Super Heroes films as Genre Films

In today’s movie industry, superhero films have become the type of films most consumers gravitate towards viewing at the theaters on an annual basis. Superhero films have become the sugary delight that consumers crave at a candy store. But while superhero films are normally categorized into the “superhero” genre, it can be argued that certain films can fit into other genres depending on what separates them from other superhero films and what the advantages and/or disadvantages of that might be. There are certain films that have been released within recent years and in the past decade that demonstrate how superhero movies can be distinguishable from others.

Spider-Man: Homecoming: Coming of Age

Following his Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) debut in Captain America: Civil War (CA: CW), Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, has been set to star in his own solo film due out in 2017. The film will find Parker trying to maintain his superhero life whilst keeping his high school career in check. Based on the first trailer, one could clearly take away that this film is a “coming of age” story.

It not only shows its main protagonist trying to level himself up to the standards of far more popular heroes he has come to idolize and even fight along side, the trailer also expresses how much difficulty he is enduring growing up in high school.

This movie is very unique considering that the main protagonist is still in his teens. When audiences met him in CA: CW, he was a teenager who was using his powers to help others and become a hero people could depend on; he wanted to make a difference to those around him by using his newfound abilities to help save lives and fight crime. In this film, that journey will continue and he will be able to hopefully become a more well-known name. It will also be intriguing to see the MCU from the perspective of a teenage hero who looks up to these adult heroes and tries to be like them. His end goal is to grow out of his mentor Tony Stark’s shadow and learn to become a better hero in the process.

In the latest trailer, it appears that Parker wants to be able to handle villains that his idol heroes normally handle, but is prohibited by Stark out of fearing for his safety. The movie’s ultimate mission is to therefore show Parker learning how to rise up and become an Avengers-level crime fighter.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Films: Crime Drama

When it comes to the history of comic book-based movies, Batman has had a line of films both good and bad, with Batman Forever and Batman & Robin being critically panned. But thanks to the cinematic genius of film director Christopher Nolan, Batman was given the proper cinematic glory he yearned for.

Nolan’s Batman trilogy, consisting of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, follows the titular character’s journey to rid his home Gotham City of the criminal element that took his family from him. All three films, primarily the first two, show Batman fighting against the crime and corruption that is consuming Gotham. With this in mind, one could say that Nolan’s Batman films can be considered crime dramas.

In the comics, Batman’s main goal has always been to go after ordinary criminals, with his rogues gallery popping up to challenge him head on during his crusade against crime. His primary antagonist has always been the crimes committed not just by super villains, but by ordinary criminals and crime families.

Nolan’s films take advantage of this fact and use it to tell a compelling story that feels very much like a crime tale. Beginning in Batman Begins, viewers see Batman beginning his journey of his war on crime. By the time that The Dark Knight starts, viewers can see that Batman’s quest for justice is moving in the direction he wants it to go with some challenges coming along such as the crime families and the emergence of the Joker, who Nolan reimagines as a psychotic madman rather than a chemically-altered individual. With the trilogy’s end in The Dark Knight Rises, Batman’s journey culminates with the final battle not only against the main antagonist Bane, but against the criminal element itself.

Nolan’s movies chronicle a Batman whose main enemy is crime whereas other interpretations mainly feature the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery.

All of these movies do not feature any supernatural forces such as aliens or demons. They are grounded and set in a world that mirrors the real world identically. This is done intentionally to make the Dark Knight’s mission more reality based and not having to due war with any science fictional entities. Nolan wanted to make sure this incarnation of the Dark Knight was believeable by setting it in a grim reality in a fictitious yet real-world environment.

Nolan’s Batman trilogy can be credited for not only giving the Dark Knight the cinematic glory he yearned for but by implementing techniques to make it more believable in a real-world setting.

Captain America Films: War, Spy, Political

The Captain America trilogy had its titular character deal with threats from WW2 all the way to the modern era. Because each film in the trilogy is unique in certain ways, one could say that each one is in a different film genre.

