The Life Stages of The Modern Superhero Movie
Superhero movies have become the lifeblood of the entertainment industry. But even more importantly, they've become a sort of trusted friend. Better than a trusted friend, even, because there's zero chance Hulk will ruin your weekend by asking you to help him move. Which makes us wonder if it's possible that the modern superhero movie has grown and evolved in the same way a person has. Has the genre hit certain life stages as it's progressed over time, the way human beings do? Keep in mind, we're only tracking the development of the modern superhero film, not counting, say, the original Superman or Batman, or that time Alec Baldwin battled gangsters wearing a floppy hat and a rubber nose.
Most people trace the contemporary comic book movie renaissance to X-Men in 2000. We're introduced to the world of the X-Men mostly through the eyes of the teenage Rogue, who runs away from home and takes off with a disheveled drifter who lives in a filthy trailer. Amazingly, this paves the way for a bunch of wacky adventures instead of Amber Alerts and a Lifetime movie.
The point is the superhero movie began in a state of adolescence. Not only do we view much of the story through a teenager's eyes, but most of X-Men takes place at a school -- albeit one where the students learn history in a giant solarium, and the teachers occasionally ditch class to don black leather jumpsuits and fight toad men.
The next movie to take a crack at an iconic superhero franchise, 2002's Spider-Man, similarly dealt with teenage angst in a high school setting, and had a somewhat unsubtle puberty allegory to boot. Peter Parker actually gets to graduate, symbolizing our transition to the next stage: college freshman awkwardness. There, you get to embark on great traditions like ...
Questionable fashion choices and embarrassing musical taste:
Or excess drinking affecting the quality of assignments:
Once that goofy transition was navigated, it was time to get molded into a semi-serious (and semi-up-your-own-butt) college student, best exemplified in 2008's The Dark Knight. Sure, it's a great movie, but you have to admit that its musings on anarchy and the perils of the surveillance state wouldn't seem out of place in a smoke-filled dorm room.
That same year found Marvel launching its cinematic universe with Iron Man, which similarly raged against the George W. Bush machine. It also featured another college staple: ill-conceived facial hair experiments.
After the independence of the college years, you need to go out into the world and get a job. That's basically what The Avengers is all about -- going to work for a giant company, honing your skills for no pay, and learning to get along with your irritating co-workers.
After a few years, you realize that your job sucks and you've been wasting your time working for some crappy organization that does more harm than good. In Captain America's case, this means discovering he's been busting his ass for actual goddamn Nazis. At least his grizzled, eye-patch-wearing regional manager wasn't in on it.
Once you reach middle age, your children mature and grow to resent you. Avengers: Age Of Ultron plays out a warped version of this, but in Tony's case, his rebellious offspring is a giant robot with the voice of James Spader. And in its most "desperate 40-year-old dude" move possible, Marvel circled back around to the teenage Spider-Man, essentially the cinematic equivalent of hanging out in your old high school parking lot telling kids about how you used to go there.
Once the midlife crisis had passed, the superhero movie seemingly moved into a sort of joyous "I don't even give a crap anymore" phase. The once-stately Thor franchise let loose with the psychedelic hedonism of Ragnarok. And then there was, well, whatever was happening in Aquaman. No, your theater didn't have a gas leak, there were actually scenes featuring dudes riding sharks and giant seahorses, plus a drumming octopus, and it was glorious.
Most recently, Marvel moved into its golden years with Infinity War and Endgame, both of which are focused on mortality. Infinity War ends with the Avengers helplessly watching their friends pass away. Endgame grapples with the dilemma of how to live your life after that. Minus the superpowers and magic jewelry, this is pretty much what life is like for seniors.
If that weren't enough, the finale of Endgame finds (SPOILERS) Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, arguably the heart and soul of the MCU, dying and becoming an old man, respectively. Hopefully those fancy 4DX theaters pumped in the scent of lint-covered hard candy and arthritis cream when Captain America showed up in grandpa mode.
So now that the superhero movie has arguably lived through a full human life cycle, what's next? Are we just supposed to sit back in our seats and watch as the lingering franchises play out their plot points and die off one by one? No. Absolutely not. Because if there's one thing we've learned about superhero movies ...
... it's that they believe in reincarnation.
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