually made for them by the arrival of a supervillain, who’s likely a mirror image of the superhero themselves.
Joker: “To them, you’re a freak, just like me!” -The Dark Knight (2008)
Meanwhile, the superhero is surrounded by normal, non-superheroes who keep them grounded, reminding the hero of their humanity and what it is they’re fighting for. And at the end, the superhero faces the supervillain in an epic battle for the fate of the world. Cue the swirling detritus and menacing sky beams.
So if we know every superhero story will always follow these same basic beats, why do audiences keep coming back? Here’s our take on how the superhero came to be such an endlessly renewable form of storytelling, why it continues to resonate — and what these extraordinary beings tell us about our ordinary selves.
May Parker: “I believe there’s a hero in all of us… that keeps us honest, gives us strength., makes us noble.” - Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Up, Up, and Away: A Brief History of Superheroes
Bill: “I’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes.” - Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
The superhero has been with us since the dawn of storytelling. Heroic demigods like Hercules and Gilgamesh- mortals who were said to possess divine powers- were the cornerstones of ancient mythology. Meanwhile, the epic conquests of real men like Alexander The Great laid the foundations for tales of a lone hero — or villain — who could single-handedly change the course of the world.
The idea of the often-disguised heroic figure operating outside the law was formulated in folklore tales like Robin Hood, stories of real-life masked vigilantes in the American West, and Baroness Orcy’s 1905 novel The Scarlet Pimpernel about a supposed dandy who leads a secretly noble double life during the French Revolution. And the pulp novels and magazines of the early 20th gave us figures like Zorro, Tarzan, Doc Savage, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and The Shadow, who beat incredible odds through their exceptional cunning, skill, and physical strength.
Metaphysically, the concept of a super-man has its roots in Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the “Ubermensch,” which the philosopher posited as a next stage of human evolution, where we could move beyond ourselves and become closer to gods. While Superman’s writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster never commented directly on Nietzsche’s influence, it’s notable that their first collaboration, 1933’s “The Reign of the Superman,” depicts this idea as evil: The story concerns an ordinary man who’s given the superpower of telepathy, which he then uses to try taking over the world. In reality, at that time, Adolf Hitler was appropriating Nietzsche’s ideas of the Ubermensch to justify his bid for world domination. And as World War II broke out across the globe, Siegel and Shuster- the sons of Jewish immigrants — found wider audience appeal by recasting Superman as the ultimate power for good.
The success of Superman and Batman, both introduced in the late ‘30s, created a flood of new superheroes through which audiences could confront rising anxieties about war and social unrest. Both Superman and Marvel’s Captain America were seen pummeling Hitler — reassuring readers that good would inevitably triumph over real-life evil.
Meanwhile, Batman punished the criminals who were turning cities into hotbeds of violence. For young audiences, the superhero was a source of comfort and empowerment in terrifying times. The secret identity of the original Golden Age hero Captain Marvel was even a young boy who transforms into a fearless superhero by invoking the names of ancient mythological heroes (which is where he gets his later name, Shazam).
For a long time after this, superheroes were still largely seen as for kids. Popular superhero characters starred in children’s 1940s serial movies and found success on TV from the ‘50s through the ‘70s. But their stories weren’t considered vehicles for complex storytelling until Marvel Comics creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby debuted a new kind of superhero. Flawed, temperamental, and beset by ordinary problems, Marvel heroes like the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and Spider-Man seemed like real people, in stories laced with decidedly grown-up themes and social commentary. Suddenly, comics — and their readers — started taking superheroes seriously.
Still, this didn’t start showing up on the big screen until the Man of Steel once again blazed the trail with Richard Donner’s critical and commercial hit Superman in 1978. The groundbreaking effects and Christopher Reeve’s performance proved that comic-book movies could be received as more than a laughing matter. Superman paved the way for the somber, psychological tone of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. Still, in the ‘90s, the genre continued to waver between dark, grown-up fare and hoky cartoonishness aimed at kids.
The start of the modern, adult-oriented superhero era can really be traced back to 2000’s X-Men. This movie about the Marvel team of superpowered mutants takes place in a world more recognizably our own than the heightened fantasies of Metropolis and Gotham City. And the social anxieties it explored — along with the questions it posed about the superhero’s place in our reality — would shape the genre for years to come. The way that the mutants find themselves persecuted for their strange abilities had been a potent civil-rights metaphor since X-Men’s introduction in the 1960s.
