From Foe to Fan: Why Superhero Movies Are So Popular

I was 17 years old when I saw my first superhero movie ever, Iron Man. This took some convincing—even though I had never seen a superhero movie before, I had developed an extreme dislike for the genre.

I couldn’t understand the appeal of watching costumed crime-fighters run around a city for two hours, and I had serious doubts about the intelligence of people who enjoyed that sort of thing—especially because some of the fans even went so far as to dress up as their favorite superhero for movie premieres and other events.

However, a friend soon pointed out the hypocrisy of my actions. “Just go see one superhero movie,” she said. “At least if you hate it, it will be an informed hatred.”

I reluctantly agreed, arriving at the movie theater two weeks after Iron Man’s opening day with every intention of gathering evidence to support my negative stance. I handed my ticket to the attendant and walked down the dark hallway to the theater, my steps soundless against the brightly-colored carpet. Inside the theater, the air crackled with excitement.

In the front row, a girl with blue hair spoke animatedly to her boyfriend, gesturing wildly as they discussed possible plot points. A few rows behind them, a young boy bounced up and down in his seat and attempted to shove a handful of popcorn through the mouth slit in his plastic Iron Man mask. I headed to the back where only a handful of seats remained and took my place next to a college-aged boy wearing a red and gold t-shirt.

The lights dimmed, sending a wave of anticipation over the eager moviegoers, and from that moment on, I was swept into the story along with everyone else. We watched, terrified, as Tony was captured, and we wept when Yinsen died to save him. We cheered when the suit of armor took flight for the first time, and we wore captivated smiles when Tony and Pepper danced together. We gasped out of betrayal when Stane was revealed to be the villain, and we gripped our armrests when he ripped the arc reactor from Tony’s chest.

By the time the movie ended, we had fully immersed ourselves into the world created for us. We gathered up our empty popcorn bags and soda cups with the words “I am Iron Man” ringing in our ears and stepped out into the sunlight, feeling slightly disoriented at our jarring return to reality. Thoroughly inducted into the fanbase, I let the high of that movie carry me through to the release of the next superhero movie. And the next, and the next…

My years of skepticism had crumbled because of a single movie. Like many others, I was captivated by the superhero genre, and I joined the ever-growing wave of consumers who keep the multi-billion-dollar industry going strong.

Despite the huge number of pre-existing films in the genre, more and more are produced every year, each one making more money than the last. In fact, according to Business Insider, four out of ten of the highest-grossing movies of all time at the global box office are superhero movies. Avengers: Infinity War ranks in fifth place ($1.671 billion), with The Avengers right behind in sixth place ($1.518 billion). Avengers: Age of Ultron takes eighth place ($1.405 billion), and Black Panther follows with a solid ninth place ($1.342 billion).

Ultimately, the numbers are staggering, and given the undying popularity of superhero movies, even more of them will likely be claiming spots on the list. In this regard, what is it about them that captures the heart of even the most hardened movie critics and compels them to return time and time again?

Superhero movies are, first and foremost, a wonderful source of entertainment—a way for us to escape the stress, worries, and responsibilities of our everyday lives, at least for a couple of hours. Directors have concocted the perfect formula of action, emotion, humor, and romance to hold the interest of a diverse audience, so each movie has something for everyone. Additionally, technology has improved dramatically over the years, allowing each new movie to show off better costumes, more believable fight sequences, and increasingly impressive special effects. On top of all that, the superhero is a universal concept, so superhero movies are easy to market around the world.

But, there’s a deeper reason superhero movies are so popular, and it stems from the character and emotions of the superheroes. The movies allow us to look past the special effects and witty one-liners to see the humanity behind the masks. Superheroes are not aloof or untouchable; they’re not distant paragons of strength and virtue that we can never hope to reach. Rather, they’re the ordinary turned extraordinary—something that all of us secretly (or not-so-secretly) hope for ourselves.

Superheroes are a physical manifestation of our ideals and values. They represent the qualities we admire and the character traits we wish to see in both ourselves and others.

Iron Man’s intelligence and wit, Wonder Woman’s love and strength, and Captain America’s patriotism and determination are just some of the qualities we value. In a way, superheroes are the best versions of ourselves. In their form-fitting suits and ability to overcome even the most impossible circumstances, they’re everything we dare to dream about and everything we hope to be. They inspire us to be better, to be more, to cultivate those qualities within ourselves until they flourish and overshadow all the weaknesses and doubts that creep up inside of us.

In troubled times, we look for heroes to protect, save, and guide us. We want trustworthy, capable people to look up to, and superheroes are the perfect people to tackle global issues. Captain America: The Winter Soldier  features government corruption. Avengers: Age of Ultron deals with artificial intelligence. Black Panther addresses the tension between cultures. The movies teach us moral lessons and offer us new viewpoints. We’re often more open to exploring new ideas through the lens of fiction, and while superhero movies are fictional, they certainly contain important truths.

