Can you remember a time when some superhero saga wasn't grabbing all the attention at the movies? As a steady supply of Marvel and DC films continues to command the multiplexes, it's easy to get blasé and forget the myriad reasons we love the genre. Three new films have been released in the last two weeks alone — Once Upon a Deadpool, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Aquaman — and there's no escaping the feeling that the dominant genre at the box office (six of the current top 10 for 2018 are major-studio super sagas) may have found its most formidable villain yet: audience apathy.
Social media debates about whether or not “superhero fatigue” is dead or alive boil over with the arrival of every new hero flick, and knee-jerk fan/troll reactions to every new trailer and box office stumble shows that, despite often-fantastic returns, the genre as a whole struggles to maintain its shiny appeal. (I was ready to take an extended break myself at the tail end of 2017 due to the incessant redundancy of the material, but the well-crafted storytelling and energy of this year's Marvel movies Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War lured me back into the fold of true believers.)
As the genre has steadily grown into a juggernaut over the past 40 years (with Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie in 1978, Tim Burton's Batman in 1989, Bryan Singer's X-Men in 2000 and Joss Whedon's The Avengers in 2012 representing the influential touchstone entries that rocked perceptions and trends in each decade), the cacophony of complaints demanding more racial diversity, less sexism and other justifiable critiques have remained at a steady, deafening level. Thankfully, the Hollywood majors are listening. They may not always be quick to respond, but the wheels of progress are turning. Bit by bit, individual projects and franchises have been demonstrating a concerted effort by their creators to be more responsive and inclusive as they catch up to source material that is often more radical and forward-thinking. The genre is also becoming acutely more meta and self-aware, if not self-conscious. You can thank Deadpool for leading the charge on that one. 2018 may go down as another touchstone year for the big-screen superhero genre in terms of woke inclusion.
In the wake of Warner Bros.' zeitgeist breakthrough with Wonder Woman at the box office last year (with Patti Jenkins at the helm), the DC Entertainment home base now has its first solo Aquaman adventure, which not only makes an effort to return more literal color to the onscreen DC palette but shows a more colorful agenda at work: Malaysian-born, Aussie director James Wan steers the ship and Jason Momoa tears it up in the title role (his mixed-race heritage includes Hawaiian, German, Irish and Native American). The film flounders in terms of storytelling risks (an origin story only slightly deeper than an episode of Super Friends) but it does represent a fin forward for DC with a renewed effort to not take its own material as seriously. DC's next superhero film on the docket, Shazam! with Zachary Levi, also promises to bring more comic-book color and humor to the mix.
Much like Batman and Superman, Spider-Man's Peter Parker has always been a white-bread role model. That successful franchise has seen its own share of struggles over the years in advancing its narrative, rebooting twice since 2012. Interestingly, Spidey's newest big-screen adventure — the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — may be one of the greatest superhero movies yet. Boasting a refreshingly multiethnic cast of characters and a storyline that opens up endless sequel possibilities, the film finds innovation by literally returning to its comic-book origins.
Directed by the trio of Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, Spider-Verse taps into the groundbreaking 2011 comic storyline that hands the mantle of responsibility to unwitting Brooklyn teen Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) after the death of Peter Parker. In Spider-Verse, Morales (whose dad is black and mom is Puerto Rican) teams up with a diverse group of supporting Spidey variants from other dimensions —Gwen Stacy (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld), Asian anime character Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), the cartoonish, anthropomorphic Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) and another grizzled, but very alive, Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) — to battle the malevolent Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). Much like that 2011 seismic shift that gave so many loyal comic-book readers a new hero who was truly like them, Spider-Verse cements the prospect to impressionable moviegoers that, as Miles says, “Anyone can wear the mask.”
Charting the meta movement, the new Once Upon a Deadpool is a toned-down, F-bomb-muted PG-13 cut of May's incredibly fun Deadpool 2, reframed with a clever conceit that has Ryan Reynolds' irreverent anti-hero reading the “King James” version of the story to a kidnapped Fred Savage in a Princess Bride bedroom setting. It's worth the price of admission for die-hard fans to listen to the pair comically deconstruct themselves and poke fun at their own product, comparing and contrasting “Disney Marvel” to “Fox Marvel” movies, for an extra-special treat that comes after the end credits.
The cape-and-Spandex genre is evolving in large part due to the vocal demands of possibly the most media-savvy audience ever assembled; they're willing to shell out upward of $25 for a 3-D IMAX experience — and instantly share their unfiltered opinions on social media. Not only do they pine for traditional escapism but they require whip-smart writing and self-reflexive material that more closely relates to their daily lives.
2018 will be remembered as the year Stan Lee died. The beloved comic-world icon, whom many have compared to Walt Disney for his depth of imagination and massive positive influence on the culture, makes a pair of posthumous curtain calls in both Spider-Verse and Once Upon a Deadpool. At the tail end of the Deadpool credits, touching interview footage shows Lee discussing his legacy. Asked how he hopes people will remember him, Lee replies, “'He wrote some really good stories.' I don't think about that much. When I'm gone, I really don't care. It doesn't do you any good when you're gone.” Set to an acoustic version of A-Ha's “Take on Me,” the tribute is capped with the icon's catchphrase, “Excelsior!” and it's mighty powerful stuff for any comic-book fan worth his salt. Who knew that the post-credit sting of the new Deadpool flick would leave not a dry eye in the house?
In Spider-Verse, Miles Morales purchases a cookie-cutter Spidey costume from a store owner, played by Lee, wondering aloud if it will fit. With a glint in his eye, Stan tells Miles knowingly, “It always fits, eventually.” In the end credits, we're left with a fitting Stan Lee quote that encapsulates his legacy and the essence of the genre itself: “That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed, without a doubt, a real superhero.”
David Weiner is a Rondo Award–winning writer who was executive editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and senior editor at ETonline before that. For fun he runs the genre pop culture site ItCameFromBlog and spends too much money on eBay trying to reclaim pieces of his childhood.