Beginner’s Guide To… Superhero films


by Vicky Fryer

Ben, a geek who is hopelessly awkward with girls, really doesn’t seem the world-saving type; that is, until one fateful day when he gains fantastic abilities through Science (biological, technological, or unspecified other). At first he’s happy just having fun with these new powers, but then a tragic event occurs, making him realise they must be used for good. Meanwhile, an acquaintance of Ben’s, the American executive/cultured Brit Mr Steinborn, acquires similar powers and decides to pursue a more `evil` course. The two face each other, with the world in the balance, and at the last moment Ben triumphs – not just because he pushes his powers to the limit, but also because of his heart. Steinborn is vanquished – arrested or killed by irony – and Julie, the love of his life, falls into Ben’s arms. As the music swells triumphantly, Ben states this story’s moral as he poses heroically in costume, but the fight against evil is far from over…

Welcome to the insane world of superheroes, where terrible accidents grant superhuman strength, nothing represents justice quite like a costume, and for every hero there are several villains with a very different perspective on power. Special effects and spandex are all the rage, alongside angst, romance, moral issues, and a few jokes.

Superhero movies began with Superman (“You will believe a man can fly”) in 1978, but since the series, along with its darker successor Batman, declined spectacularly, they only became a familiar presence last decade with X-Men and Spider-Man. Plots actually dwell on the limits of power, as after the first set-pieces the hero encounters more complex issues than showing off. Their focus is generally the importance of being human – free will, emotional strength, refusing to give up – rather than having powers, so that these films take on an epic quality beyond being two hours of glee and pretty effects (although, wonderfully, they can be both).

With the Avengers team-up on the horizon – a culmination of this genre in a manner worthy of, well, a superhero film – superheroes are stronger now than ever before. Nothing could be more appropriate, really.

Superman (1978)

Batman (1989)

Spider-Man (2002)

X-Men 2 (2003)

The Incredibles (2004)

Batman Begins (2005)

Iron Man (2008)

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