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Marvel movies are about way more than just superheroes

There’s almost no genre the comic publisher isn’t touching with its ambitious film lineup.

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I have to admit to squealing with glee the other day when Marvel unveiled “Phase Three” of its movie plan, a slate of films running through 2019 that will include two additional Avengers outings, sequels to Thor, Captain America and Guardians of the Galaxy, and a handful of new properties such as Doctor Strange and Black Panther. On top of that, the company also released a pair of jaw-dropping trailers for its next blockbuster, Avengers: Age of Ultron, due in May.

This is all delightful to those of us who grew up loving comic books, especially when the 10 upcoming movies from Marvel’s rival DC are considered. But there are those odd critics who don’t like Hollywood’s pre-occupation with superheroes. The genre has all but taken over the summer blockbuster season and is crowding out variety, they say.

But here’s the thing: although all these upcoming Marvel movies are indeed based on comic books, there really isn’t such a thing as a “superhero” genre. At least not as far as Marvel is concerned. The films may share a corporate parent and a shared universe, but in fact they delve into many different genres.

Let’s have a look at Marvel’s slate and deconstruct what the stories and characters are really about. Marvel’s most successful property, having grossed $2.4 billion to date worldwide (not including his appearance in The Avengers), is Iron Man, which is a story about a guy in high-tech armour who decides to fight bad guys. At its core, it’s science-fiction fantasy not unlike The Terminator or even Star Trek.

Iron Man’s storylines in the comic books have dealt with themes such as corporate and national espionage, technological determinism, and even alcoholism. He’s only a superhero per se because of his association with other superheroes, and perhaps because he sometimes comes into conflict with bad guys who wear spandex. Tellingly, he hasn’t yet encountered such an individual in any of his movie outings.

Thor has so far been played out on screen as high fantasy. Much of The Dark World bore more than a passing resemblance to A Game of Thrones – not a coincidence, with director Alan Taylor having recently helmed the HBO series. The Thor franchise is swords and sandals with a sci-fi twist.

Captain America is clearly the most superhero-y of the bunch, and that’s as it should be given his origin. He was meant to be a superhero, someone who inspired American troops and citizens during the Second World War. The look and the symbolism therefore continue. While most movie superheroes have had their costumes toned down to set a more realistic, less spandex-y tone, Cap has stayed colourful and relatively garish on purpose.

But Cap’s movies, especially this year’s The Winter Soldier, and his recent travails in the comics have been anything but “superhero-y.” Ed Brubaker’s acclaimed run on the series, from 2005 to 2009, saw the star-spangled Avenger range more into espionage thriller stories not unlike the Bourne movies. The second movie similarly focused on themes such as terrorism and state surveillance, a far cry from Cap’s earlier comic days of beating up goons dressed up as snakes.

Then there are the Guardians of the Galaxy. True, there’s a talking raccoon and a tree creature, but are they superheroes? The team members are either mutates, members of different alien races or simple individuals using nifty gadgets, if not a mix of the above. That sounds kind of like… I dunno, Star Wars? Ergo, is Star Wars a superhero movie?

The “superhero genre” is even harder to pin down when looking at Marvel’s other upcoming films. Doctor Strange, starring Earth’s “Sorcerer Supreme,” could well be an occult movie, perhaps with mild horror themes. Black Panther, an African king with excellent fighting abilities, could turn out to be a martial arts movie and/or go political with race relations. Ant-Man, a scientist who can shrink and control ants, might be a comedy. Captain Marvel… well, who knows where that could go.

And let’s not forget Marvel’s TV projects, which will doubtlessly link to the cinematic universe. Agents of SHIELD, which already does, has verged toward action-espionage and was actually panned by many fans last season for being decidedly un-superhero-y. Marvel’s upcoming quartet of series for Netflix – Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones – look like they’ll range from urban crime drama to chop-socky kung fu.

To summarize all those potential genres, there’s science-fiction, fantasy, espionage, political thriller, space opera, occult, horror, martial arts and comedy. Is it any wonder Marvel movies have done so well? The company has already succeeded by dipping into a wide variety of genres and attracting big audiences – not just comic-book fans – as a result. Heck, even my wife loves Marvel movies. That variety is set to continue and expand.

If anything, the distinguished competition at DC is more guilty of perpetuating the superhero stereotype, which might be why the company’s film efforts haven’t done as well. With the exception of Batman, an urban crime story at its core, DC’s characters are less differentiated in genre, a problem rooted in their comics origins. While Stan Lee purposely created characters for Marvel with more believable human traits and problems, DC’s heroes were more akin to unassailable gods, even more so than Thor, an actual god.

Is it any wonder that the one DC guy without any powers – Batman – became the company’s most interesting and successful character on screen and in print?

DC’s future film success will thus depend on being able to genre differentiate like Marvel movies have done. So will the abatement of some of that anti-superhero sentiment. The question is whether the source material will allow for that.

For those hoping this whole “superhero trend” runs out of steam sooner rather than later, that’s probably going to be a long wait. Marvel has only just begun to mine its huge catalog of characters and there’s hardly a genre the company can’t touch.

That said, when can we expect a Howard the Duck remake?

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