For over a decade and a half now we’ve been a part of what can be considered as a renaissance of the superhero genre. Some would argue that it began with X-Men. I think it really kicked off with Spider-Man, Batman Begins, or the first Iron Man. Regardless, all of these films were important in shaping up the superhero film and turning it into what it is today.
What is genre? I would define it as a set of tropes, a codified vocabulary that allows us to easily categorize a work for easy cataloging. Genres allow us to combine common tropes across films and say, “Yes, these are of the same category.”
But defining a genre is much more difficult than recognizing one. What makes a superhero film, for example? If it is the presence of people with superpowers, then Batman and Iron Man wouldn’t be included. Does it have to be adapted from comic books? Is it the origin story, the presence of a villain, the damsel in distress? I think you can talk of genre in the same way you can talk of a language. It is cinematic language with specific words and cues that it dispenses to provide understanding to an audience.
More importantly, when we think of genres, we also tend to think in terms of expectations. A savvy viewer of genre films tends to form ideas of what the film they’re watching would have; in effect, an understanding of the cues and language the genre has to offer. A romantic comedy usually has the protagonists be at odds with each other at first before being forced into a situation that leads them to change their minds and fall in love in the end, so you wouldn’t be faulted for expecting the same when you watch a rom-com. The same goes for all genres: superhero films usually follow some simplified version of the monomyth, although this isn’t exclusive in the superhero genre. Star Wars also arguably follows the same formula with Luke Skywalker, but the films are decidedly not in the superhero genre. Slasher horror usually follows a hapless teen protagonist who eventually becomes strong enough to overcome the serial killer.
It is because of these expectations that we tend to be surprised when things do not go the way they were intended. 500 Days of Summer ends with Tom and Summer not being together. Unforgiven takes the common tropes of the western genre and subverts it, creating a hero in Clint Eastwood that rejects the violence around him and has reviles the amorality that he is forced to partake in again, in total contrast to the Clint Eastwood in Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. There is a beautiful Youtube video about the subversion of genre and what it means that I really like and I think really puts forth what it means to subvert a genre. Let’s go back to 500 Days of Summer. I think that it is a subversion of the romance genre since it ends with the protagonist not being with the love interest, but at the same time, can you really call it a subversion? There are so many other films with the same premise (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Meet Me in St. Gallen, etc.) that “they don’t end up together” can be considered its own trope in the genre. I think that is a natural thing when we talk of genres: just as how counter-culture becomes pop-culture, the subversion sometimes ends up being the main trope. If we look at genres as languages composed of vocabularies, then this is just a language expanding itself to incorporate new words.
Right now I want to talk about two films that really showcase this expansion: Logan and Black Panther. Both of these films represent a stark departure from the trappings of their genre, but in wildly different ways. Logan is the story of the aging Wolverine, a hero well past his prime. It is a cautionary tale of not meeting your heroes after their stories, and it arguably takes more cues from westerns like Shane and Unforgiven than it does from other superhero films. Black Panther is the story of a king and a superhero who has to deal with the sins of his father and his social obligation to his race and to his people. It has a message about racism that is both direct and cutting, and that is something you too don’t see too often in the genre. Both of these films represent a break from tradition, but in different ways.
Logan is the clear defiance of genre convention, and it is something present in all elements of the film. The story: An aging Wolverine reluctantly helps the last hope for mutantkind cross the Canadian border, reminds me of Unforgiven or The Searchers, with the reluctant hero going on a journey with an inexperienced novice, and finding his redemption along the way. The film itself also not so subtly calls back Shane, wherein the eponymous main character arrives in town and helps the homesteaders with their problem against the land-owning ranchers. Personally, though, Logan shares very little with Shane. Shane and Logan are both the lone heroes of their story, and in a way, Laura and Joey both share some similarity in their connection with the protagonist (Joey adores Shane while Laura can be thought of as a sort of daughter for Logan), but the reasons that drive the story are clearly different. Shane is driven by a sense of altruism, seeking to protect the homesteaders to achieve peace in the valley. Logan, on the other hand, is driven by a sense of wanting to redeem himself; an internal struggle that he ultimately accepts by the end of the film. Although Shane is shown to be also driven by a sense of remorse brought about by his gunslinging past, he is, by no means, a broken man seeking redemption.
If anything, Logan shares more similarity to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven than to Shane. Both Will Munny and Logan being shadows of their former selves. Logan can no longer heal as well as he used to; just as how Munny can hardly succeed in riding a horse. There is also a similarity in Logan and Munny’s reluctance in taking on the journey presented to them until they are confronted by the reality of their situations. Both of them ultimately cave in, and stop pretending to deny the violence within them, but where Munny survives the encounter, Logan finds peace.