For the first entry in the trilogy, The First Avenger can be categorized as a war movie for one simple characteristic: it takes place in WW2. The film is a journey into how Steve Rogers went from a stubborn youth wanting to make a difference residing in Brooklyn to a super soldier fighting in WW2 on behalf of the U.S. and the idealism of freedom itself. The film is able to use its time period to tell a story about how Captain America became the hero he is. But while the WW2 setting is the most unique aspect compared to other MCU entries, it only focuses on its fictional elements such as the threat of the Red Skull and his Hydra organization in order to tell its story.

After waking up in the modern day after 70 or more years of arctic sleep, Captain America began to face new with threats either on his own or with the Avengers. In The Winter Soldier, he faces the threat of the Winter Solider, who turns out to be his best friend James “Bucky” Barnes, who was originally thought to have perished during WW2.

Unlike The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier is a spy film that has Rogers this time around working for S.H.I.E.L.D. carrying out covert operations alongside his fellow Avengers teammate Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow. After the death of Director Nick Fury, Rogers is immediately targeted by S.H.I.E.L.D. and is forced on the run and must rely on the help of Romanoff and new ally Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon. The movie utilizes certain spy film characteristics that could help it be categorized as a spy thriller. One example is that Rogers and his friends sneak around in the movie to complete certain objectives such as finding a location via a MacBook and then having to evade those who would capture them. This gives the film a spy movie element that enforces its position as a spy movie.

Likes its previous two predecessors, Civil War is a unique film in its own right. Civil War can be categorized as a political-themed film. The politics in the film are what really drives the conflict. A new initiative has been enacted by the world government following an Avengers-related incident with severe casualties. This new law requires that the Avengers work for the government and no longer operate as its own independent entity. While certain members of the Avengers like the idea, others including Rogers feels that it will inhibit their ability to go where they are needed. This film’s theme is about whether superheroes need to be governed under a system of accountability or be able to operate independently for the greater good. It is indirectly similar to how people ask should the government watch over its citizens. This makes Civil War a film that is relatable to the real world.

All three Captain America films are able to stand out from one another because they utilize different themes to represent Captain America’s world. With the The First Avenger, audiences were able to get a sense of the world Rogers came from and how WW2 molded him into the hero he is in the modern MCU. Then in The Winter Soldier, he was struggling to come to grips in the world he now lives and to put his WW2 days behind him. Lastly, Civil War forced him to make choices based on trying to do the right thing in stopping a major threat while he and his teammates were divided because of the law.

All these films show Rogers’ evolution as a hero by exploring different themes that tie into the beliefs he stands for.

Doctor Strange and Thor: Fantasy

When it comes to Doctor Strange and Thor, both can be credited for bringing fantasy into the MCU.

Thor was the first film to incorporate fantasy into the MCU. Audiences were introduced to the titular character along with his home of Asgard, which is from Norse mythology. It introduced fantasy elements that have since played a part in proceeding MCU films. For example, a hint of Norse mythology was featured in the first Captain America film with the introduction of the Tesseract.

Audiences were able to visit the world of Asgard and its sister realms, making the MCU much bigger than it already was at the time. No longer did the MCU rely on purely science fictional elements but it could explore the fantasy aspects from the comics.

Aside from Thor, Doctor Strange also further added more fantasy elements into the MCU by introducing a world based on magic and infinite realities. One of the film’s main strengths is that it utilized magic throughout the film such as fights that took place in a mirror dimension and added new fantastical elements that were not seen in previous MCU films. Audiences were treated to many magical aspects such as the villainous Dormmamu.

Both Thor and Doctor Strange are films that help to keep the fantastical elements of the MCU intact and are the progenitors of the MCU’s fantasy genre films. They show audiences fantastical elements that are unique unto themselves and shows more potential areas for the MCU to explore in future movies.