We get to watch the heroes come up with creative, thoughtful, and often noble solutions to their problems, inspiring us to always keep looking for solutions to our own problems, even when it seems like there is no possible answer. Our only limit is our imagination.

But, if superheroes were perfect, they’d be boring and unbelievable. Thankfully, superhero movies depict flawed heroes who, for all their powers, wrestle with some of the same situations that we as humans go through on a daily basis. For example, every superhero has a kryptonite (literal or metaphorical). They struggle not only with outer foes but with inner demons, and this is something every person in the world can relate to.

Additionally, superhero origin stories touch on key themes or situations that everyone has experienced in some way. For instance, Batman lost his parents, Captain America was bullied, and Iron Man has panic attacks. It gives us hope to see that, although even superheroes can be broken, they pick themselves back up and allow those experiences to mold them into better, stronger people with renewed focus.

We get to see them prevail against impossible odds, and in doing so, give us some of the tools that we need to overcome our own battles.

One of the best things about superheroes is that we will never be without them. Their stories never end—there will always be more bad guys and more threats to the world that require superhuman assistance. And that’s what it all boils down to: life is discouraging sometimes, and the world can seem like a hopeless place, but superhero movies give us the reassurance of clearly defined sides of good versus evil and the promise that good will always triumph in the end.  

When Iron Man ended on that day ten years ago, we all left to go our separate ways. Each of us was different, but inside the soundproof walls of theater number four, squeezed into scratchy red seats with our faces illuminated by the glow of the screen, those differences melted away, and we came together. For a short time (still somehow long enough to completely transform my feelings for the genre), we were all the same.

In superheroes, we see ourselves. There’s always a part of us that never truly grows up—an inner child that would give anything to soar through the air like Superman or crash through a building like the Hulk—and when we watch a superhero movie, that dream is right in front of us, so close that we can almost touch it. We can almost believe it is us on the screen. And so we keep watching, hoping that, someday, we will break through that screen and emerge as heroes ourselves, standing tall and strong with determined eyes shining in masked faces. Perhaps we crashed to earth in a spaceship or were bitten by a radioactive spider. Perhaps we, too, can save the world.

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I’m a writing major at Grand Valley State University. Creative writing is my passion–although I also enjoy professional writing and copywriting–and I will defend the Oxford comma to the death. When I’m not writing, I’m re-reading Harry Potter for the hundredth time, searching for new ice cream parlors to try, playing the flute and piano, or watching the Food Network (and sometimes doing a little baking of my own).

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From Foe to Fan: Why Superhero Movies Are So Popular

I was 17 years old when I saw my first superhero movie ever, Iron Man. This took some convincing—even though I had never seen a superhero movie before, I had developed an extreme dislike for the genre.

I couldn’t understand the appeal of watching costumed crime-fighters run around a city for two hours, and I had serious doubts about the intelligence of people who enjoyed that sort of thing—especially because some of the fans even went so far as to dress up as their favorite superhero for movie premieres and other events.

However, a friend soon pointed out the hypocrisy of my actions. “Just go see one superhero movie,” she said. “At least if you hate it, it will be an informed hatred.”

I reluctantly agreed, arriving at the movie theater two weeks after Iron Man’s opening day with every intention of gathering evidence to support my negative stance. I handed my ticket to the attendant and walked down the dark hallway to the theater, my steps soundless against the brightly-colored carpet. Inside the theater, the air crackled with excitement.

In the front row, a girl with blue hair spoke animatedly to her boyfriend, gesturing wildly as they discussed possible plot points. A few rows behind them, a young boy bounced up and down in his seat and attempted to shove a handful of popcorn through the mouth slit in his plastic Iron Man mask. I headed to the back where only a handful of seats remained and took my place next to a college-aged boy wearing a red and gold t-shirt.

The lights dimmed, sending a wave of anticipation over the eager moviegoers, and from that moment on, I was swept into the story along with everyone else. We watched, terrified, as Tony was captured, and we wept when Yinsen died to save him. We cheered when the suit of armor took flight for the first time, and we wore captivated smiles when Tony and Pepper danced together. We gasped out of betrayal when Stane was revealed to be the villain, and we gripped our armrests when he ripped the arc reactor from Tony’s chest.

By the time the movie ended, we had fully immersed ourselves into the world created for us. We gathered up our empty popcorn bags and soda cups with the words “I am Iron Man” ringing in our ears and stepped out into the sunlight, feeling slightly disoriented at our jarring return to reality. Thoroughly inducted into the fanbase, I let the high of that movie carry me through to the release of the next superhero movie. And the next, and the next…

My years of skepticism had crumbled because of a single movie. Like many others, I was captivated by the superhero genre, and I joined the ever-growing wave of consumers who keep the multi-billion-dollar industry going strong.