Mystique: “We shouldn’t be trying to fit into society. Society should aspire to be more like us. Mutant and proud.” - X: First Class (2011)
And while the movie X-Men weren’t quite as diverse as some of the comics, the film did introduce multiple female superheroes to the male-dominated genre, including a prominent woman of color.
X-Men’s success paved the way for a broader rise of superhero films in the 2000s that would converge with desires for patriotic unity, moral clarity, and escapism in the wake of September 11th. 2002’s Spider-Man, set in that recently ravaged New York, offered the reassuring fantasy of a nice, all-American boy who’s determined to do the right thing. But the decade’s other most popular examples leaned into murkier ethical dilemmas: post-9/11 America’s grappling with moral relativity, justice, and what defines a hero was reflected in the angst-filled superheroes of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose nuanced social commentary were as much a feature as the special effects.
And with 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel began conducting a pivotal experiment in long-form cinematic storytelling, constructing an interconnected cinematic universe featuring characters that, for the most part, hadn’t yet made their big-screen debuts. Now it’s Marvel’s universe and we’re just living in it, while the less tightly assembled DC cinematic universe has also produced some influential hits. Today’s films portray superheroes as imperfect, anguished, decidedly human characters, whose stories are in conversation not only with each other but with our history and our society. And thus we’ve been trained to see this former genre-for-kids as serious, capital-F filmmaking for adults — perhaps even the defining genre of our era.
Alfred Pennyworth: “Even if everyone hates him for it. That’s a sacrifice he’s making. He’s not being a hero. He is being something more.” - The Dark Knight (2008)
With Great Power…
Superhero stories usually begin with an ordinary person — someone recognizably human we can project ourselves onto — like a meek, bullied high school student or a scrawny, sickly soldier.
The viewer then experiences discovering or gaining superpowers with this character. If the character is already slightly more than human — say, a brilliant scientist or a billionaire playboy — their stories of acquiring powers are made relatable through suffering or sacrifice. The superhero might barely survive some mental or physical change that makes it impossible for them to return to normal. Even those who have been seemingly gifted with their powers must pay for it somehow.
Odin: “I cast you out!” - Thor (2011)
A lot of criticism of superhero stories has categorized these narratives as power fantasies — escapist stories to let the powerless enjoy imagining feeling immensely powerful. And when Clark Kent gets rejected by an unwitting Lois Lane or Spider-Man must work through his human problems in the middle of crime-fighting, there can even be an element of self-pitying fantasy some viewers identify with: If only people knew how special I was!
But many superhero movies attempt to counterbalance the power fantasy elements by exploring the concept of heroic responsibility. Superheroes must figure out how to use their powers — not just physically, which is often mastered over the course of a montage, but philosophically. What’s the best way for Iron Man to apply his genius? Should Captain America live his life as a soldier? How much can or should Peter Parker sacrifice to be Spider-Man? Often, superheroes grapple with whether to use their powers at all or whether mankind is worth saving.
At the heart of all these conflicts are ethical questions that are relevant to us all: what makes a hero in this day and age? And can a single person (however powerful) really change anything? At its best, the moral questioning in these stories asks us to consider how we might put our (perhaps more considerable than we think) powers to good use, and confront all the reasons why we’re not yet doing all we could to make the world better.
The superhero is supported and motivated by a cast of down-to-earth “normal” people, who stand in for decent humanity at large — whether they’re friends and family members, lovers who test their commitment, associates who keep them in check, or just comic relief.
Ned Leeds: “Do you spit venom? Can you summon an army of spiders?” - Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Meanwhile, the hero is challenged by a supervillain, who’s generally a distorted reflection of the hero and exposes key problems or weaknesses in the hero’s worldview. While the villain might be a more abstract, pure evil, other times, it’s someone the hero knows, respects and even loves like when Superman defends his adoptive world against his fellow Kryptonians, Thor squares off against his own brother, or Black Panther fights his cousin. Or the villain might embody a metaphorical or philosophical flip side to the hero: Batman and the Joker represent two extreme responses to the immorality of Gotham City.
While the idea of a parallel villain can be something of a movie cliché in general, in the world of superheroes this trope illustrates power’s tendency toward corruption. And it underlines that- even if these appear to be stories of pure good and evil — in reality, that dichotomy is far more complex. Tony Stark has to consider whether he is creating as many problems as he solves, or whether the ends justify the means — and in these debates, superheroes even find themselves at odds. At the same time, villains like The Dark Knight’s Joker or Black Panther’s Killmonger can draw us in with charismatic philosophies or understandable, even sympathetic, motivations. Even someone like Thanos, with his plot to kill half of all living creatures to save the other half, prompts the question of whether he might be onto something.