Both Doctor Strange and Thor stand out from other MCU films because of how integral they became to the world they inhabited. For Doctor Strange, the titular character received his training from a secret society in a foreign country and where he was trained was located in a fairly urban city. But what made the film stand out was how it perceived its magical world being easily integrated into modern society, a world that does not believe in the supernatural. The Sanctum Sanctorium in New York is perceived as a regular building to the common eye and the Mirror Dimension is able to be utilized in any part of the world without hurting the physical world.

On the other hand, the Thor films portrayed as Asgard as both a mystical and technologically advanced civilization far superior to Earth’s. In The Dark World, there is the scene with giant laser cannons being used to thwart Loki and Thor’s escape from Asgard, further demonstrating how technologically sophisticated the realm is.

Both Doctor Strange and Thor stand apart not only from other MCU films but from each other as well.

Superhero films do not always have to be classified as superhero genre films. These examples can be evidence that certain superhero films can be distinguished and unique from others due to their ability to weave into other film genres.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I’d call Superhero a subgenre of action, and/or “speculative fiction,” the catch-all for fantasy, sci-fi and horror.

  2. I think of Marvel and other comic-based superhero movies as a sub-genre of speculative fiction (science fiction, paranormal, and fantasy).

    Many assume that any science fiction fan is also a fan of comic books, paranormal romances, and horror movies. While those all fall under the large umbrella of “speculative,” they are not one in the same.

    I have been a fan of science fiction literature since grade school. I also read comics back then, but I outgrew comics, whereas the best of science fiction literature rivals the best of literature of any genre.

  3. Pacheco

    Is “superhero” a theme, or the genre of the movie.

    • ivan elias

      I think superheroes might be more of a theme than a genre. Just like Watchmen was more of a drama while Batman & Robin was (an utter turdfest) more of a fantasy.

      Just like a love movie can either have the theme of open raltionships or a love triangle.

      That’s my perspective.

  4. Munjeera

    It has been great to see how superhero movies as a genre have evolved. A very enjoyable read. I think CGI has a lot to do with the satisfying experience, not to mention grear character development and plot lines. Two main aspects missing from the Batman in the early years.

    Great article!

  5. I think Superhero movies become slightly more interesting when you think of them being categorized as more than just the “superhero” genre. In this manner, we are shown how eclectic superheroes are as they are able to be more than meets the eye – more than just what simple superhero genre will allow. As a result, they can delve into stories more human, more political, more social, you name it. I may be unclear but I’m not very articulate on this topic.

    • You make a good point. If superhero films were just that (good versus evil, mysterious powers, explosions, etc.), it would get boring pretty quickly for me. When you add other elements that ground them in the world we live in, it adds an essential component. Setting the stakes, adding psychological depth, and playing into certain genre types help films transcend the label of being simply “superhero movies.”

  6. I like to think of The Incredible Hulk as a monster movie (like piranha) and of Spider-Man movies as a drama-comedy, and of Captain America as a political thriller.

  7. If I had to classify Age of Ultron, I might say an apocalyptic science fiction thriller, somewhat like The Terminator series. Not a terribly far off comparison, I think.

  8. While they fall under the superhero-action rubric–naturally–they also involve paranormal aspects (witchcraft), aliens, drama, and even romance. The way the heroes are depicted are yes, superhuman in some aspects, but they still want to have friends and be treated like everyone else. That’s what makes these movies so accessible. It’s not just what they can do; it’s what they are. People.

  9. Comic books, for the most part, are very basic stories broken down for easy consumption. Yes, I’m a fan of comics as well as a reader, but there is no way that I approach a comic in the same way I do some piece of genre fiction. If anything, comics are a genre onto themselves. At the end of the day, I find most of the movies based upon the comic books as entertaining, but hardly anything that I’d look towards for anything other than simple entertainment.

  10. Who doesn’t want to read a neat well written article? Thanks!

  11. Lovejoy

    I’d argue that Avengers and Thor 2 reek more of standard superhero movies than having their own unique genre.

  12. Adaptation of superhero comics are in the superhero genre.

    • Comic book movies are not a genre any more than movies based on novels or tv shows are a genre. Until we start lumping in Twilight and Das Boot as the same genre, and X-Files: Fight The Future and Dukes of Hazard as the same genre, then we shouldn’t be lumping in all comic book based movies as one genre.

