Since the turn of the century, the public have had a fascination with costumed and caped crusaders fighting the good fight for justice. There’s something innately compelling about a lone fighter (or group) taking on villains and doing good for the world. In fact, these stories are often compared to ancient tales of mighty heroes fighting monsters, adapted for modern day purposes. And in modern times? These stories have become multi-million and billion dollar franchises.

So, what is it about superheroes in this day and age that works so well?

The Marketability of Superheroes

Superhero movies are immensely profitable. Robert Downey Jr. was quoted as saying “Dude, where’s my franchise?” jokingly when he was being considered for the role of Iron Man. A short time later, the Iron Man franchise netted over $2 billion dollars in sales. And that was without the combined Avengers numbers. Avengers turned out to be the fifth highest grossing movie in the history of cinema. Economically superheros are a veritable powerhouse of moneymaking. Even when done poorly, these movies remain fiscally successful. Batman vs. Superman, despite being critically torn apart, still banked $800 million globally. There’s no denying that the financial potential for superheros is remarkable.

Origin Stories: Where it all Began

In 1978 the superhero world was changed forever when the original Superman movie was screened. It was the beginning of special effects being advanced enough to convey comic book superpowers on the big screen. Coupled with the other special effects game changer (Star Wars), which had been released a year prior, finally convincing super powers could be shown to audiences everywhere. It would take a few more years to get the technology of computer generated images to appear as convincing powers, but the foundation of the field was there. In fact Superman boasted the first entirely CGI opening sequence in cinematic history.

From the Page to the Big Screen

Out of the top 100 highest grossing movies of all time, 19 have been about superheros. This isn’t just due to the western fascination with heroes, but also the international sensationalism brought in with computer generated effect sequences. The phenomenon of CGI action scenes hasn’t escaped Hollywood’s notice, as dialogue doesn't seem to translate into foreign markets as well as visceral excitement. And there’s no better way to translate this into an overseas demographic than with intense computer generated scenes.

Branching off into Franchises

The killer formula that comes with superhero movies is that they come with a built in market base. Fans of the older comics and action-seeking moviegoers alike can enjoy the film. As the opportunity to make additional superhero movies becomes more prevalent, two things occur. First, the market becomes endangered of being oversaturated. Second, the ability to interweave narratives and storylines becomes more and more likely. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. blended seamlessly with Captain America: Winter Soldier. Arrow intertwines with Flash very easily. Just like with the comics, the more stories there are, the more potential for crossover exists. Marvel (and DC) know the power of setting up these crossover stories into a continuous story because it’s making the franchises stronger overall.

The Future of Super-Media

Traditionally, historical dramas, war films, and musicals have been the most popular movies for as long as film has featured talking. Only recently have superhero franchises begun to outperform these classics. This is largely due to the following:

  • The international audiences favor big CGI scenes
  • China’s cinematic market is booming
  • Established franchises boast name recognition
  • People are more likely to see established brand movies
  • Movies featuring established brands usually tend to persevere over time
  • Movies are now being written with follow-up sequels in mind

In short, the global moviegoer base is expanding quickly and at a time where audiences are craving big budget franchises. For the most part, people know what they’re going to get when they see an established superhero movie. Combine that with the rise in internet usage, especially in America, and you set the perfect scene for a serious superhero industry.