Why Superheroes? What is it about the Superheroic genre that makes supermovies better than modern mainstream movies?
The answer is threefold.
First, older mainstream movies, such as GONE WITH THE WIND and WIZARD OF OZ did not follow the modernist and postmodernist tastes which have ruined so many recent movies. Those mentally empty and morally corrupt philosophies had not yet reached mainstream popular entertainment in those days.
So the first part of the answer is not that superhero movies grew better than normal, just that mainstream movies grew worse. This happened as nonconformists of the 1960’s and 70’s became the establishment in Hollywood. Their world view, which I here have called dehumanism, when consistently portrayed, lacks sympathy, drama, purpose, point and meaning; and therefore the films that win acclaim by accurately reflecting the dehuman world-view lose the ability to tell a tale in a dramatically satisfying way. Dehumanity and drama are mutually exclusive. More of one means less of another; and it is a rare genius who can reconcile the two.
The modern movies that most obviously defy these corroded modern conventions are deliberately nostalgic homages to serial cliffhangers: STAR WARS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. These are among the bestselling movies of all time, and they transformed the industry and the audience expectations: summer blockbuster tentpole movies spring from nostalgic roots.
Second, there have always been superhero movies, such as CAPTAIN MARVEL serial cliffhangers. Not until recently has the special effects been able to match what pen and ink portrays. The amount of suspension of disbelief needed to feel a real thrill untainted with cynicism when watching some feat of derring-do portrayed with cheesy special effects is rather high, and only small children have that much imagination to spare. We grown-ups need more realistic special effects before we will believe a man can actually fly. So technical advances, not any change in the manners and morals of the people, allow superheroics to appear on the silver screen in a fashion that they once upon a time could not.
Third, and most importantly, superhero movies, like homages to serial cliffhangers, are fundamentally nostalgic, fundamentally childlike. One of the conventions of nostalgia is that the audience is not allowed to scoff or look cynical at the simplistic purity of the drama. If someone says STAR WARS is simply too blatantly black-and-white, with its orphaned farmboy hero in a white gi, and evil warlock-knight villain in a black cape, black skull mask, black Nazi helmet, and black lung disease wheezing, that someone just does not “get” the film. The purity of the theme is not a bug, it is a feature.
The superhero movie, along with the crowd of science fiction and fantasy movies, was welcomed into the movie theaters only after STAR WARS made such genre films respectable (which it did by tallying up a respectable profit).
Now, mere nostalgia is not the selling point. GONE WITH THE WIND or MEET ME IN SAINT LOUIS or CINDERELLA MAN or SEABISCUIT are all nostalgic movies, historical period pieces taking place in periods still within living memory (at the time they were made) of the older members of the audience. No, the rise of cliffhanger serial movies and superhero movies are a particular type of nostalgia: a longing not for our childhood, but instead for the stories from serials and comics of our childhood.
And this is for the most practical and obvious reason imaginable: stories from the serials and comics of our childhood were more decent, more entertaining, and, in their simplistic way, a better reflection of the Great Tale of salvation and redemption which makes all great stories great.
Childhood tales of heroes and superheroes are not tainted with deconstructive postmodernism. Tales of heroes are about salvation, saving people in the most literal sense of the word.
John C. Wright, “Supermanity and Dehumanity (Complete)”, John C. Wright’s Journal, 2014-12-13.