    • Super heroes and comic book movies are not the same thing.

      A super hero can exist as any medium from a (comic) book to a cartoon to a movie or a video game. Just about anything. Even an oral story. Beowulf or Odysseus could be considered a super hero in the abstract of terms and they far predate the comic book format.

      A comic book movie can only exist from taking a comic book and adapting it into a movie. Even if no super hero is present, it’s still a comic book movie.

      If it isn’t from a comic book but has a super hero in it, that’s not a comic book movie. If it has a character (say something like Scott Pilgrim or Bone) who are not super heroes, it’s still a comic book movie.

      There’s a difference but it is often lost in translation.

    • Superhero movies are definately a genre.
      The second a superhero turns up it’s a superhero movie.
      If there was nothing but detective work in a Batman movie it would be a superhero movie rather than a crime thriller.
      If Spider-Man cracked jokes the entire movie it would be a superhero movie rather than a comedy.

  13. StaywithMe

    Superheroes may be a blanket genre…but typically they cross over into a wide range of other genres . Also, not all superheroes are based on comic characters.

    • tensions

      I often debate this myself, and I personally think that the more CBM’s that get made, the more it does become a genre.

  14. Comic book movies straddle a lot of genres. Just about any existing genre can include a comic book movie in it.

  15. Lefebvre

    If Comic Book Movie is a genre then book adaptation is one as well. Superhero movie is a genre, comic book movie however is not, comic books are just another source to be adapted.

  16. Dr Toula

    Like the happenings in Plato’s parable of the cave, in which shadows are the person’s ‘reality’, supernatural forces such as aliens or demons are grounded in a fantasy world that articulates the real world. As such, superhero films will continue to endure as they not only tell us something about the world in which we live, but more importantly, about our own place within it.

  17. KintaW

    I had always classified superhero films as a sub-genre of speculative fiction. But with their growth (i.e the MCU in particular), I think it’s about time they moved into a genre of their own with the sub-genre’s to match.

    We can no longer lump them all into one sub-genre of speculative fiction. They’ve branched out far too much.

    That’s my opinion, anyway.

  18. I’ve never thought of the superhero films being categorized into a superhero genre. I’ve always seen them as a crossover between the sci-fi, fantasy and action genres. I don’t think they should have their own category to be honest. We have a lot of genres that crossover and become sub-genres.

  19. Genres are becoming more and more spliced, and superhero sub-genres have resulted in it. Overall these are superhero movies but with new releases like Logan I love how the industry has begun to change how the genre and its sub-genres are viewed.

  20. Great article!

  21. Genres are definitely becoming blurred and merged together. Superhero movies cross into many genres, but I think placing them in a separate, singular genre is an interesting angle.

  22. Great writing here to break down how superhero movies aren’t ALWAYS the same thing, and I’d also add in Ant-Man as a heist comedy and Logan as a western into this discussion 🙂

  23. Superhero films have changed a lot since their inception, I think it’s brilliant how filmmakers are able to capture the spirit of these characters and place them in genre films, whilst all taking place in the same universe in the MCU’s case. I would add Guardians of the Galaxy into this list for being a Star Wars inspired space opera with a comedic fantasy twist.

  24. Very interesting piece. I definitely agree that the difference in genre of ‘superhero’ films needs to be recognised, as not to clump them all together when not necessary.
    My key critique for you is to take care not to compare apples and oranges so to speak. Namely in this case, watch out for the differences between genre, theme, and setting.
    You’ve named Thor and Doctor Strange both fantasy genre films (fantasy being a widely spanning genre) and Nolan’s Batman a crime drama, crime (or noir) being the theme and drama the genre.
    Like I said though, thanks for the article. I completely agree with your premise..

  25. This was a really interesting article as I had never previously considered how superhero themed movies can fall into unique genres. I especially enjoyed the differentiation you made between the Captain America films (my favorite being the second).