Despite the huge number of pre-existing films in the genre, more and more are produced every year, each one making more money than the last. In fact, according to Business Insider, four out of ten of the highest-grossing movies of all time at the global box office are superhero movies. Avengers: Infinity War ranks in fifth place ($1.671 billion), with The Avengers right behind in sixth place ($1.518 billion). Avengers: Age of Ultron takes eighth place ($1.405 billion), and Black Panther follows with a solid ninth place ($1.342 billion).

Ultimately, the numbers are staggering, and given the undying popularity of superhero movies, even more of them will likely be claiming spots on the list. In this regard, what is it about them that captures the heart of even the most hardened movie critics and compels them to return time and time again?

Superhero movies are, first and foremost, a wonderful source of entertainment—a way for us to escape the stress, worries, and responsibilities of our everyday lives, at least for a couple of hours. Directors have concocted the perfect formula of action, emotion, humor, and romance to hold the interest of a diverse audience, so each movie has something for everyone. Additionally, technology has improved dramatically over the years, allowing each new movie to show off better costumes, more believable fight sequences, and increasingly impressive special effects. On top of all that, the superhero is a universal concept, so superhero movies are easy to market around the world.

But, there’s a deeper reason superhero movies are so popular, and it stems from the character and emotions of the superheroes. The movies allow us to look past the special effects and witty one-liners to see the humanity behind the masks. Superheroes are not aloof or untouchable; they’re not distant paragons of strength and virtue that we can never hope to reach. Rather, they’re the ordinary turned extraordinary—something that all of us secretly (or not-so-secretly) hope for ourselves.

Superheroes are a physical manifestation of our ideals and values. They represent the qualities we admire and the character traits we wish to see in both ourselves and others.

Iron Man’s intelligence and wit, Wonder Woman’s love and strength, and Captain America’s patriotism and determination are just some of the qualities we value. In a way, superheroes are the best versions of ourselves. In their form-fitting suits and ability to overcome even the most impossible circumstances, they’re everything we dare to dream about and everything we hope to be. They inspire us to be better, to be more, to cultivate those qualities within ourselves until they flourish and overshadow all the weaknesses and doubts that creep up inside of us.

In troubled times, we look for heroes to protect, save, and guide us. We want trustworthy, capable people to look up to, and superheroes are the perfect people to tackle global issues. Captain America: The Winter Soldier  features government corruption. Avengers: Age of Ultron deals with artificial intelligence. Black Panther addresses the tension between cultures. The movies teach us moral lessons and offer us new viewpoints. We’re often more open to exploring new ideas through the lens of fiction, and while superhero movies are fictional, they certainly contain important truths.

We get to watch the heroes come up with creative, thoughtful, and often noble solutions to their problems, inspiring us to always keep looking for solutions to our own problems, even when it seems like there is no possible answer. Our only limit is our imagination.

But, if superheroes were perfect, they’d be boring and unbelievable. Thankfully, superhero movies depict flawed heroes who, for all their powers, wrestle with some of the same situations that we as humans go through on a daily basis. For example, every superhero has a kryptonite (literal or metaphorical). They struggle not only with outer foes but with inner demons, and this is something every person in the world can relate to.

Additionally, superhero origin stories touch on key themes or situations that everyone has experienced in some way. For instance, Batman lost his parents, Captain America was bullied, and Iron Man has panic attacks. It gives us hope to see that, although even superheroes can be broken, they pick themselves back up and allow those experiences to mold them into better, stronger people with renewed focus.

We get to see them prevail against impossible odds, and in doing so, give us some of the tools that we need to overcome our own battles.

One of the best things about superheroes is that we will never be without them. Their stories never end—there will always be more bad guys and more threats to the world that require superhuman assistance. And that’s what it all boils down to: life is discouraging sometimes, and the world can seem like a hopeless place, but superhero movies give us the reassurance of clearly defined sides of good versus evil and the promise that good will always triumph in the end.  

When Iron Man ended on that day ten years ago, we all left to go our separate ways. Each of us was different, but inside the soundproof walls of theater number four, squeezed into scratchy red seats with our faces illuminated by the glow of the screen, those differences melted away, and we came together. For a short time (still somehow long enough to completely transform my feelings for the genre), we were all the same.

In superheroes, we see ourselves. There’s always a part of us that never truly grows up—an inner child that would give anything to soar through the air like Superman or crash through a building like the Hulk—and when we watch a superhero movie, that dream is right in front of us, so close that we can almost touch it. We can almost believe it is us on the screen. And so we keep watching, hoping that, someday, we will break through that screen and emerge as heroes ourselves, standing tall and strong with determined eyes shining in masked faces. Perhaps we crashed to earth in a spaceship or were bitten by a radioactive spider. Perhaps we, too, can save the world.

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