Defending Superhero Movies -- Even the Bad Ones

In a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, critic Owen Gleiberman annoyed me (not the first time) with a misguided rant against the superhero movie genre.  His article, "How Many Superheroes Is Too Many?" did not really offer much substance beyond reminding everyone that there were a lot of comic-book-based films this year (if you count less than ten out of hundreds of motion pictures released in 2011 so far as "a lot") and reinforcing my belief that he is biased against fantasy and science fiction films.  As I commented to EW in my retort, why not complain about the over-abundance of generic romantic comedies or the neverending string of animated family movies with talking animals?  Why should superhero films be singled out and held to a different standard than other genres?

In the past, would Gleiberman have voiced similar disdain for too many Westerns or too many Musicals?  Superhero movies are more diverse and creative than other genres, such as slasher horror films or buddy cop adventures.  If we look at the superhero movies of this summer alone, it is clear evidence that the genre is not a one-size fits all template -- Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern, Captain America are all different in tone, structure, characters, and execution. 

A genre should not be judged by the quantity of its films, but by the quality.  Even then, if 99% of a genre is crap, there could be 1% of greatness, which would redeem the existence of the entire category (for example, gross out comedies or coming of age films).  While there has been much celuloid dung in the superhero field (Jonah Hex, Catwoman, Batman and Robin, Elektra, the Fantastic Four movies, etc.), there are many diamonds among the coals.  Superman: The Movie, The Dark Knight, X2: X-Men United, Iron Man, Blade 2, and many others were great not just as "superhero flicks" but as good movies that rose above their genre. 

When can we say that there are too many superheroes?  The answer is: when audiences grow tired of them.  As long as filmmakers treat the material with respect, whether for humor, action, metaphoric symbolism, or any other goal, they will likely achieve some level of success and connect with the fanbase.  In my opinion, the superhero genre is more than just a fad, it is a legitimate genre that is here to stay, like space operas, action thrillers, or even talky, pretentious dramas. 

If superhero films ever fade from popularity, they will not disappear forever.  Like the Western or the sword-and-sandals epic, whose heyday may be long gone, but who nevertheless continue to pop up every once in a while with new gems, superhero flicks will continue to surprise and delight us. 

Other fans, apparently, took issue with Gleiberman's essay too and joined me in "passionately" defending superhero stories.  As one example, Bryan and Galina Sowder wrote, "Why not point to the excess of all the other genres this summer?"

Gleiberman might be tired of any movie with a superhero in it, but the rest of us know that it depends on the movie.  The upcoming Amazing Spider-man, Man of Steel, Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, and all the rest might turn out to be brilliant or major disappointments, but their merits and demerits will lie in their quality, judged by the same criteria as all other movie genres.