The watershed moment for superhero movies is now a decade old. 2008 brought us the releases of Iron Man and The Dark Knight: two hugely influential films which, beyond the baser popcorn thrills each provided, represented the two approaches to the superhero genre that’ve been replicated in the years since—for better and worse.
The Dark Knight, the second entry in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, was the highest-grossing film of the year. However, the movie’s paradigm-shifting influence was in how it changed the perception of the superhero genre. Nolan painted his sequel as a gritty, political crime epic—that, yes, also happened to have a guy in a batsuit and a nemesis dressed like an unhinged circus performer—in which its hero had to consider whether his presence in Gotham wasn’t so much helping the city as it was inviting chaos to its doorstep. Meanwhile, Heath Ledger’s Joker was perhaps always destined for the movie villain hall of fame, but the actor’s tragic death leading up to the release mythologized the movie further. All told, The Dark Knight was instantly hailed as a masterpiece. The film’s exclusion from the Best Picture category at the Oscars was such an outrage, the Academy tweaked its rules to allow more nominees in the future—by the following year, Avatar and District 9 were clumped together with The Hurt Locker, A Serious Man, and The Blind Side.
Meanwhile, Iron Man was, bizarre as it is to think about now, a huge financial gamble for Marvel Studios. The flailing studio (it wouldn’t be acquired by Disney until 2009) was banking on moviegoers coming in droves to see a relatively unknown superhero—by then, Marvel had already sold the rights to the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man to other studios—who was essentially a rich dude in a metal suit. To compound the risk, that rich dude was played by Robert Downey Jr., who had more than a few demons of his own. Of course, Iron Man was a breakout hit, and viewers who stuck around in theaters past the end credits were treated to Samuel L. Jackson with an eyepatch talking to Tony Stark about “the Avenger initiative.” It was a weird flex, but it turned out OK. Iron Man was the foundation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the hugely successful enterprise of 20 superhero films and counting that has been the single most dominant force in the past decade of filmmaking.
The years that followed have brought superhero movies both good (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and bad (lol, Suicide Squad); movies that have successfully extended the quip-happy MCU, and ones from Zack Snyder and the DC Extended Universe that have failed to turn Nolan’s bleak ethos into something equally profound. And in 2018 came the two most influential superhero films since that crucial inflection point 10 years ago.
Avengers: Infinity War was what the MCU had been building toward since Iron Man. It’s hard to overstate how radically things have changed in 10 years. We went from Tony Stark fighting Bald Jeff Bridges in a competing metal suit to heroes from across the galaxy—including a talking raccoon voiced by Jackson Maine—teaming up to fight a swole purple alien who can take apart a moon and hurl it in the heroes’ direction. The action literally took part across a galaxy: from the streets of New York City to a dying neutron star called Nidavellir where mythical weapons like Thor’s hammer are constructed by giant dwarves (nice oxymoron, Marvel). The scale of Infinity War was unlike any superhero vehicle that’s come before it. One of the simple pleasures of the movie was seeing how heroes who’ve starred in their own films for years finally interact with one another. One could probably infer that Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord would feel emasculated by Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, but it was entertaining to see regardless. I wouldn’t give up Drax (Dave Bautista) telling Star-Lord, “He is not a dude, you’re a dude—this, this is a man,” for anything.
But there’s no way to consider Infinity War without mentioning its ending, when Thanos (Josh Brolin) successfully collects all the Infinity Stones and proceeds to wipe out half of all living creatures, including some of our mightiest heroes. It’s shocking, and occasionally heartbreaking: Tom Holland provides Spider-Man’s final moments the tear-jerking pathos of a scared teenager in way over his head. However, the audience had already been conditioned to know this wasn’t the definitive ending of anything, just another phase in the franchise-spawning machine. Going into Infinity War, it was already public knowledge that Holland’s Spider-Man sequel was penciled in for 2019. The end of the movie was a setup for future MCU phases, and for future MCU heroes (hello, Captain Marvel) to replace those played by veterans like Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Hemsworth—a cycle Marvel hopes will continue in perpetuity, or at least until the superhero well runs dry. That should happen eventually—there was a time when the Western dominated Hollywood, after all. But six of the 10 highest-grossing domestic films of the year are superhero movies (with Aquaman and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse still on the way)—this phase of cinema isn’t ending anytime soon.
What’s been most interesting to see—and what Infinity War made clear—is just how effectively superhero movies have cemented themselves in the pop culture lexicon. Since Iron Man’s humble beginnings a decade prior, the MCU has been providing little SparkNotes-type reminders within its movies, making sure you’re apprised of what’s going on even if you (understandably) happened to skip one of the earlier installments. But Infinity War was so jam-packed with heroes, played by a bunch of A-list actors fighting for screentime, that there was no time for a refresher: You were expected to go in knowing what the stakes were and who the characters were. (Turn on Infinity War for a family member who hasn’t seen a single MCU movie and, no lie, it’ll play like a foreign language film.) The superhero boom—and especially the rise of the MCU—is now an entire language and cultural experience. Is it fair to assume everyone is along for the ride? Marvel has over 2 billion ways to answer that question.
