Defining Superhero Movies pt. 1: Time Period
Something that I haven’t done on this site in a long while is to break down some element of superhero movies in general. And I think it’s time that I revisit what I consider to be my guidelines for what it means to be a superhero movie. As you may or may not know, I don’t consider superhero movies to be a genre itself. Instead, I think of it more as a category of movies. There are a handful of elements that need to be present in some form for me to consider a movie a “superhero movie”. Not all of them need to be there, and it is a very rough set of guidelines, so there will be many movies that fall right on the line of what may or may not be a superhero movie. And for those movies, I might fall on one side of the line while different people might fall on the other side of the line. But for now, I’ll be taking on these elements one at a time starting with the time period.
Now one of the most interesting things about superhero movies is that they are not really a new concept. Heroes have been around throughout written history. War heroes, Mythological heroes, Religious heroes. But what we now think of as the modern superhero dates back to the mid 1930’s with comic book heroes like Superman and Batman among a few others who mostly faded into obscurity. Or at least, lesser popularity. In other words, the superhero can be thought of as a more modern mythology. These are the fictional heroes that are larger than life and relate to the ideals of what people strive to. They aren’t just dealing with day to day issues, but they’re dealing with the greater struggle of good against evil, evil that can’t be handled by the common man or society.
So when it comes to time period, these modern superheroes need to take place in the modern era. Going farther back in time and it becomes something different. Even starting as early as just the 19th century in the Old West with lawmen, gunslingers, and the Lone Ranger or even Zorro. They may wear a mask, but when their style of vigilantism just hasn’t quite made it to superheroism just yet. Going back to the middle ages or dark ages, it becomes a story about knights and royalty, wizards and magic, outlaws with bows and swords. Going even farther back and it goes into the Greek mythology of Gods, Demigods, and monsters. But when the heroes become superheroes, they exist in a world of skyscrapers and cars, guns and police, business and urban society. It really does come down to the life of the city where there are so many people in one place that crime cannot be handled by the police alone.
There isn’t a super specific time range that I’m looking at in my own personal criteria, but I would say somewhere along the lines of 1920’s through 2200’s. And since I am going all the way up through to the near future, it should be worth noting that there is a forward limit to the superhero concept to some extent. Of course, when it comes to sci-fi there are no absolutes, one person’s 2150 could be wildly futuristic to where it barely resembles our current present, where another person’s 3150 could have only a few differences and otherwise still resemble our society. One of the best examples for this would be Judge Dredd. It’s set in the 22nd century so it’s only 100 years ahead of our current timeline and while there are some major differences, there are still recognizable cityscapes on a much larger scale with similar societal structures. When space comes into play, that brings on a whole different set of circumstances with alien races and starships. Star Trek and Babylon 5 both take place in the 23rd century, or at least some of Star Trek does, and while there are some alien races that are superhuman, the stories covered in those series are anything but the heroics offered up by someone like the Green Lantern or the Guardians of the Galaxy. There usually has to be some tie to present day culture and society whether it’s someone pulled from the past into the future, or from present day Earth into space like a Flash Gordon. And again, there aren’t any hard and fast rules here, it often comes down to a gut feeling on how the time period is presented. It’s possible for a superhero movie to be set in ancient Egypt, the prehistoric era, or in the far flung future, but it’s much easier when it’s set in the present day, give or take a hundred years. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.