Hollywood Should Make More, Not Fewer, Superhero Films

Yes, the genre has produced few true classics and many duds. But it's young. Give it time.

The rickety Amazing Spider-Man 2 has critics debating just how many superhero movies America can handle. This was the subject of Samuel Adams’s weekly survey at CriticWire, which led RogerEbert.com’s Matt Zoller Seitz to write a forceful essay declaring: “This genre is where imagination goes to drown itself.”

He levels many popular arguments against superhero movies, ranging from valid critique of some action cinematography to easy comparisons with junk food.  But the fact that there are real criticisms to be made of the movies the genre has produced doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the genre, or that we should expect it to peter out soon.

The truth is, there aren’t nearly enough superhero movies available. By historical standards, we’re so deprived of superhero movies that there’s probably a shadow war being fought between paranormal forces of good and evil over the matter.

Here’s what I mean. Seitz smartly compares superhero flicks to other genre fare, like Hollywood westerns and zombie movies. Here’s his argument:

Thirty-six years after "Superman, the Movie," we still haven't seen a range of big budget superhero films as tonally different as post-"Night of the Living Dead" zombie pictures, or Hollywood westerns released after Vietnam, when the genre was allegedly dead. What do George Romero's ghoul films, "Dead/Alive," the "Rec" series, "Shaun of the Dead," "Zombieland" and the "Days" movies have in common besides a basic situation? Almost nothing. What do "Little Big Man," "The Wild Bunch," "Blazing Saddles," "Silverado," "Unforgiven" and "Open Range" have in common besides horses and ten-gallon hats? Almost nothing. What do modern superhero movies have in common? Entirely too much. Once in a great while you get an outlier like "Hellboy" or "Watchmen" or "Kick-Ass." There's a reason why anybody seeking to counter gripes of superhero film sameness brings up "Hellboy" or "Watchmen" and "Kick-Ass": because most superhero movies are not "Hellboy" or "Watchmen" or "Kick-Ass." They're "Thing Crashing Into Other Thing 3." 

In other words, other box-office-dominating, pulpy, male-oriented movie trends of the past produced better, more inventive, and more diverse ranges of works than the superhero boom has. Hence, the superhero boom is, creatively and perhaps soon commercially, a bust.

But take a look at the following chart comparing the genres Seitz cites:

This chart, cribbed together from a few different sources, gives an estimate of the growth of zombie, western, and superhero movies from 1930 to 2013. It attempts to stick to American movies, although US cuts of foreign films have surely snuck in. It includes older double-heading serials and some direct-to-DVD fare. It is almost definitely incomplete. Even so, it’s clear that throwing superhero movies in with the other genres is, numerically, comparing flying apples to tobacco-juice-spitting oranges.

For example, superhero movies haven’t had nearly as much time to compete. The first zombie movie came out in 1932, which is why the chart starts there. But westerns had a lead of hundreds of short films and serials. There were “westerns” as early as the late eighteen-hundreds. Meanwhile, the first Batman movie didn't come out until 1966.

The chart also shows how long it takes to get to the “poets of genre.” By the time we get to High Noon, Shane, and The Searchers (all AFI Top 10 Westerns), there had already been more than 1500 movie westerns made. After accounting for the fact that many of the early westerns were only an hour long, that’s still more than 750 hours of lassos and revolvers.

Even when considering zombies as separate from the larger horror tradition (whose numbers have long surpassed westerns and was going strong in the ’50s), there had already been about 36 predecessors to George A. Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead. And many of the most lauded non-Romero zombie films, including most that Seitz lists, have come out in the last 10 years. That’s a 30-year gap filled mostly with titles like Curse of the Living Dead, Garden of the Dead, Return of the Blind Dead, and Deathy Deathy Death Death 3: More Death.  Critics say that quality movies like The Incredibles and Hellboy are outliers, but your odds of finding a good superhero movie on average remain far greater than finding a good horror movie. So while Seitz is right that most superhero movies aren’t Hellboy, it’s actually truer to say that most westerns aren’t Silverado and most zombie movies aren’t 28 Days Later.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the quality of a genre is related solely to its lifespan. Genres don’t evolve in isolation. Last summer Zack Snyder with Man of Steel was not just having a frame-by-frame conversation with 1951’s Superman and the Mole Men. But even so,  there have been many wonderful films in the past 50 years—shouldn’t the vast amount of good examples available to contemporary filmmakers have made everything much better by now? And yet garbage persists.

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Tim Wainwright is writer based in New York. He has written for CT Magazine and RealClearMarkets.

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