With each year delivering a fresh crop of box office-shattering superhero stories and failed cinematic universes, the media always returns to the concept of “superhero fatigue,” and when it will inevitably occur.
Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige spoke to Variety this week, and reckons that his $17.5 billion in global box office success proves the “fatiguers” wrong.
Not only has there not been the quote-unquote superhero fatigue that people have been asking me about since years before Iron Man, but here we are having our biggest year ever. Our instincts have always guided us, and the successes have always just encouraged us to keep following those instincts.
I’m pretty sure I’ve written articles about it myself, though I’m hoping said articles are long-lost in the internet ocean. But I’ve since come to realize that superhero fatigue was a silly, simplistic concept from the start.
Superhero movies are not some strange, childish trend, but the natural evolution of the traditional action film. James Bond, Ethan Hunt, and John McClane are undeniably superhuman, and become progressively more so with each film in their franchise.
Even action films rooted in “realism” like John Wick feature an impossibly skilled protagonist, because that’s what makes them so enjoyable. The grounded action film can only be so grounded, before the protagonist manages to fight off eight guys with a pencil sharpener, or whatever.
The superhero genre did not create the superhuman, but merely formalized the concept, establishing the superhuman as different due to a radioactive accident, alien ancestry, hi-tech accessories, or by obtaining a very particular set of skills through a lifetime of intense training.
Gods, aliens, mutants, spies, and super-suited soldiers can stand side-by-side in the superhero genre, and their action sequences can wallow in sheer spectacle, unconstrained by the shackles of reality. By establishing a ridiculous universe of skin-tight costumes and glowing MacGuffin space-crystals, the superhero genre allows the audience to just enjoy the fantasy, without ever saying “that’s not realistic.” At least, not without sounding like a twat.
The sullen cowboys and dirty cops are still around, but they can’t quite draw in the crowds like they used to. The “average man” protagonist seems to have lost his appeal; it’s like we all quietly admitted to ourselves that the average man can barely do a sit-up, let alone take down a terrorist organization single-handedly.
If one is going to play pretend, then one might as well do it properly, and include capes, masks, and glittery sequins. Plus, the superhero genre allows for fantasy, sci-fi and action elements to comfortably co-exist, meaning that Hawkeye can fight off an army of invading aliens with a bow and arrow, and not break the tone of the film through sheer stupidity.
As CGI steadily improves and budgets rise, action films simply had to find a way to get bigger, and incorporating the American-made mythology that already existed in superhero comics was the perfect way to do it.
I’ve always thought of the superhero genre as a close relative of the Western. Both genres feature simple conflicts between good and bad guys, who can be clearly distinguished by their appearance. Both genres are proudly American, and encourage a certain amount of patriotism, as well as pushing the notion that any problem, no matter how complex, can be resolved through violence.
As long as stories of pure-hearted individuals finding victory through brute force continue to be popular, the superhero genre will never die. The fatigue will simply not set in, unless we grow weary of bulging butts and biceps wrapped up in skin-tight Spandex.
Sexy people throwing fists is a tale as old as time, except now they shoot plasma beams and throw moons at each other.