Let me start by saying I don’t have the answer to that question. Superman is an alien, so Sci-Fi, right? But Hellboy is a demon, so is it fantasy? Or do those two just fall into completely separate categories? But then there’s the Avengers, where the ultimate gadget man Tony Stark (a.k.a. “I am Iron Man”) is fighting alongside Thor, god of thunder from Norse mythology.
Or should I even bother? Maybe not. After all, superhero movies are usually the epitome of popcorn flicks, so apart from arguing whether the overdone effects can actually fit through the plot holes, maybe they’re not worthy of deep analysis. Then again, they put our human (and sometimes not-so-human) frailties into the crucible to extract something pure. Superman struggles against the ultimate limits of even his power. The Avengers put teamwork over individual ego. Batman faces his personal demons and decides to not be quite so grim after all.
But why care about the genre in particular? Because genres have rules, and those rules support a lot of story elements. That is, rather than limiting the story teller to the contents of this box, it cracks open the crate from the secret warehouse and dumps out all manner of things that work. I’m just trying to figure out which crates we’re opening up. Is time travel in the box? High technology? Godlike powers? How about magic? The ability to cheat death?
I’ll say that most superhero movies are relying on items from the science fiction crates. We have aliens, mutants, gamma ray overdoses, mysterious meteor showers, and so on. Even then, the leaps we make from these are far from what we allow in more traditional sci-fi fare. After all, in most SF, a lethal overdose of gamma radiation is, well… lethal. It’s not the source of anger-inspired super-strength.
But some of these heroes are clearly relying on stuff from the fantasy crates. The Mask used a magical artifact. The Ghost Rider has made a deal with the devil, and Hellboy is what… the devil’s own scion? These aren’t traditional fantasy tropes, or at least not from the epic Tolkien fantasy vein, but in the more modern genre of urban fantasy, these aren’t that strange.
Or maybe I’m trying to fit a triangular peg in either a round or square hole. Are superhero films really their own independent genre with its own crate of rules, tropes, and McGuffins? With both Marvel and DC mining their IP vaults, we might very well be headed there by volume alone. If we are, I’m not sure I know enough about superheroes to really say what those rules are.
What do you think?