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Why are superheroes so popular?

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This weekend I hope to watch X- Men: Days of Future Past, the third superhero movie released this year so far. The first was Captain America 2 (which was awesome) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (which I haven’t seen). In August we’re getting Guardians of the Galaxy (squee!) and next year we’re getting Avengers: Age of Ultron (double squee!), Fantastic Four and Antman. Not to mention last year we got The Wolverine and Thor 2 (which were awesome) with the new Superman and Iron Man 3 (I want to see Iron Man, not really interested in Superman).  This led me to think; why are superheroes so popular? In the past decade they have dominated cinema non-stop and don’t show any sign of stopping. So why do people dressed in leather and spandex provoke so much love?

Well perhaps it’s best to look at the origins of superheroes. Arguably legendary characters like Hercules were the first superheroes as he had super powers, but I’m talking about the pants-on-outside kind of superheroes even though a) hardly any heroes wear pants on the outside and, b) there is a Marvel hero called Hercules. The first superhero of the “classic” kind was the Phantom, who debuted in 1936 but the first iconic hero was the pants-on-outside guy himself: Superman, who appeared in 1938, followed by Batman in 1939. Superman was created as a character to stand up to the American way and was basically war propaganda until the 80’s when all comics got darker. Marvel’s answer to this was Captain America who appeared in 1941 and in his debut issue he did this on the front cover…

Captain America punching Hitler. Image by Rick Marshall via Flickr.

Captain America punching Hitler. Image by Rick Marshall via Flickr.

This is the first reason as to why I think superheroes became popular in the first place. In the first Captain America movie it showed a world where Captain America was a beacon of hope and he took part in many propaganda shows. This shows what an impact characters like Captain America and Superman had and were ways to tell people that America will defeat the war and inspire people to fight. There’s also the fact that in the 30’s and 40’s people hadn’t grown used to superheroes and these early heroes helped usher in others.

Another reason is that superheroes can be used to comment on society. Despite there being 5 X Men and 2 Wolverine movies, the X- Men were made in 1963 as a metaphor for the racism in America and the African-American civil rights movement. As mutants the X- Men were treated like monsters and the team’s main enemy Magneto (who is awesome) was a survivor of the Holocaust and had suffered discrimination like the mutants were going through.

Other characters also became metaphors for the real world, especially the Cold War. Iron Man and Hulk were created to comment on the threat of nuclear attack in the Cold War and one of Wonder Women’s enemies was called Egg Fu and was a Chinese Communist shaped like an egg. Don’t believe me?…

Egg Fu - image by Jamie (jbcurio) via Flickr.

Egg Fu – image by Jamie (jbcurio) via Flickr.

But what about Batman or Spider-Man? Well Batman is unique because he is the definition of a superhero without powers, as he was originally designed as a detective. Spider-Man is a teenager who turns into a superhero. People love Batman because he is so knowledgeable and strong without powers and people love Spider-Man as the majority of comic readers in the 60’s were teenagers and seeing a teenager becoming a superhero would have been very relatable.

So superheroes are used for symbols of hope, symbols of encouragement and symbols to make political statements. But what about now? Why do characters like the X-Men, Captain America and Superman continue to be popular. Some could say the X-Men movie in 2000 reinvigorated interest in the whole genre and, well, that’s kind of true. Let’s see…

5 X-Men movies + 2 Wolverine movies + 3 Spider- Man movies+ 2 Spider- Man reboot movies+ 3 Iron Man movies+ 2 Captain America movies+ 2 Thor movies+ 2 Hulk movies+ The Avengers+ 2 Superman movies+ 3 Batman movies+ 2 Fantastic Four movies+ 2 Hellboy movies+ 2 Ghost Rider movies+add whatever other superhero movies= A lot of spandex.

But if the X-Men movie wasn’t a success then superheroes wouldn’t have lasted and we certainly wouldn’t have the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Why are they still so endearing? I think it’s because the themes and ideas behind the superheroes still remain. Iron Man is still relevant because the threat of nuclear attack is still around. There are still racial problems around the world, making the X-Men still seem relevant. Children still look up to Spider-Man, Batman and Superman and the second Captain America movie dealt with the idea of a propaganda symbol like Captain America being stuck in a world with conspiracies and cover-ups, which is a concern in the real world. Superheroes are still relevant and they are still hugely popular. But is it becoming a problem with all of the movies coming out?

Well, that’s a post for another day…

UPDATE: Now I’ve seen Days of Future Past. So, review in one paragraph… go!

Days of Future Past (yes I know that title makes no sense) is set in the future where mutants are being hunted by giant robots. The surviving mutants send Wolverine back in time to the 70’s to change the future (it’s all I can reveal without spoiling). The movie is an incredibly well-made and action packed movie which is surprisingly dark and deep. It fixes the continuity flaws made by the other movies and shows some awesome new characters with interesting powers (the most awesome are Quicksilver and Blink. If you’ve seen the movie you know what I’m talking about). All the characters get at least one awesome moment, Magneto is still as awesome as ever and both the future and the past are incredibly detailed. It’s also funny and clever and manages to wrap up many story arcs. The villain is interesting as he isn’t the conventional villain and every action scene is spectacular. I recommend you see it but watch the X-Men trilogy and X-Men: First Class before you see Days of Future Past.


About Ben Williams

I am a 17 year old pop culture addict from the south of England. I write about Doctor Who, superheroes, fantasy, films and occasionally dive into the random world of British culture.

4 responses »

  1. hazel bateman

    What an interesting post! I think one reason that superheroes are so popular is that people feel helpless to change the big things that affect their lives. But we are not as powerless as we believe we are! It is a lazy mind set that causes us to wait for He-Man to save the universe when we should seek out like minded people and, with Gods help, get on and change things ourselves.

  2. Graham Williams

    Another excellent post – very thought provoking.

    I think that superheroes (or more specifically superhero films) are popular because they are pure escapism and a chance to get away from the realities and priorities of day-to-day life for a couple of hours. Superhero comic books have been popular for a long, long time for the same reason, but today’s technology makes the films more vivid and engaging than ever before and CGI allows the heroes to do things that would have been impossible to film even 20 years ago.

  3. Pingback: Guardians of the Galaxy review |

  4. Pingback: Why superheroes become popular in modern days | Visual Culture Journal

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