Summary

  • Superhero movies like The Dark Knight and Black Panther transcend genre boundaries and explore complex themes that delve into the human condition.
  • These films offer thought-provoking content alongside raw entertainment, addressing societal challenges and power dynamics.
  • The fear that superhero movies will compromise traditional cinema is unfounded, as cinema is constantly evolving and adapting to new storytelling forms. The superhero genre deserves recognition as a legitimate part of cinema and modern mythology.


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In modern cinema’s constantly expanding and complicated reality, superhero movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the DC Universe have stirred a contentious debate: Do they qualify as “real” cinema? Will any upcoming Marvel movies or one of the rebooted DCU line-up break the culture of cynicism? There’s an implied exclusivity to a question like that, as though a thing like art and cinema can only belong to one group or another when, in reality, art belongs to all of humanity.

This debate appears to be about film classification, but it touches upon far deeper questions of artistic merit, value, and genre categorization. The implication is that the person who not only asks this question but puts up a narrow and often slanted answer to their own question is playing favorites and not being altogether objective. Andy Warhol said it best: “Art is whatever you can get away with.” Now, let’s settle the debate once and for all.

Related: 10 Best Superhero Movies Of All Time


Why The Argument Against Super Movies Having Cinematic Merit Still Happens

Like any good genre fiction, when a formula for success is found, the temptation to use that formula beyond its value is inevitable. But despite some cynicism, formulas are not inherently good or bad, they are just another tool in the storytelling tool belt. The problem is in their overuse. This is just as true for movies about superheroes as it Westerns, Romances, or Horror movies. It’s not a unique situation for superhero movies, yet the slightest deviation in quality (or box office performance) lends weight to accusations of a factory-like assembly-line. Inevitably, at that point, superhero movies are pitted against the entire catalog of genres.

To be fair, this argument isn’t entirely without merit. It is an all too common weakness of superhero movies to fall into the trap of formulaic storytelling. Some of the more notable failures of the genre feel more concerned with getting the blend right according to the recipe and not the needs of the story itself. But what appears to be mechanical to a casual viewer is, simultaneously, well-known to the loyal audience who never misses a movie in the MCU or from DC. Even as accusations of mundane similarity appear, there is, somewhat jarringly, an expectation of sameness or brand.

“In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen. It’s a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theaters than ever. The equation has flipped and streaming has become the primary delivery system. Still, I don’t know a single filmmaker who doesn’t want to design films for the big screen, to be projected before audiences in theaters.” – Martin Scorsese

That remains true even as modern superhero movies increasingly explore the vast multiverse of possibilities with their favorite characters. There’s a comfort to the familiar, and familiarity is as much a part of a good story as any other elements that go into its recipe. The thing to be aware of is how much of the standard approach, or “how it’s always been done,” is being followed compared to how much room there is for innovation. As Scorsese said in his 2019 NYT opinion piece, as superhero movies have become more prevalent, the focus on them has increased. So too has scrutiny.

Why Superhero Movies CAN Be Cinema

Two pictures of Heath Ledgers Joker from The Dark Knight

The irony is that this same trap is what allows some superhero movies to go above and beyond genre and become something else entirely. Take Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, which is easily a character-driven crime drama where a few characters happen to wear masks and makeup. This movie has absolutely transcended the supposed boundaries of its genre.

Just like Star Wars embodies the Hero’s Journey, superhero movies like The Dark Knight and Black Panther break free from genre constraints to explore complex themes, moral questions that get to the heart of the human condition. They explore the challenges of how audiences can define justice, identity, and truth itself for themselves as they watch heroic (and not so heroic) figures do so on the screen in front of them. In this sense, the modern superhero movie is no different from the ancient storyteller, sharing one great myth or another, acting out every part in careful detail, and sharing ageless wisdom from one generation to the next. Our movies are our myths.

Oscar-Winning Comic Book Movies

Superman (1978)

Special Achievement Award in VFX

Batman (1989)

Best Art Direction

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Best Visual Effects

The Dark Knight (2008)

Best Supporting Actor (Heath Ledger)

Suicide Squad (2016)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Black Panther (2018)

Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, Best Production Design

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Best Animated Feature Film

Joker (2019)

Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix)

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

Oscars Cheer Moment

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

Best Costume Design

These movies do more than blow things up with action-filled sequences and superhuman battles that destroy almost everything around them. They weave together entertainment with powerful stories rich in meaning and relevance, addressing power dynamics, societal challenges, and personal responsibility in the face of it all. These films demonstrate the genre’s capacity to offer thought-provoking content alongside a visual circus of raw entertainment and pure fun, firmly establishing themselves as truly potent and significant cinematic works that, if done right, can stand the test of time just as well, if not better, than their non superhero counterparts.

Related: 10 Highest Grossing Marvel Movies Of All Time

Why The Superhero Movie Cinema Debate Is Pointless

Tom Holland as Spider-Man clutching his head in disbelief in Spider-Man: No Way Home and RObert Downey Jr as Tony Stark in Iron Man 3's post-credits scene
Tom Holland as Spider-Man clutching his head in disbelief in Spider-Man: No Way Home and RObert Downey Jr as Tony Stark in Iron Man 3’s post-credits scene

The implied worry behind the question of cinematic merit that is being asked of superhero movies is that the genre will be so successful that they will somehow compromise or overwhelm the sanctity of traditional cinema. It’s essentially a fear of progress and the evolution of story and modern mythology. It’s a fear that change is, in fact, inevitable, and traditional cinema will not be able to keep up. But this fear is unfounded.

The human story is too large to be held in just one style, one state, or genre or another.

Great art is and always will be about more than a competition of expressive forms. It’s about creativity and the human condition. The human story is too large to be held in just one style, one state, or genre or another. The human story is as diverse as the humans who tell this story, and it is a living, breathing thing constantly evolving, adapting, growing, and changing.

Modern cinema is a constantly changing and ever-expanding ecosystem of thoughts, ideas, and entertainment. Superhero-centered cinema is sometimes seen as the jigsaw puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit into the spaces afforded to it, and yet, with a little time and patience, the shapes line up just the same.

The argument against superhero and comic book movies being cinema becomes even less convincing when considering how the genre is evolving. Films like The Batman and Black Panther 2 show an increasing diversity in tone, style, and thematic depth, challenging the simplistic categorization of these movies as either good or bad cinema.

As the genre continues to develop and diversify, it’s clear that MCU and DCU movies are not just a part of cinema but a vibrant, essential component of it. With its remarkable versatility and depth, the superhero genre deserves recognition as a legitimate and significant part of cinema and the modern mythology that all great movies breathe life into, regardless of their genres.

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