This past decade saw an explosion in superhero films. With comic mainstays such as Batman, Spider-man and Superman, even lesser known ones like Daredevil, The Punisher, and Ghost Rider, seeing their films released in a span of time that needed heroes more than ever.
Spider-man centered around a teenager in Queens, who, after receiving a bite from a radioactive spider, rose to meet the pressures of doing the right thing in a tumultuous time. For many New Yorkers it was too easy to relate to a character like that. Bruce Wayne becomes a vigilante after seeing his parents shot down and Tony Stark see his business turned against him as the weapons his company manufactures are used to hold him ransom. The X-Men are a group of societal outcasts who are fighting simply for the right to exist. All of these heroes compartmentalized what we wanted to believe about ourselves. Forced into rigid circumstances we can do what's best.
For many these films represented a zeitgeist. Those who experienced a loss could on as a man dressed as a bat turned fear on those who prayed on the fearful. Alienated teens could be represented by a nerdy kid from Queens slinging webs across the city saving others or a group of mutants risking life and limb saving citizens who didn't, or refused, to understand them. Tony Stark dons the Iron Man suit in an effort to right the many wrongs of his past life. This collage of icons could ease the troubled minds of a society that had no one to look to. Politicians, athletes, musicians, when all of these former role models no longer provided an outlet fictional heroes became more popularized again. When no one else could be counted on to do the right thing moviegoers poured into theatres to watch idealized men and women save the world.
On the flip side of that is Spider-man 3, Watchmen and The Dark Knight. When Spider-man allows himself to be taken in a darker direction as a symbiote suit, his new persona slowly destroys Parker's life. 2007 saw a national malaise take over as a war no one foresaw lasting long overtook the national agenda and scandal after scandal involving our leaders only preceded to anger more Americans.
This triage of films suggested that in a society where we look for heroes, what we should do is look inside ourselves, rather than leave the gates of the city to tyrants. Watchmen focused on a band of guardians exhibiting the kind of behavior beknownst to psychopaths, fascists and mercenaries. Gone are the days of the unchecked optimism of a Captain America or a Superman. In the days following 9/11 Americans would have loved nothing more than Superman patrolling the sky saving victims from the wreckage. Unfortunately, most couldn't relate to the boy scouted-ness of two men devoted to the whims of a country that - in the eyes of some - left us unprotected. Superman Returns returned to theatres after a long period of national discord that left audiences distrustful with the prospect of a hero who is truly good. And accordingly the film failed at the box-office. It bears mentioning that with optimism in abundance after the election of our current President, a new Superman reboot was launched by Warner Bros. Perhaps the gleeming knight superhero film will make a comeback.
Batman is perhaps the most perplexing of the bunch, morally ambivalent, but still possessing morals, this is a man who stalks criminals at night, but draws the line at killing. The Dark Knight ends with Batman hated virtually by all of Gotham, yet he is still willing to continue in the hopes of saving his city. The Dark Knight also presents a conflicted Gotham that lets itself be swayed by a madman bent on revealing the identity of Batman. The duality of TDK suggests that the world is a pendulum where if a Batman exists so must be a Joker. A man consumed with setting the world ablaze, the Joker was an archetype of those in the world who were tired of the status quo and the corruption and sleaze. In his warped mind he could justify his actions as heroic. A superhero film would have never been that dark, even in the nineties.
As society progresses on, it remains to be seen whether this current trend of darker superhero films are nothing more than a momentary craze, or a lasting phenomenon due to the psychological stance of a public in desperate need to be saved.