From the Wolverine to the Watchmen, there's no doubt that superheroes have ruled the new millennium.

Kicked off by the X-Men and Spider-Man trilogies of the early noughties and then taken to a new level by the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Iron Man in 2008, the earth's mightiest heroes have swept all before them, culminating with Avengers: Endgame becoming the highest grossing movie of all time in 2019 with an astonishing $3.6 billion at the box office.

And in 2021, there still seems to be no sign of the long-predicted "superhero fatigue". If anything, the COVID-ravaged dumpster fire that was 2020 may well have fuelled desire even further.

Zack Snyder, who drove the DC Extended Universe as director of Man Of Steel and its sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, says the fan frenzy and positive reaction to his much delayed extended cut of Justice League (Foxtel On Demand/Binge) - and the continuing popularity of the genre - may be linked to a world in desperate need of hope and inspiration.

"It could absolutely be that," he says. "I think that these heroes gave us hope and continue to give us hope and I think that the Snyder Cut is four hours of hope and I think that's a cool theme.

"For me, these characters are incredibly mythological, they are archetypal, they are elemental, they represent us and hold a mirror up to us and to what we can be and what we strive to be - our worst and our best. And I think any time that kind of a passion play can go on, people will watch it."

 

Increasingly, these super-powered saviours (and sometimes sinners) have been taking over the small screen as well. DC comic book TV spin-offs have far outstripped their cinema counterparts and gaining fans for nearly a decade with the ever expanding Arrowverse, featuring hit shows such as Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Superman and Lois, Batwoman, Legends Of Tomorrow and Stargirl (all Foxtel On Demand/Binge).

Their comic book rivals at Marvel had mixed success on Netflix with Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, but the MCU's foray into streaming on Disney+ already looks like a winner with critical and audience plaudits for WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and anticipation sky-high for next month's Loki.

Lesser known, more adult-focused superhero properties such as The Boys (Amazon Prime Video), The Umbrella Academy (Netflix), The Nevers (Foxtel/Binge) and the just released Jupiter's Legacy (Netflix) are also finding loyal followings and multiple seasons. But what it is about superheroes that audiences seemingly can't get enough of?

Brec Bassinger, who plays the title role in Stargirl, a family-friendly romp from the DC stable about a high-school student who finds a staff that gives her superpowers, says it's all about escapism. The first season was released last May as the COVID-19 pandemic raged around the US and a second season is due in August.

Bec Brassinger says shows like Stargirl are pure escapism in a troubled world.
Bec Brassinger says shows like Stargirl are pure escapism in a troubled world.

"I feel like the whole superhero genre is just an escape from our world and I feel that's our show, particularly with the '80s nostalgia vibe, which really hits that escapism home," she says. "Stargirl has the humour and the heart and allows people a distraction which is so needed right now. So, I don't see superhero fatigue happening."

Josh Duhamel, who plays the Superman-esque The Utopian in Jupiter's Legacy, agrees with the escapism assessment, but says there's an additional fascination with the "what if" factor, for both the powers and what they would look like in the real world.

"I think there is a wish-fulfilment thing," he says. "There is a wonder about what would it be like to fly or shoot laser beams from your eyes or become invisible. Whatever the power is, I think that's what people love about it. But imagine if these people really existed? As in, right now, there are superheroes out there who can go out and do anything. Would you want them to govern or lead? Would they kill or would they just lock people up?"

For Loki (Disney+, from June 9) director Kate Herron, having the film or TV show about something deeper than turbocharged, caped characters beating the stuffing out of each other is key for her. Amid its effects heavy battles between Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch and her foes, WandaVision was also an exploration of grief and trauma. And in addition to its huge action set pieces, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier also leaned heavily into modern questions of race and terrorism. The newest addition to the Marvel universe will bring back an unreconstructed, unrepentant version of Tom Hiddleston's God of Mischief, and Herron says she's taking a similar, character-driven approach.

Tom Hiddleston in a scene from Loki, which will be about good, evil and the grey area in between.
Tom Hiddleston in a scene from Loki, which will be about good, evil and the grey area in between.

"If you take away all the bells and whistles from the story, what it is about and what is it addressing?," she says. "With our show for example, I wanted to talk about is anyone truly good or truly bad and the grey area in between that. For me that was really important - having a driving force underneath the core genre and my favourite superhero movies always have that. I love Guardians of the Galaxy, and for me that's about family."

Of course, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and in recent years, the plethora of inspirational and aspirational superhero offerings has given rise to darker, grittier fare including The Umbrella Academy, The Boys and Watchmen (Foxtel/Binge), which cleaned up at last year's Emmy Awards, with 11 wins. Kiwi actor Antony Starr, who plays the petty, cruel, narcissistic, Trump-inspired Homelander in The Boys, which was one of last year's most streamed shows, says the trend is not necessarily a reaction against traditional superheroes, but sadly a more accurate reflection of the modern world.

"Homelander is about as morally bankrupt as you can get," says Starr of his alter ego, the leader of a team of indulged, corrupt, corporatised superheroes called The Seven. "And I think there is something really fun about that - taking the norm and just flipping it on its head. It's fun to make and it makes it really fun to watch as well. And it's arguably a more honest reflection of celebrity culture and in a hypothetical world where superheroes were real, it's probably a more honest picture of what they would be like."

Antony Starr says the corrupt, corporatised superheroes of The Boys are a more accurate reflection of the modern world.
Antony Starr says the corrupt, corporatised superheroes of The Boys are a more accurate reflection of the modern world.

But Tyler Hoechlin, who plays arguably the most famous, beloved hero of them all in Superman & Lois (new episodes coming to Foxtel/Binge tomorrow) believes the pendulum has swung too far the other way and that in a landscape now heavily populated by dark, tortured superbeings with an axe to grind, it's the noble-hearted, truth-and-justice loving Man of Steel who is the anomaly in 2021. His Clark Kent/Superman finds a point of difference in its umpteenth iteration by examining that character as a parent, who is trying to provide an example to his children as much as the wider world by always doing the right thing.

"I think we have done so much of that, to me with this character it felt like the right time to say 'let's go back to someone who does choose good all the time'," Hoechlin says. "That's not easy. And I think it's the thing that gets lost in that idea that it's boring that he always does the right thing. To me it's not. How challenging it is on a daily basis to always do the right thing? It's not always an easy decision to make. So, to see the challenges that he faces and in spite of those, still choosing to go down that path, for me it's inspiring."

Originally published as Why we can't get enough of superheroes



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