Can a New Superhero Movie Ever Become a Classic Again?

What does it take for a superhero movie to be considered a classic? Ryan Britt takes a closer look.

With more superhero movies in the cinema than ever before, super-fans, casual viewers, and even Steven Spielberg, have worried about an “implosion” of the superhero movie supernova. Are there too many? Will movies studios pay the price for an excess of comic book films?

But if we look beyond economic viability, a more interesting question emerges: with the quantity of superhero movies at seemingly critical mass, could one ever emerge as a classic of its own genre?

Way back in 1989, Saturday Night Live’s “excellent” dudes Wayne (Mike Meyers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) gave us a rundown of their opinions of the most recent films of that season. While they thought Steel Magnolias “sucked,” both Wayne and Garth asserted 1989’s Batman was “EXCELLENT!” The joke was, that at that time, no mainstream discussion of films would take Batman seriously, meaning only “dudes” like Wayne and Garth would think of it as the best movie of the year. And yet, today, Batman consistently pops up in the top 10 best superhero movies of all time. Any cursory search of the internet will prove this: Batman ranks at number four on both the Telegraph and HitFix’s big lists of this kind.

In fact, if you start looking at a bunch of people’s “best” superhero movie lists, you start to see the same titles constantly. Burton’s 1989 Batman is almost always there, as is 1978’s Superman: The Movie and 1980’s Superman II, 2008’s The Dark Knight, and unsurprisingly, 2012’s The Avengers. Some lists flirt with putting The Incredibles very high on their rankings, while others, like Empire, seem to lean more heavily on contemporary films.

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All these list are, of course, totally arbitrary and biased in all sorts of ways. And yet, there does seem to be a general fan consensus that Superman II, Iron Man, Batman, The Dark Knight, Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie, The Avengers, and maybe Guardians of the Galaxy, are totally classic superhero/comic book movies. Looking at these lists or, more dangerously, aggregate movies scores on sites like Rotten Tomatoes is certainly not an objective way at looking for a classic superhero movie, but the numbers are instructive.

If we take out animated films or pastiches (like The Incredibles, which is both) the two highest rated live-action super-hero movies I could find on Rotten Tomatoes are Iron Man and  The Dark Knight, both at 94 percent (The Incredibles, by the way has 97 percent). If we think about the universal love for The Dark Knight and whether or not this movie is a superhero “classic,” this number sounds about right. Plus, The Dark Knight always pops up on these lists, and even someone like me—who didn’t love Batman Begins—thinks The Dark Knight is, well, in the parlance of Wayne and Garth, totally excellent.

But these Rotten Tomatoes numbers start to get tricky when we discover that X-Men: Days of Future Past has a 91 percent rating (absurdly high!) while the far superior (and better liked?) X-Men: First Class is sitting at 87 percent. This gets crazier when you consider that the 1989 Batman is getting practically made fun of at 72 percent.

Now, you might hate both Tim Burton Batman flicks, and you might think The Dark Knight is the only Batman ever, period. But there’s no way Days of Future Past is that much better of a superhero movie than Batman. And not just in an individual’s opinion, but in a generalized feeling of the zeitgeist. Guardians of the Galaxy is at 91 percent too, but then, The Avengers is at 92 percent. Only a minority of fans would agree that The Avengers is “pretty much just as good as” X-Men: Days of Future Past. So, what do these numbers mean? Nothing?

Maybe sometimes these numbers do nothing more but reflect the gulf between “critics” and “fans.” For example, Man of Steel is at 56 percent, which feels right. With very few exceptions there’s not a big jump between the critic aggregate score and the audience score. I’ve been using the former throughout this essay, but I should point out that Man of Steel’s audience score is at 76 percent! In the world of pure speculation, this leads me to believe that some of these newer movies get a higher rating from an audience, even if the critics hated it. And if Rotten Tomatoes had been around in 1989, that score would have benefited from fans saturated with a year of marketing and hype, and the score would probably be at 99 perent. But as it stands, our only true Rotten Tomatoes circa 1990 is Wayne and Garth.

Obviously, we’re only dealing with opinions, and everyone’s opinion is worth just as much as someone else’s, right? Well, not really.

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You can sit here all day and tell me you think The Wizard of Oz stinks or that Casablanca is nostalgic trash, but it won’t stop those movies from being classics. The same is true of the 1989 Batman. That Rotten Tomatoes score may go up and down, fluctuate between audience and critic ratings, but the line “you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” will still be classic. As will the final line in the 2008 Iron Man when Tony Stark says to the camera “I am Iron Man!” There’s something beyond awards, aggregate ratings, Top 10 lists, and reviews that seem to turn these kinds of movies into classics.

