From Superman telling children to save their scrap metal to help defeat the Nazis to Iron Man vowing to help protect the people who protect him, the superhero has become a permanent fixture of the American consciousness.
With the summer box-office success of "The Avengers" and the highly anticipated third and final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, "The Dark Knight Rises," now in theaters, superhero movies are likely to be on the marquee for quite some time.
“Most of our cultural icons are very impermanent,” says Jake Wyatt, a professional comic book writer and artist. “Aside from Mickey Mouse and certain characters from fairy tales there aren’t any lasting cultural icons.
“I would wager that not a lot of people would recognize a picture of FDR, but everyone knows the bat symbol — everyone."
With planned releases of "Iron Man 3," as well as recently announced sequels to "Thor," "Captain America," "The Avengers" and Zack Snyder’s reboot of the Superman series, "Man of Steel," one thing is for certain — not only are superhero movies popular, they are here to stay.
“It’s cool to have heroes you grew up with and that were on your underpants,” says Wyatt.
Merchandising rights aside, one of the reasons Wyatt says superhero films are doing so well is because not only are they recognizable, but they can be easily repackaged.
“Batman can be Adam West with cardboard ears and really kid friendly and campy and he can also be the dark Christopher Nolan thing,” says Wyatt. “It got popular once, and people have continued to mine that property.”
While audiences may know these characters well, familiarity is not the only way of getting people into the theater. Visuals have become a huge part of selling superhero movies. Wyatt says 50 percent of selling a superhero movie is about the visual spectacle of it all.
“Batman didn’t have any superhero powers, but they packed 'The Dark Knight' full of as many stunts, and car chases and flying scenes as they possibly could,” says Wyatt. “They do their best to compensate for Batman not being super.”
Visual spectacle has prompted an escalating race between movie franchises to see who can do awesome better.
“It’s getting harder and harder for these guys to stay on top of their game and be unique, so they end up pushing the visuals farther and farther,” says Wyatt.
But Wyatt says the race to see who can push visual boundaries has had some terrific results. He cites the recent Iron Man films, which he says are better choreographed and executed than some of the films that kicked off the superhero craze.
“If you go back and watch the first X-Men movie, the money shot was Wolverine sticking his claws in this guy ... and doing a 360 degree flip and landing on a seat after getting knocked off,” says Wyatt. “That is so hokey and just a bad idea. Things are a lot more smoothly run now because they have to be to impress."
Impressive visuals can help a film, but more and more, studios are learning visuals alone don’t always guarantee huge box office returns.
“Most people will tell you, ‘Well, I thought the effects were really cool’ or ‘Ya, the movie looked really good, but I didn’t like it,’ ” says Anthony Holden, a storyboard artist for LAIKA. “ ‘I didn’t like it’ is usually a result of ‘I didn’t care about the characters.’ ”
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