Superhero movies are dominating the box office. Even adjusted for inflation, “Avengers Endgame” is the highest-grossing film in history. This is after the internet started grumbling about superhero fatigue. Despite the fact that Marvel has been making movies that follow a pretty specific formula, the fact is they’ve discovered what works.
Marvel knows the superhero genre is silly by nature. They embrace the silly and audiences can’t get enough. Meanwhile, in the wake of the wildly successful Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, DC can’t seem to give up on the deadly-serious tone — and it never seems to work.
The last thirty years is littered with bad superhero movies that take themselves way too seriously. DC’s post-Nolan Batman/Superman movies are the most recent examples.
Where’s the comic relief?
Gritty realism often works for Batman movies because Bruce Wayne isn’t an over-the-top superhero. That is, he has no superpowers. He’s a super-smart billionaire vigilante. Nolan’s Batman movies convince us that what we’re seeing could have really happened.
Things only got wackier with “Justice League,” but the tone was just as serious.
But the post-Nolan Batman films — “Batman v Superman,” “Justice League” — try to keep that gritty realism while going way over the top with the plot; they had to if Superman was going to be involved. Kryptonite, invisible aliens and mech-battles are all major plot devices; but don’t forget, this is serious business folks! Things only got wackier with “Justice League,” but the tone was just as serious.
Ang Lee’s “Hulk” had a different problem. The movie had an interesting take on the Hulk character, pitting him against his own father as the main antagonist. The film culminated in a scene that is certainly dramatic — maybe even tear-jerking. Despite having a more dramatic depth than your average superhero movie, “Hulk” is remembered as a stinker because audiences didn’t get enough “Hulk Smash!” moments.
Meanwhile, the latest examples of great superhero movies embrace the silly and turn it to 11. The entire Avengers series does this. In fact, the first Avengers film is almost as much a comedy as it is an action flick. The same is true of both Deadpool films. “Black Panther” carries some real social commentary while also embracing extravagant set pieces and the occasional side-splitting dialog.
Exceptions that prove the rule
This doesn’t mean superhero movies can’t take themselves seriously and still be good, nor does it mean silly superhero movies can’t be bad. Nolan’s Batman films were all fantastic — a result of a genius director and a low-fantasy hero. Joel Schumacher’s “Batman and Robin” was a disaster and one of the silliest superhero movies in recent memory, but nothing can make up for a bad script.
Superhero movies, especially those with more outlandish heroes, should be part action movie and part comedy, all the while being full of spectacle. Their filmmakers would be wise to remember these characters were created to entertain children. Even though they appeal to audiences who’ve followed them into adulthood, superhero movies should take viewers back to their childhoods while appealing to a new generation of superhero fans who prefer their entertainment to be more on the silly side.