Essays

Editorial: Is the Iraq War Propelling the Superhero Film Phenomenon?

Based on our cultural history, box office numbers, and the self-evident explosion of superhero films that’s taken place since 2003, it seems clear that The Iraq War is a major factor in one of the largest business trends in recent Hollywood history.
By  · Published on September 11th, 2008

Without stating directly that the Iraq War is the sole cause for a boon in superhero films, based on our American cultural history, box office numbers, and the self-evident explosion of superhero films that took place after the war began, it seems clear that it’s a major factor in one of the largest business trends in recent Hollywood history.

In 1938, a man was sent from a distant planet in order to protect the people of this earth against the waves of evil that were crashing down all around us. His now-legendary red and blue tights sparked a revolution in story-telling that’s only intensified over seventy years. It’s no secret that while Shuster and Siegel’s character impacted popular culture, it’s also been noted that the historical environment – especially those of organized crime and World War II – had a strong impact on Superman as well. It’s no surprise that at a time of economic distress, black market violence and the looming, inevitable war people needed a hero.

Two things seem clear in our current age: 1) With economic distress, a popular culture that instills the fear of crime in us, and two wars with no end in sight, we still need a hero and 2) Thanks to the movie industry, we have plenty.

The cultural catalyst of Superman sparked a movement that has become a massive, billion-dollar empire that stretches beyond the box-lined pages of comics. Comic Superheroes launched into films almost immediately with The Adventures of Captain Marvel in 1941 and serials featuring fan favorites like Batman, The Phantom, and the Man of Steel himself. The trend limped along into the 60s with the theatrical Batman adaptation of the television show, and then grew in the 1980s (alongside the comic book re-invigoration) with Tim Burton’s Batman movies, the Superman franchise which spun off a Supergirl movie, and darker characters like Dick Tracy and The Shadow.

However, the true explosion of comic-book superhero movies has only come recently. Beginning with X-Men in 2000, whose success was a strong incentive to other movie studios, we’ve had the pleasure of seeing twenty-one comic book-based, superhero movies with twelve more slated within the next three years. This summer alone saw the release of three major superhero films – one of which quickly broke a fistful of records to become the 2nd highest grossing film of all time. Basically, even if Howard the Duck is considered a comic-based, superhero movie, more superhero movies have been made and released since the start of the Iraq War in early 2003 than in all the years prior combined.

Whether that’s due to the popularity of the medium or the age range of adults who grew up with comic books lending itself to higher ticket sales is difficult to tell. Both factors, as well as many others, have a hand in creating this phenomenon. However, I would argue that our being at war (two of them currently) is one of those major factors.

There are two ways of viewing the trend of superhero films over the past 67 years. One – as a sporadic fad, fading in and out of popularity every few years. Two – as a slowly growing trend that has gained in momentum since the beginning with drought years from time to time. Either way, one can’t deny the explosive rate at which their popularity has grown since 2003. This may be a coincidence, but at the very least, there is a noticeable correlation between the trend and the start of the Iraq War.

It’s no surprise that the main factor in the superhero film phenomenon has been sales, but one has to question why sales have been so high. Why have these types of movies been so popular? Early films like X-Men and Spiderman were released or already in production before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the lead up to the start of the Iraq War in 2003. Clearly, the groundwork had already been laid, but it seems reasonable to assume – especially in light of the historical correlation of Superman in World War II – that war and terrorism have given audiences a new reason to fall in love with the Saviors with Super Powers.

In the 1990s, there were 6 superhero films released. There were 2-per-year in 2000, 2001, and 2002. Then, in 2003, correlating with the beginning of the war, that number jumped to 4-per-year. It then held steadily at 3 or 4 per year until this year’s 8 superhero movies scheduled for release.

Add to that the box office numbers – well over $3 billion in supercash domestically since 2003 – and its clear that a grand cultural shift took place in the United States after realizing it was going to war. As that war has continued, so has the trend. That equates to an average of $176.4 million in domestic gross per movie (with outliers on both ends) versus an average of $137 million from 1992 through the massive outlier of Spider-Man in 2002. If the date is shifted to compare releases after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the average then becomes $182.6 million vs. only $107 million during an equal time span in favor of post-9/11 superhero films. That’s a $75.6 million difference in average alone – a sign that audiences are heading in droves to superhero films, gas prices be damned.

Obviously, the numbers can be skewed a bit and only serve to further bolster the intense popularity of the re-emerging superhero film trend since 2000. It goes without saying that, as cultural trends go, it’s difficult to understand exactly why they take place or what facilitates them. However, the correlation in timing between the Iraq War and the superhero trend coupled with the knowledge that war was one of the primary causes of the popularity of the comic medium to begin with, make a strong case that our current military exercise is at least partially – if not mainly – responsible for the resurgence of movies with tights-wearing, super-powered heroes.

What do you think? Is the Iraq War helping to propel the popularity of Superhero films?

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