How Superhero Movies Became Escapist Fun Again

The self-seriousness of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and its imitators has finally given way to films that embrace the genre’s comic potential.

Jamie Coe

In 2008, the director Christopher Nolan released The Dark Knight, the central installment of his Batman trilogy. It was a remarkably good film in a genre not known for reliably producing “serious” fare—and alas, it inevitably inspired imitators: moody, self-important capes-and-tights movies that the Hollywood studios seem only now, blessedly, to be leaving behind.

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From the mid-20th century onward, screen portrayals of superheroes—and Batman in particular—had generally been tongue-in-cheek. In the 1960s, ABC’s Batman series, with its “bat Geiger counter” and “alphabet-soup bat container,” favored overt silliness. In the ’80s and ’90s, Tim Burton’s and Joel Schumacher’s movies tended toward high camp, with Danny DeVito cast as the Penguin, for example, and Jim Carrey as the Riddler.

Early-21st-century works such as Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies—in which the outcast mutant protagonists were implicitly compared to Holocaust survivors and victims of anti-gay bias—treated their characters more soberly. But Nolan’s pictures, especially The Dark Knight, were something entirely new. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times described the film as “pitched at the divide between art and industry, poetry and entertainment,” adding that “it goes darker and deeper than any Hollywood movie of its comic-book kind.” An op-ed in The Wall Street Journal compared Batman’s “moral complexity” to that of George W. Bush. Barack Obama later said that the movie’s villain, the Joker, helped him comprehend isis. The film became a staple of college courses; Amazon currently offers book-length analyses running the gamut from The Masculine Identity Crisis in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” to The Gospel in Gotham: Parables of Christ’s Glory From the Dark Knight Trilogy. That the movie cracked $1 billion at the global box office only increased its cachet.

As some Dark Knight naysayers—notably New York magazine’s David Edelstein—observed at the time, superheroes are not, by their nature, obvious candidates for thoughtful drama. They tend to wear ridiculous costumes and wield implausible powers. But Nolan set a high bar for the newly somber enterprise, in part by wisely laying claim to the least outlandish of the breed: Batman possesses no superabilities and has frequently been portrayed as a fearsome vigilante, from Bob Kane’s original rendering, in 1939, to Frank Miller’s reimagining of the character in the 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which served as an inspiration for Nolan.

Indeed, the bar set by the Dark Knight trilogy turned out to be so high that almost no subsequent films have managed to clear it. Warner Bros.—which produced Nolan’s films and has continued to deliver movies based on other DC-comic-book heroes (Superman, Wonder Woman, etc.)—spent years wearing the director’s grim legacy like a hair shirt. Following the final Dark Knight installment, in 2012, the studio turned its DC movies over to Zack Snyder, who shares Nolan’s affinity for darkness but little of his cinematic talent.

In Snyder’s 2013 Man of Steel, Superman—customarily portrayed as something of a mega–Boy Scout—accidentally levels half the city of Metropolis and ultimately decides to kill his nemesis, General Zod. That is about the most un-Superman-like move imaginable. Even Nolan’s Batman didn’t intentionally kill anyone. Snyder followed up with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a laughably bleak fable in which the two heroes decide to fight to the death for no plausible reason whatsoever—and then abruptly make peace when they discover that their mothers are both named Martha. And while Snyder did not direct Suicide Squad, the third entry in the DC Extended Universe, the movie (about a group of supervillains who are turned into a high-deniability hit squad by the U.S. government) followed his gloomy moral and aesthetic blueprint.

Happily, we appear to be in the midst of a new, and altogether different, shift in the genre—you might even call it a backlash—which may well provide a more sustainable model for superhero movies to come. As the saying goes: first time tragedy, second time farce. Experiments in supercomedy are taking place with increasing frequency, and meeting with considerable success. The various studios currently churning out stories of flying heroes and masked vigilantes are at different points in their evolution from drama to comedy. But in the steadily growing genre, they are all trending in that direction.

Last year, six of the 10 top-grossing films at the domestic box office were superhero movies, and the comic shift is proving contagious. This is in part because the ongoing boom has inspired studios to think big, moving beyond mere franchises in favor of vast cinematic “universes.” Heroes no longer just star in their own movies. They also cross-pollinate other heroes’ franchises and occasionally team up en masse for an extra-big blockbuster. In addition to Warner Bros., with its DC Comics cast of characters, two other studios have presided over their own superhero realms. 20th Century Fox owns the rights to the X-Men and related mutants from Marvel Comics, and has only just begun exploring the larger world-building possibilities this roster may enable. Marvel Studios, which covers almost all the rest of the Marvel characters—Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and so on—has proved the gold standard, with a total of 17 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to its credit since 2008 and a combined box-office haul of $13 billion. (Assuming Disney—which owns Marvel Studios—completes its acquisition of Fox, their two superhero universes will be merged.)

At 20th Century Fox, it has taken a while for the comedy bug to bite. After the earnest portrayals in Singer’s first two X-Men films, the third, ineptly directed in 2006 by the now infamous Brett Ratner, was bleaker than its predecessors: Multiple central characters got killed off, and critics were underwhelmed. The franchise was rebooted with the prequel X-Men: First Class, but this new series got both darker and duller, too. In its third installment, X-Men: Apocalypse, the conflicted sometime-hero, sometime-villain Magneto, in a fit of pique, collaborates in a plan to destroy all of humankind.