I think comparing Unforgiven to Logan is fitting when we talk about subversion of genre. Both films take common tropes in their respective genres and turn it over their heads. The heroes are fallible, the ending is bitter-sweet, and Logan’s morality is decidedly greyer than the clear-cut good of Christopher Reeve. As well, just as how Unforgiven is a last send-off to the old westerns of the 50’s, so is Logan being the send-off to the X-Men series which kickstarted the modern age of superhero films. Logan is monumental in changing the genre of superhero films, lending a more mature and nuanced outlook to a genre that is derided as “capeshit”: trite, formulaic, and morally simple. In the sea of black-and-white saves-the-day stories, Logan was a punch to the gut and an uncomfortable growth spurt.
Black Panther is different. Black Panther rides on the back of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a shared mythos that only became possible thanks to the wild success of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, although one can make the argument that Iron Man became successful because of Batman Begins and Spider-Man 2 before it. Black Panther, however, is a film that continues the thread of the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also pushing its boundaries outward. It is not, by any means, the first film to speak of racism against black people, nor is it the first superhero film to do so (people tend to forget about Blade sometimes), or even about racism in general. Nor will it be the last. What Black Panther does is talk about it in a way that is so eye-catching, so relevant, and so confrontational that you can’t help but not listen.
Let’s circle back and talk about X-Men for a bit. X-Men, ultimately, is a story about racism. And it’s not just the film, but the entire premise of the X-Men in both film and comics talk about racism. We substitute other men to mutants and we have two leading figures in the mutant “movement” with diametrically opposite views: the conciliatory Professor X and the confrontational Magneto. Racism is not a new issue in superhero films. The concepts of alienation, of being different and struggle with not being in what is perceived to be the norm are common tropes in superhero films. Spider-Man, as a hero, struggles with being an other, before ultimately finding his niche.
Black Panther doesn’t circle around the issue of racism. The film answers the question, “What if?” and it subverts racial norms by reversing them. In a predominantly black cast you are presented with a total of two token white people. Killmonger’s character is a product of systematized racism, both against blacks and within black peoples. T’Challa is faced with a choice, not only of isolationism vs. global cooperation, or of vengeance vs. compassion, but of standing by while black people are being treated the way they are vs. fighting back.
There is an excellent blog post about Black Panther that talks about exactly everything I want to talk about it, and I don’t think I can add on to it anything new. Coogler is a talented director and his presentation of social issues in Black Panther is nothing short of amazing. I do want to talk about what I feel is his contribution to the genre, though.
Black Panther, if you look at it as purely a superhero film, offers little new. Killmonger is an excellent villain; he is sympathetic and complex, and he feels real. Here is an antagonist that you can’t help but understand and feel empathy for, which is leaps and bounds above the one-dimensional villains in other superhero films. You can even compare Killmonger and Klaue in the same film and see the difference in their complexity: one is driven solely by greed and purely serves as a thorn in the protagonist’s sides; the other has his own goals, motivations, and his own arc. The first half of the film, from T’Challa being introduced to his new tech to their capture of Klaue reminds me of a Bond film, although The Dark Knight also had a short sequence with much of the same effect. The difference being that Batman in Hong Kong did little to advance the plot, unlike the Black Panther in Busan.
What Black Panther offers is a grounding of the superhero genre to a reality. Superhero films feel removed from any context event though they embody what is arguably a reality contemporary to ours, and this is because they tackle issues and problems that the audience has no emotional stake on. Tony Stark is dying and must create a new arc reactor to save himself in Iron Man 2, and there are exactly zero heart surgeons in the audience who had to perform a triple bypass on themselves to survive and could relate. Black Panther touches on this empathy not so subtly and achieves what feels like a real, breathing, world in the Marvel universe.
I feel like this is something that has never been touched upon effectively in the superhero film until now, least of all in the MCU. Spider-Man works as a hero because deep down, he is just a teenager trying to find his way. In the same way, Black Panther works because its villain is grounded in the reality of centuries of prejudice and inequality, and that the film seeks to give a change to change that. More importantly, the film is an indication that the genre has evolved and matured from its days of Batman Forever and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Black Panther is a nuanced take on the superhero film that is both fantastical yet strangely real.
That’s not to say all films should tackle hard hitting issues. Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels is just as real as Black Panther in my book, but it’s “real” because it feels grounded in a sort of reality, much in the same way Black Panther is, without becoming “real”. But I believe that with Black Panther, the superhero genre is starting to move away from abstract concepts and into ones that present a more emotional connection to its audience.
Looking at how the genre began with films like Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman and comparing it with Logan and Black Panther, you can’t help but notice a change in complexity in the genre that is refreshing and really great to see. Even comparing X-Men to both films feels like comparing childhood throwbacks to recent selfies. Logan combined the western to the superhero film and at the same time, subverted its tropes, while Black Panther proved that a genre like “capeshit” can provide intellectual discourse to a topic as charged as race relations. What both films ultimately achieved was that it opened the doors to what I can only hope is further heights in the superhero genre.