Exploring the Many Genres Within the Superhero Genre

Mortal, the new film from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and The Autopsy of Jane Doe filmmaker André Øvredal, is out now and tells the story of a young man discovering his own set of abnormal powers. You might even call them superpowers. But is it a superhero film? 

It’s hard to say. There are obvious superhero films out there – all the Marvel movies, for instance – but the presence of a superpowered person can also be a jumping-off point to explore any genre, something Mortal and the following films make clear.

Mortal – Monster Movie

André Øvredal is primarily a horror film director. Mortal isn’t quite that, but Øvredal does capture the film’s expression of superpowers with the vocabulary of a monster movie, a giant monster movie to be specific. The film’s central figure, Eric, controls weather and lightning at a scale large enough to make him seem godlike and frightening. When he really gets going, he has more in common with Godzilla than Marvel’s Thor.

Chronicle – Found Footage

Found footage – more a technique than a genre, really – had its big moment over a decade ago, and one of the results was the 2012 film, Chronicle, which viewed superpowers through a grounded, first-hand lens. Like a lot of found footage movies, the device made less sense as the film progressed and got more insane. Nevertheless, was still a novel bit of fun at the time.

They Call me Jeeg – Foreign Crime Drama

They Call me Jeeg is a 2016 superhero film from Italy that played festivals for a while before getting a small release in America that most people probably missed. The point is, superhero films do not belong to just America and when other countries take swings, you get them in wildly different flavors. Such is the case with Jeeg, which structurally plays like a generic superhero but includes tons of dark crime stuff that would never make it into such a film over here. Plus, it’s just cool to end a film with a dark protector watching over… Rome.

Unbreakable – Family Drama

Life is hard. You can’t connect with your kid. Emotions have cooled between you and your wife. You go to work every day, but it feels like you should be doing something more. That is basically the story of Unbreakable, except it also happens to involve a superhero. And while superhero stuff does get one sequence to shine, it’s better expressed in non-heroic scenes, such as Bruce Willis lifting weights with his kid, or finding out he’s the only survivor of a horrible train crash. In fact, it wasn’t until the broad, Batman ’66-level conclusion that many audiences even realized they were watching a “comic book” movie at all.

The Mask – Live-Action Cartoon

Superpowers don’t always have to be dignified. Sometimes they just turn you into a cartoon. That’s basically what’s up in The Mask. It involves a wild mask that gives its wearer superpowers. Okay, exaggerated superpowers. But hey, being able to swallow dynamite and comically burp it out is a form of invincibility no matter how silly it looks. Also, The Mask was literally based on a comic book. Case closed.

The Specials – Parody

Okay, we are entering into the James Gunn phase of this list, buckle up.

Superhero movies weren’t even much of a thing in 2000 when The Specials came out. Directed by Craig Mazin but thought of as a James Gunn film because, I don’t know, he wrote it and cast himself in it and put his brother in it, The Specials acts as a satirical parody of a movie genre that barely existed. Its collection of jerks with vaguely useful superpowers closely resembles superheroes we all know and love, and the film revels in watching them do mundane daily things and argue with each other.

Super – Mental Illness Drama

This one was actually directed by James Gunn, and instead of having fun exploring the mundane side of a superhero’s life, this time he explores the kind of mental illness that goes into entering the superhero life in the first place. Rainn Wilson plays Frank, a guy whose wife left him for a drug dealer. He decides to dress up like a superhero and hit rude people with a wrench. He’s a vigilante like Batman, but a much more realistic version, which is to say he is probably mentally unwell and unsafe. Not all superhero films need to be fun, but this one is especially not fun. Though it is more fun than that other Mental Illness Drama comic book movie, Joker.

Brightburn – Horror

James Gunn again! This time just producing. But still, it’s another superhero subversion with his name on it.

This time, the question is what if Superman were evil. It turns out the answer is… he would kill a ton of people and we’d all be in very big trouble. There isn’t a whole lot of suspense here, nor is there any kryptonite-type substance that can give us an edge. We’re all just dead, end of story. Now if they made a sequel where he had to fight James Gunn’s version of Batman – the guy from Super – we’d have something. Something that would be over in less than a second.

Logan – Dystopian Western

All those X-Men movies, all those triumphs and adventures… and they all led to the future of Logan, a bleak America where nearly all mutants are dead and no one even cares. Professor X is still alive, but significantly diminished. It’s truly sad to see. 

Logan’s dystopia is merely a setting, however. Its story of a lone, aged warrior protecting a youngster through hostile territory is full-on Western business. If you don’t believe me, just look at all the time the film brings up Shane. It’s not exactly subtle. 

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