Photo By: Michael Marais from Unsplash

There is a safe formula for box office success at the movies today and it’s called endless superhero adaptations. 

If we take seriously what cultural critic Mark Fisher said about our current moment in history being unable to create the “new,” then there is no better place to look to confirm this frightening idea than at the massively popular industry of superhero films that have proliferated in the last decade.

Fisher draws on the dystopian film Children of Men, wherein a museum exists that has historical relics from the 20th century all collected to be preserved in the midst of socio-economic breakdown, but there’s no explanation as to why the breakdown is happening. The museum is clutching at what culture was as it is slowly being drained of its coherent progression due to the swallowing of creativity in a world that can endlessly reproduce and accelerate styles of the past. He sees this as comparable to where we are now culturally, “we do not need to see Children of Men’s near-future to arrive to see this transformation of culture into museum pieces.” 

With multiple new Marvel or DC films coming out every year, and the same rinse-and-repeat plot line running through just about all of them, it’s no wonder these films are so beloved; becoming the closest thing to a popular cultural event that can break through almost all demographics. They remain some of the only pieces of popular culture that I can rely on to discuss with, say, my Dad as well as friends my age or the stranger I converse with at a bus stop. But why? 

I think the answer lies in their safety. They can incorporate the memes and language of today into characters and storylines that carry nostalgic significance for older generations. It’s a best of both worlds scenario. And this is why the ‘cultural museum pieces’ analogy from Children of Men works so well; what a Marvel film can do is remind us of 20th century comic book subcultures while presenting those storylines in the context of today. Think to yourself how often a superhero film actually challenges the places it comes from, aside from maybe a cheap appeal to identity politics to satisfy liberal hysteria.

I can hear a voice telling me Deadpool is an example of breaking this pattern, but the revolution of the Deadpool films is that they endlessly point to the fact that they are breaking the rules through a myopic lens of irony and cynicism. The fourth-wall breaking formula found in Deadpool is only a reminder that there appears to be nothing else suitable as an alternative to these predictable hero or anti-hero films other than to make fun of their predictability. It’s a silent defeat in a way, and it’s why Deadpool is treated as a cheap comedy. Whether one loves the Deadpool films or not, I’d argue no one leaves the theatre feeling that Deadpool has actually challenged and thus inaugurated a new take on superhero films. It just makes fun of them and runs away with the bag. 

There are now 25 canonical films in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) since Iron Man was released in 2008. We love these films because they have history, provide safe stories, an abundance of funny, ironic one-liners, and will reference something that the adults in the audience might not get, like when Thor played the popular video game Fortnite in one of the Avenger films. Not to mention the actors and actresses are always physically stunning. 

But isn’t it fair that we wonder when this train of remakes and spin-offs will come to an end? Are we really that satisfied with these films or are we just comforted by them? I’d argue it’s the latter.