Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott discuss the meaning of superhero movies, in the NYT:
MANOHLA DARGIS On one level the allure of comic book movies is obvious, because, among other attractions, they tap into deeply rooted national myths, including that of American Eden (Superman’s Smallville); the Western hero (who’s separate from the world and also its savior); and American exceptionalism (that this country is different from all others because of its mission to make “the world safe for democracy,” as Woodrow Wilson and, I believe, Iron Man, both put it). Both Depression babies, Superman and Batman, were initially hard-boiled types, and it’s worth remembering that the DC in DC Comics was for Detective Comics. Since then the suits have largely remained the same even as the figures wearing them have changed with their times. Every age has the superhero it wants, needs or deserves.
Comic book movies are also fun (except when they’re not) and often easy viewing (except when they make your head hurt). They’re also blunt: A guy in a unitard pummels another guy — pow! — and saves the day, the girl and the studio. I like some comic-book movies very much, dislike others. But as a film lover I am frustrated by how the current system of flooding theaters with the same handful of titles limits my choices. (According to boxofficemojo.com “The Avengers” opened on 4,349 screens in the United States and Canada, close to 1 in 10.) The success of these movies also shores up a false market rationale that’s used to justify blockbusters in general: that is, these movies make money, therefore people like them; people like them, therefore these movies are made.
SCOTT And yet these stories do have some appeal, beyond the familiarity of the characters and the relentlessness of the marketing campaigns. As you suggest, they strike mythic, archetypal chords, and cater to a persistent hunger for large-scale, accessible narratives of good and evil.
It’s telling that Hollywood placed a big bet on superheroes at a time when two of its traditional heroic genres — the western and the war movie — were in eclipse, partly because they seemed ideologically out of kilter with the times.