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther isn’t just a hugely successful blockbuster—it’s the superhero movie that’s garnered the most critical praise since The Dark Knight. Black Panther is the first masterpiece of the MCU, a film that’s primarily considered on its own terms rather than on what it sets up for future Marvel installments. Coogler, applying the skills he honed through his Rocky spinoff Creed, cemented himself as one of the most promising filmmakers of his generation by imbuing Black Panther with a keen sense of place and clever staging through several thrilling action setpieces. (The film’s brief detour to Busan, South Korea, is especially delightful.) He also made a film that had a lot more on its mind than most Marvel entries: T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is not just the new, fresh-faced leader of his people. He’s lost his father. He bears a considerable burden—the weight of a nation—and despite Black Panther’s blockbuster pretentions, the film never forgets its heroes’ responsibility. And that’s thanks in large part to who the film pits T’Challa against: an ideological foe.
Whereas Ledger’s Joker served as an agent of chaos, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) had a clear agenda: Take over Wakanda from T’Challa and distribute its futuristic, vibranium-infused technology to disadvantaged black communities around the world to help them topple their white oppressors. It’s an extreme approach based on an otherwise salient point: Why has Wakanda ignored the plight of black people around the world for centuries? And that we can even have a philosophical debate of this nature distinguishes Black Panther, and places Killmonger in the upper echelon of superhero villains—especially compared to the rest of the MCU, which is filled with lackluster villains with vague motivations for global or intergalactic domination. The movie is as superficially ungrounded as Infinity War, but its messages couldn’t have been more applicable to the real world.
Most importantly, Black Panther was a cultural movement: a movie from a black filmmaker featuring a predominantly black cast. This was another big challenge for Coogler—Wakanda isn’t Creed’s Philadelphia, in many respects—but the auteur succeeded, with the help of a team that infused the utopic Wakanda with influences from several African cultures. For a cinematic universe that spanned several planets and traveled across the galaxy, Wakanda felt like Marvel’s greatest accomplishment in world-building, and like nothing we had seen before. “The most radical thing a Black Panther movie could have done is ask what Wakanda means—and what it owes—to the race,” The Ringer’s K. Austin Collins wrote in his review. “And that’s what Coogler’s passionate, funny, dexterous movie asks, over and over again, both to its characters and to its audience. It’s a mighty question, and it feels like it’s coming alive in almost every one of Coogler’s images: in their sense of the elements, in their dramatic and physical grandeur, in their beauty.”
The Dark Knight’s biggest legacy was forcing everyone to take superhero movies more seriously—something Black Panther can likely capitalize on by becoming the first superhero film nominated for Best Picture. Black Panther was an equally evocative reminder that superhero films can be more than just action-packed entertainment for the whole family—they can also have profound conflicts, stakes, and world-building, and can be a reflection of our times. Black Panther is, in other words, a superhero movie that once again demands that superhero movies be taken seriously. But it also gave us moments like this. The movie’s impact goes far beyond the film industry.
It’s officially been a decade of sustained superhero success, wherein these films are constantly topping the box office and primarily seeing critics and fans—Zack Snyder’s ardent, conspiracy-obsessed fan base notwithstanding—agree on their merits. In 2018, superhero movies have also continued to experiment with myriad tones, staving off the pitfalls of narrative and thematic stagnancy. Deadpool 2 doubled down on its crass, meta-heavy tendencies: It even topped itself with an end-credits sequence that poked fun at the entire superhero enterprise. Incredibles 2 saw Pixar open up its IP vault and fail to miss a step, with Brad Bird’s sequel giving Holly Hunter’s Elastigirl some well-deserved time in the action spotlight with a memorable chase sequence. Ant-Man and the Wasp was perhaps the funniest Marvel movie to date, almost shockingly bereft of stakes to make way for more of Michael Peña’s Luis and his rambling anecdotes (not a complaint). I wrote 1,900 words on the weird, bad-goodness of Sony’s Venom, a romantic comedy disguised as a misguided superhero movie that I still can’t stop thinking about. (Full disclosure: I haven’t seen Aquaman yet, but Jason Momoa’s Instagram promotions for the film are also among the year’s best cinema.)
Ten years from the current superhero moment’s inception, the arrow is still pointing up for movies featuring a dude who can talk to fish, intergalactic heroes for hire, and the king of a fictional African nation. In due course, this period in Hollywood will serve as a fascinating time capsule, but for the time being, we’re still living through the age of superheroes. 2018 has demonstrated there are still more stories to tell, unique ways to approach them, and diverse voices to be amplified—even if some of these franchises may never actually end. At this rate, it might take someone snapping their fingers.