The solution? An iconoclastic leap into the post-Nolan era with Deadpool, 2016’s foray into R-rated raunch featuring a potty-mouthed jokester who just happened to be essentially unkillable. Although plenty of superhero movies had dabbled with comedy up to this point, this was the first that simply was a comedy. Yes, the titular hero fought a few highly forgettable bad guys. But the real draws were his profane banter, frequent demolitions of the fourth wall, and meta-commentary on his own movie. (Visiting the mansion where the X-Men live and finding it nearly empty, he quips, “It’s almost like the studio couldn’t afford another X-Man.”) Among the most well reviewed of the X-Men movies, Deadpool also made the most money of any of them, despite having had the smallest budget. The superhero comedy had arrived. A highly anticipated sequel is due out later this year.

Marvel Studios, the undisputed top dog of the superhero genre, never succumbed to the Nolan effect. From the start of its cinematic universe, in 2008, it opted instead for light doses of humor—epitomized by Robert Downey Jr.’s bravura turn as Iron Man’s alter ego, the extravagantly self-loving billionaire inventor Tony Stark. Since then, Marvel has continued moving further toward outright comedy, turning to comic performers such as Chris Pratt (who cut his teeth on the sitcom Parks and Recreation) and Paul Rudd to fill out its cast of heroes. It’s worth noting that most of the studio’s recent directors have a comedy background, an evolution that can be seen in microcosm in the Thor movies: The first was directed by the erstwhile Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh, the second by the TV prestige-drama veteran Alan Taylor, and the latest by a quirky indie-comedy veteran from New Zealand, Taika Waititi.

Little wonder that the Marvel movies have been getting wittier—and in many cases wackier. By far the best scene in the studio’s second Avengers movie, Age of Ultron, took place before the villain even showed up, at a party where the heroes engaged in some macho yardsticking about who among them could lift Thor’s hammer. That movie came on the heels of 2014’s highly comic Guardians of the Galaxy—which featured a talking raccoon and an ambulatory tree—and right before 2015’s comparably goofy Ant-Man, in which the amiably awkward Rudd played a shrinking ex-con who could converse with ants.

By now, a level of humor in Marvel movies that once seemed experimental looks to be par for the course. The three Marvel Studios releases of last year—Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming (produced in conjunction with Sony), and Thor: Ragnarok—were all essentially comedies, whether of the intergalactic-weirdo or heart-struck high-schooler variety.

Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Waititi, is the most self-consciously wacky Marvel offering to date. Although the overarching plot involves the conquest of Thor’s native Asgard by Hela, the goddess of death, Thor actually spends the bulk of the film in a comic subplot involving a gladiator planet ruled by an alien overlord played by Jeff Goldblum at his Goldblummiest: equal parts twitchy, smug, and louche. Large portions of the movie’s dialogue were ad-libbed on set, and on more than one occasion you can see the actors break character and crack up helplessly. Like Fox’s Deadpool, this venture into overt comedy met with raves.

Even Warner Bros. finally cast off its long-standing doldrums with Wonder Woman, which offered a witty, upbeat, and heroic (as opposed to antiheroic) vision—and became a critical and box-office hit. Warner’s subsequent team-up movie, Justice League, was a mess, but even so, the shift toward a lighter, more humorous template was clear. (One character, the Flash, essentially functioned as comic relief: a bumbling young adult unsure whether he was ready for the whole “do battle” part of the job.)

The new vogue in superhero films isn’t likely to inspire college courses or chin-stroking op-eds. These movies have typically been escapist fare at their core, so ditching the dour human dilemmas that briefly seemed like a ticket into the ranks of higher-brow entertainment has the feel of a genre coming home—and raising a little hell. With vast universes now to play in, the comic possibilities are newly outlandish.

In this sense, Thor: Ragnarok was an even bolder gamble than Deadpool. Fox’s movie had been a spin-off that featured none of the X-Men series’ customary heroes, so if it had been a disaster, the brand-name damage would have been contained. By contrast, Thor—a founding member of the Avengers—is a central figure in Marvel’s universe. Screwing around with his character risked throwing the studio’s whole world out of whack. But screw around with him Waititi went ahead and did. As the director explained to New York magazine’s Vulture site, “I’m having so much fun subverting all of this, and like telling weird jokes and making this the weirdest Marvel movie ever.” Wreaking modest havoc on the studio’s agenda was the whole point. “Marvel’s job really is to look after their characters, look after their source material, and make sure I don’t completely break it.”

Make sure he didn’t completely break it: A little bit of breaking was okay. This willingness to loosen the reins and try new things—even, or especially, in the midst of precisely engineered cinematic universes—appears to be the new normal. Comedies such as Deadpool and Thor: Ragnarok are the most obvious examples of this renegade spirit at work, but they’re not the only ones. Last year also saw Fox’s Logan, a dark, lean X-Men spin-off featuring the franchise’s best-loved character, Wolverine. It was, in fact, the most successful “serious” superhero movie since the Nolan days, though rather than take its cues from urban noir, it offered a postapocalyptic variation on a classic Western odyssey: The titular hero protects a young mutant girl on their journey to the Canadian border.

Other boundary-stretching endeavors are already under way. Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, which was released after this issue closed, is a superhero movie intended to foreground its story’s African influences. Fox’s upcoming The New Mutants is framed as a horror movie. Channing Tatum has described his planned Gambit film as inspired by the “complete paradigm shifts” in superhero movies as represented by Deadpool and Logan. And James Franco is currently developing yet another R-rated X-Men spin-off, which he promises will “take this superhero thing and really just push it into a new”—and, given Franco’s history, presumably quite weird—“genre.” Who would have guessed that just stepping back and having fun could be so liberating?

This article appears in the March 2018 print edition with the headline “Thor and the Hulk Walk Into a Bar ...”