Thanos: “Your planet was on the brink of collapse. I’m the one who stopped that.” - Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
In the end, though, the superhero movie often resolves these complicated questions with an easy answer. The hero must fight, even on behalf of a world that might fear and resent them for it, and frequently, at the expense of their own happiness. And the movie culminates with the heroes taking down the villain in a climactic, digitally assisted super-fight. Given the context of this genre’s rise in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, these obligatory superhero smash-em-ups can be interpreted as an attempt to reclaim that imagery of destruction and collapsing buildings, putting them firmly back in the context of escapism.
And crucially, they offer the assurance that, no matter how powerful the threat or unthinkable the disaster, the good guys will always triumph. So despite all the explorations of moral ambiguity and doubt, in the end, the promise of the superhero story is to deliver a fantastical solution to our impossible problems.
What Superhero Movies Tell Us About Ourselves
Today’s superhero genre conventions have solidified in part because they’ve created a satisfying rubric for confronting our cultural anxieties: about our safety in an increasingly scary world, and about the slippery nature of righteousness and justice — how we achieve it, what it takes to protect it, whether it’s even ours to claim in the first place.
The dark side of the superhero story can emerge as an extreme version of American exceptionalism — a power fantasy that the superhero story makes literal with god-like American heroes who know better than, say, government officials or other countries about when to interfere and do good around the world. In 1977, philosophers Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence identified this fantasy of exceptional individuals saving the world as part of The American Monomyth — a variation on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, in which “a community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task…” Modern superhero movies have increasingly dealt with the problems in that outlook.
Thaddeus Ross: “For the past four years, you’ve operated with unlimited power and no supervision. That’s an arrangement the governments of the world can no longer tolerate.” - Captain America: Civil War (2016)
On the positive side, the plethora of superhero films out there now offers a wide variety of heroic personalities allowing viewers to choose which type to identify with or model themselves on. Crucially, this is at last starting to include more diverse ideas of who can be a hero. For years, moviegoers were essentially asked to choose between dashing but tortured Batman or impossibly perfect Superman. But today’s patchwork universe portraying a range of powers, ethical struggles, and personal problems can be seen as a metaphorical representation of our myriad individual gifts, skill sets, and temperaments.
In recent years, movies have even made super-villains the protagonists of their own superhero stories, asking us to understand, sympathize with, maybe even root for them. Sometimes, they’re tasked with — yep — saving the world. That blurring line between so-called “heroes” and “villains” more accurately reflects the truth that most people can be both.
Harvey Dent: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” - The Dark Knight (2008)
When Everyone’s Super
Back in 2004, The Incredibles’ bad guy Syndrome memorably declared that superheroes wouldn’t seem so special if they were too common.
Syndrome: “When everyone’s super… no one will be.” - The Incredibles (2004)
With each year’s new crop of superhero movies and TV shows — and as companies like Marvel confidently plot franchise expansions decades into the future- we wonder aloud about “superhero fatigue.” Yet so far, it never actually seems to set in at the box office. So if everyone’s a super, why don’t audiences ever get sick of this story? When can we give our superheroes a break?
Obviously, some of the reasons the superhero story remains so indomitable are financial. Superheroes have an enviable amount of brand recognition, built on decades of preexisting comics, cartoons, and other movies. And as these films connect across ever-sprawling shared universes and stories, there’s also the anxiety to not be left out — similar to how earlier comics fans once agonized over missing an issue.
On an entertainment level, the superhero genre provides satisfying, one-stop-shopping for moviegoers, blending together elements of science fiction, action, political thriller, horror, romance, and even comedy all in one feature film.
But most importantly, these movies connect with us on an intimate story level. Seeing beloved characters working through familiar formulas, interacting with each other, growing and changing in front of our eyes, gives us the same comforts as a beloved ensemble sitcom. Many of these superheroes have remained a constant in our lives for decades now, and we’re least as invested in their personal tragedies and triumphs as we are in their superhuman ones.
Like the myths of old, the superhero story helps us to make sense of the unknown. It inspires us to discover the heroes within ourselves. And as long as impossible problems persist, we’ll need the reassurance of fantasy to help us confront reality.