Spandex, spandex, spandex: The 21st century superhero movie

A look at why the genre reigns supreme

Every time you go to the cinema, you find that each film fits into one of the following: romantic comedy, love story, drama, Academy Award contender, great-special-effects-but-awful, yet-another-zombie-apocalypse, and everyone’s favourite…the let’s-be-original-superhero-movie. The cape and tights genre specifically dominates not only our screens but our culture, making acne-covered teens scream in delight and producers see dollars signs in shining lights.

Some of the best and most memorable movies of the past decade have featured a spandex clad protagonist, including: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 movies, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, the majority of the X-Men franchise, Matthew Vaughan’s Kick-Ass, and the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date.

Likewise, some of the worst should-have-been-left-on the-cutting-room-floor movies plague this popular genre, and include an almost-too-awful-to-exist Daredevil, a not-really-worth-it Green Hornet, a horribly misfiring Green Lantern, two forgettable Fantastic 4s, a snooze-inducing Superman Returns, and franchise spoilers X-Men: The Last Stand and Spider-Man 3.

The secret to the ‘spandex’ genres success is that each movie lives and dies according to three main factors (not including impossible-to-conceive budgets) which are:

  • Fan Service! Not too much of a surprise, fans want to watch the heroes they grew up reading about on the big screen. They want to drool as Tony Stark parades around in his Iron Man armour, stare as the Hulk rampages through New York, and cheer in triumph as Batman punches a useless lackey in the face. They don’t want to waste three hours watching a panel-by-panel adaptation of Watchmen (when they can read the graphic novel at home) or watch a cynical, grim and gritty Man of Steel because hope and optimism aren’t ‘in’ anymore.
  • Pretty Faces! No mainstream movie includes a single actor who could be called ‘average looking’; even the extras appear to have been placed on specialist diets and gym regimes. One of the only ‘spandex’ actors who could pass for an average man on the street would be Spider-Man actor Tobey Maguire, who in the Amazing Spider-Man was replaced by the much more common ‘spandex’ actor with abs-that-have-abs, in Andrew Garfield. There simply seems to be no place in superhero universes for actors who do not resemble ‘Abercrombie and Fitch’ or ‘Vogue’ models.
  • Seen-It-Before Structure! Each superhero movie shares structural similarities and some are identical twins, triplets, quadruplets, how-many-more-times-do-I-have-to-watch-the-same-movieplets. Movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe specifically all end the same…with a big climatic battle, followed by a brief pat on the back for a job well done conclusion. Before that, the hero undergoes the same character arc each time: the hero is confident with their identity, something happens to question this confidence, the hero questions himself, the hero overcomes his foils, the hero returns to the status quo at the beginning of the movie. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
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