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  • Writer's pictureKevin Mowrer

The Missing Superhero Imperative

We seem to be in a moment where the audience is suffering from superhero exhaustion. That may be partly true. An over-eagerness to keep pushing the rinse-and-repeat button because why not? The only thing better than a profitable success, is more of that same profitable success. It works to chase what works...until it doesn’t. At some point, your audience rolls their eyes and internally complain to themselves. “Again? Really? Did not need that.”

There is also something else that is responsible for the general decline of superhero property commercial success, and presently, it is largely being overlooked.

Superheroes have a very clear human storytelling reason for existing. They are an expression of our collective, human need to overcome something that we’re facing. Something that is relevant to the times were in, and often is a challenge or threat that we feel we have little or no control over. The superhero is the character embodiment of the specific set of powers and skills we need to fight that challenge. This can be metaphorical or actual, but either way, we use superheroes to emotionally take back control from something that is worrying us all.

We imagine ourselves having that power, in effect, inhabiting the hero. When done well, it’s extremely powerful for the audience, sometimes entering part of the audience’s moral and belief structure, turning them into lifelong fans of that superhero.

This requires that somewhere, early in the process of working on any superhero entertainment, that decisionmakers engage in profound discussions about what that hero represents. Asking the tough questions about relevance and the hero’s usefulness to the audience is not easy, especially when a big name has a vision for the project, but it is what makes the difference between lackluster performance and enthusiastic fandom.

There are so many ways that cracking profound relevance can get sidelined. It is easy to get lost in mining a library and looking for which hero is up next. That is not to say that updating an existing hero in ways that create modern relevance doesn’t work. It does. Sometimes spectacularly. Batman is a terrific example. He operates on the razors edge between law and criminality. He is outside of the law yet held to his own deeply moral need to protect. That is timeless, would yellow and age if it weren’t updated frequently. In the age we are in, the audience’s trust in governmental institutions is declining. Batman is relevant.

Compare this to the on again/off again success of superman. Mid-20th-century, superman was truth, justice, and the American way. Well, that just isn’t going to work today. What we’re left with is a god. Someone all-powerful yet, somehow, a nice guy...mostly. He gets teed up against all manner of invaders, most of whom I can’t tell why they should be considered topical or relevant. See the challenge? Lacks imperative. (Don’t get me started on how power creep undermines relatability of the stakes and the hero).

In closing, I will admit that rolling up to the release of The Marvels, I have struggled with seeing what the imperative is. Good characters, but what have they been created to face off against that turns them into ideas that most of us really need and want at this moment in time? There are character beats there that make them current but the overall idea...?

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