Perhaps one of the reasons The Avengers is so beloved is because, though it suggests a larger mythology and continuity, it exists as a self-contained film. When I asked superstar comic book critic Jill Pantozzi (The Nerdy Bird) if there had been a classic superhero film of the last five years, she had this to say:

“Hands down, The Avengers is a classic. It was a perfect storm of story, directing, and acting, and was a wonderful example of a traditional ‘team up.’ It helped that we were introduced to the characters in previous films, but standing on its own, it’s a really great superhero movie.”

Thinking purely subjectively, with our guts, what Pantozzi says here makes a lot of sense; we feel like The Avengers is a classic because, as she says, it stands on its own. But could there be something else going on here? When I talked to noted pop-journalist Abraham Riesman (of New York Magazine) about very recent superhero classics he said:

“My gut instinct is to say The Avengers is a classic, but man, I can only use the c-word there in a relative sense. Like, it’s the apotheosis of all the whiz-bang, swashbuckling aesthetics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s wildly enjoyable from beginning to end, and it certainly acted as a big influence on the rest of the franchise … but I don’t know how well it’d hold up in a competition for ‘classics’ of the general film canon. It didn’t redefine anything for the art of film. Well, I take that back: for better or worse, it proved that you can make shared-universe storytelling work in a cinematic context, which is no small feat. But that’s more of a business accomplishment than an artistic one.”

The notion that the commerce of superhero movies can influence their quality—or classic status— is relatively obvious to anyone familiar with the word “franchise,” and goes back to what Spielberg was warning against last year; the idea that these models can’t last, and that people will grow tired of them. Riesman told me that he thinks there are only a “certain set of formulas” which filmmakers will be willing to apply to these films. Similarly, Pantozzi worried that “…there’s so much superhero product being released these days and they’re not always given the time and consideration needed to make something truly classic. It’s more about making the flashiest thing possible so lots of people go see it and you can get a sequel greenlit.”

Which leads to the big question: since nearly every single new superhero movies on the horizon is part of a kind of established corporate strategy to get us to watch more and more of these films, could one of them—against all odds—emerge as a classic?

The two biggest superhero films on the horizon—Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War—are shockingly similar in the way they seem to be trying to arrest our attention. Both will feature a-list superhero “good guys” battling each other and both are part of larger established franchises which promise to potentially, never, ever, end.

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And yet, despite everyone’s mixed feelings, could Batman v Superman become a classic? The safe money would be on Captain America: Civil War, since it’s raising the emotional stakes of superhero conduct by making everything in the plot about everyone’s personal relationships. Meaning, the title of Captain America: Civil War, should probably just be Captain America: This Time It’s Personal.

However, Batman v Superman doesn’t have that kind of baggage. While everyone was so-so on Man of Steel as a movie, even haters probably liked Henry Cavill’s performance as Superman himself. I mean, he looks totally awesome. Not to mention, you could argue that simply the inclusion of Wonder Woman into a film of this size is already making the movie a little more interesting/different than the kinds of superhero movies we’ve seen since the post-Iron Man boom.

In Civil War, the audience is going to have to think about who Bucky is and how Tony Stark is connected to Steve Rogers. In Batman v Superman, the audience doesn’t have to think too hard about who Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman are. They just kind of already get it. A classic might be something that already seems familiar, rather than something that requires a flowchart to understand.

So, if we’re going on stand-alone, formula busting superhero movies on the horizon, then that means Deadpool might be poised to be the one new-superhero movie to rule them all. It seems like we won’t need to know any backstory, the movie might be using humor smartly, and the meta-tone may set it apart enough from other superhero movies to bring us something every moviegoer secretly wants: a breath of fresh air.

Plus, Ryan Reynolds has never played Deadpool before!

Oh wait. He has. He played a younger version of the character in a little movie called X-Men Origins: Wolverine. And I don’t even want to tell you what kind of Rotten Tomatoes rating that movie has. Spoiler alert: it’s no classic.

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Ryan Britt is the author of the book Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths ( Plume/Penguin Random House). His work has appeared in The New York TimesVICEThe Morning NewsElectric LiteratureBarnes & Noble Sci-Fi and extensively, for He lives in New York City.