Superhero films can be good: A response to Ethan Hawke

One of my favourite actors, Ethan Hawke, has gone on record to argue that superhero films are overpraised, especially compared to films of auteurs such as Bergman. He puts them firmly into the category of ‘superhero films’ and argues that there are good superhero films, but anyone who tries to convince you they are objectively good films outside of this genre is just a big business trying to make money. In light of this, I decided to analyse three of the most popular superhero films that have dominated the box office in 2018, as I think they provide counter-evidence to his argument. The three highest-grossing superhero films of 2018 are as follows:

  1. Black Panther
  2. Avengers: Infinity War
  3. Incredibles 2

This has led many, like Hawke, to mourn the state of the box-office, which is being dominated by superhero films and sequels, without offering little original content. However, the popularity of these 3 films suggest that audiences have loved them because they offer original content within a tired genre. Simon Kinberg, who has worked on all the X-Men films, including genre standouts such as Logan and Deadpool argues that the success of the genre lies in “[smuggling] a different genre into the comic book movie.” When looking at the films that have succeeded this year, it seems as though Kinberg’s analysis might be right.

Take Black Panther, for example. The film tells the traditional superhero film of the young man who must take on the role of a leader whilst attempting to balance his personal life with his public duty. Ryan Coogler reinvented these storylines with his original screenplay by telling the story from a fresh new perspective and explored the current socio-political status of our world in a nuanced and innovative way. He does this largely through his 3-dimensional villain Kilmonger (Michael B Jordan) who questions the role of power and wealth in our society. Similarly, Infinity War subverted the traditional storyline of the hero defeating the villain at the end of the movie. In this movie, the villain wins. At the end, it is the villain who sits enjoying the quiet sunset after destroying the universe around him and murdering his daughter for his own gain. The ending plays out as a direct response to contemporary political events and subverts the traditional notions that superhero films are nothing but popcorn movies of little substance. Incredibles 2 already subverts the superhero genre as it is an animation. In addition to this, Brad Bird (Ratatouille, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) explores global issues through the lens of the Parr family. Larger issues of changing gender dynamics, the increasing role of technology in our lives and parent-child relationships are all considered so that an animation film about superheroes becomes a family drama.

Yes, films from the Marvel and DC universes are suffocating our cinemas throughout the year as a film from the two franchises is no longer restricted to being a summer blockbuster. Black Panther was released in February, overthrowing Lucasfilm’s hold over the winter box office with the Star Wars franchise. It is important to wonder why audiences are being drawn to these films despite their traditional role as being big-budget, escapist summer films.

The answer lies in the three highest-grossing films of the year. It is evident from the list that superhero films are not what they used to be. In a similar way to the increased popularity of horror due to auteur-driven horror hits of the last 2 years such as Get OutA Quiet Place and Hereditary, there is a thirst from audiences for reinvention of the well-tread superhero genre.

Perhaps that explains the popularity of these films; they are not confined to one specific genre. Black Panther is a story of government, corruption and colonialism. Infinity War questions to what extent will good will prevail over evil and the responsibility of the individual as part of a larger society. The Incredibles 2 is a family drama that explores the difficulties of raising a family in our ever-changing, politically and socially chaotic world. The superhero genre has even been combined with more light-hearted fare with Taika Waiti’s critically and commercially lauded entry into the Thor franchise. These films show the most effective way to reach audiences is to inject surprise and novelty into well-known genres to create more evolved and complex films to match the audiences that are watching them. Therefore, Hawke’s categorisation of these films as ‘superhero’ films is slightly reductive; these are examples of the new wave of genre-bending film and could, arguably, be viewed as good films outside of the superhero genre.


by Aleena Augustine

Aleena is a Classics graduate who splits her time between High Wycombe (just outside of London) and wherever the latest film or TV show she is bingeing is set. She enjoys watching rom-coms (they are not just a guilty pleasure), coming of age films (from John Hughes to Greta Gerwig), animated films (cries at every single one), comedies featuring a strong female ensemble (thank you, Bridesmaids) and psychological thrillers (BONUS if they’re directed by David Fincher). Her favourite films are Before Sunrise, Inside Out, Zodiac and When Harry Met Sally. You can also find her on her blog, That’s What She Said and as a contributor for the music blog, Music Bloggery.

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