  26. Really great article. I think that ‘superhero’ movies without different sub-genres wouldn’t be as well received as they are today. I think that’s something marvel has really nailed in nearly all of their recent movies (most origin stories are a different story). Its interesting that these days superhero movies aren’t just superhero movies, but rather have undercurrents of different genres which keep people interested in the movies.

    • Agreed nailed, but it seems they can only stray so far, never managing to truly break free from the shackles of the superhero mythos. Really hoping to see something different with Thor Ragnarok.

  27. This is an interesting idea – the separation and overlap of genre from theme – but I’m not sure each of the arguments are actually made. For example, certainly Doctor Strange and the Thor movies have elements from fantasy stories but do they fit the fantasy genre. Fantasy stories, in my mind, have other things in common than mythology, magic, and elves. The idea of the “quest” that the main characters are on. The fact that we’re usually following more than one character, typically on the quest together. And these characters very often embody or just symbolize certain “stereotypes” or qualities to the extent that they are almost no longer people but rather ideas. This is what being in a “genre” really means: a movie with a bunch of tech in it isn’t necessarily science fiction. Crime is the not the sole requirement for a crime drama.

  28. I’m a massive fan of super-hero films so thank you for this article 🙂

  29. It’s great to see segregating of super hero films, but putting them into the different genres would be quite unlikely I would think. watch a superhero film because of the action first. I mean it is a superhero movie after all! The other genres don’t even occur to me, truth be told. I loved the way you have written it placing them in the categories defined! Quite interesting!

  30. SophIsticated

    Superhero films have become more and more popular in recent years, but they would likely be more of a subgenre than their own individual subject. Perhaps eventually, if they continue to dominate the film world, they could evolve into a more unique structure of their own.

  31. The Dark Knight trilogy always seemed to me more rooted in crime film history than comic book film history. Chris Nolan cited Michael Mann’s “Heat” as one of the primary influences on “The Dark Knight,” and it’s fairly transparent.

  32. It’s fascinating to see how superhero movies have started to touch on deeper themes. Following a line of reasoning similar to what’s seen in the article, Wonder Woman alongside being a saga of empowerment, is a war movie.

  33. Interesting article, imagine if Chris Nolan did a remake of daredevil.. now that would be worth watching.

  34. I really love the variety of genres in superhero films, it really keeps the films different and interesting, rather than just being ‘another superhero film’. Marvel has done such a good job of this while still bringing together their many characters in realistic ways.

  35. mattcarlin

    I agree with of the comments previously posted. I have never viewed superhero movies to fall into a specific genre such as science fiction or fantasy. I understand they need to categorize it somehow and perhaps super hero movies do need their own genre.

  36. Really well written. Superhero movies have always been exciting to wait for and watch. Recognising genres within a genre was an insightful point of view.

  37. I think that Marvel Studios’ domination of the ‘Superhero Genre’ over the past 10 years seems to have created the precedent for grouping these films in a singular genre. The new wave of R-rated superhero films seems to be the beginning of a more segregated view of these films, and it will certainly be interesting to see whether future projects re-structure the conventions of the genre, or further integrate each film into its own seperate genre as you have displayed above.

  38. Peter Guy Blacklock

    I agree that “Superhero” is not a genre as such, its a subject matter, for these movies can come in a wide veriety of genres, whether it be scifi, fantasy, war or crime. They can be comedies or they can be action movies They can be historical, contemporary or futuristic. I personally have a love-hate relationship with “superhero” movies, mainly because so few of them actually work as films in their own right, having little to offer other than that the protagonist has superpowers. Usually these superpowers make him/her unbeatable – which imediately kills all sense of drama and/or peril – or the movies themselves have no appreciable plot, other than badguys need an ass-whupping because… well, they’re bad guys and they’re mean. Possession of superpowers does not equal character and the presence of badguys does not equal plot – I wish someone would tell the Marvel execs these facts for they especially are guilty of churning out endless cookie-cutter copies of the same movie and call them a franchise so people go in droves and pay money to see the same film again and again.

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