No genre is more ubiquitous in pop culture today than that of the superhero. Five of the ten top-grossing movies over the past decade have been superhero films.
Superheroes now occupy the place cowboys did during most of the 20th Century. And just as the Western gave way to the “Revisionist Western,” superhero entertainment is being critiqued by “Revisionist Superhero” movies and TV shows.
Current superhero films embody many of the problems traditional westerns did. They rely on good-vs-evil storytelling, glorify power, sanitize and celebrate violence, and largely marginalize the powerless to the fringes of the narratives. Until very recently, nearly all major superheroes on-screen were straight, white, young American men.
The character of the Superhero represents the United States in the same way the Cowboy once did. Captain America and Superman symbolize American values in the same way the cowboy characters used by Stanley Kubrick and Ronald Reagan did.
The movies and TV series below are meant to provide a sampling of the best revisionist takes on the superhero type. Many of them were inspired by graphic novels, which have been grappling with the genre’s shortcomings for decades. Others were invented or re-invented specifically for the screen.
10) The Umbrella Academy
(2019 – ongoing)
The Umbrella Academy is a Netflix series based on a comic book series released by Dark Horse. It tells the story of a family of superheroes who were adopted by billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves. He cares little for them as people, giving them numbers instead of names and subjecting them to harsh training as crime fighters.
It’s worth comparing the Hargreeves Family of The Umbrella Academy to the Parr Family of the Pixar film The Incredibles. In that film, each member of the family has superpowers but they don’t use them due to potential legal liability. The patriarch of the family, Bob, doesn’t miss being a superhero because he cares about the people he saves. Instead, he missing using his powers because he can’t use them to prove he is “genuinely exceptional.” The villain’s evil plan is to give everyone superpowers: something that would make the Parrs just like everyone else.
How would the Parrs feel if Baby Jack-Jack hadn’t developed powers? Would they rethink the way they equate self-worth with physical ability? Would they develop empathy for people who aren’t supers?
In The Umbrella Academy, only one sibling of the seven doesn’t manifest powers. Vanya, played by Elliot Page, suffers tremendous childhood abuse because she lacks the abilities of her brothers and sister.
People without powers aren’t typically the focus of a story set in a world of superheroes. They’re lucky if they get a name. The Umbrella Academy is different.
Teodor Reljić, writing at Isles of the Left, describes Vanya as experiencing “the emotional fall-out of being foregrounded against a superpower elite.” Reljić finds that in The Umbrella Academy, the story of “someone who was little more than a discard for most of her life commands our attention despite the fireworks of what would traditionally be considered to be the ‘A’ storyline.”
The end of Season 1 puts Vanya in a similar place that the end of the first Incredibles movie puts Jack-Jack, but with very different implications.
Hugh Jackman played Wolverine in eight movies across seventeen years. He and director James Mangold gave the character’s story a deserving farewell with Logan.
Many of the films on this list subvert expectations by taking elements from the superhero genre and examining how they would work in the “real world.” The X-Men series has always been good at examining the dark side of powers. In Logan, Professor X’s telepathy kills and maims people when he experiences a seizure brought on by dementia. Logan himself is poisoned by adamantium, the very thing that made him Wolverine.
We’re used to superheroes saving the day despite all odds. They might suffer from personal angst, but they’re pretty much indestructible and rarely stay dead.
This doesn’t happen in Logan. When the “real” Wolverine encounters the comic book version of the X-Men, this is his reaction:
“You do know they’re all bullshit, right? Maybe a quarter of it happened, and not like this. In the real world, people die, and no self-promoting asshole in a fucking leotard can stop this.”
(2021 – ongoing)
The Amazon Prime series follows the story of Mark Grayson, a teenager whose father is Omni-Man, the world’s greatest superhero. Grayson struggles to forge his own identity while navigating the world of high school bullies and a first girlfriend. The CW-ish setup of the first episode serves as a foil to the horrific gore of the rest of the series.
Invincible presents violence differently than any other superhero television show before it. In most superhero media, violence is sanitized and glorified. Children’s action shows teach them that acts of violence as bloodless, painless events that rarely kill anyone but villains.
In 2012’s The Avengers, the team fights Loki in “The Battle of New York,” destroying enormous parts of the city. Zero civilian deaths were shown. When the superheroes finally do cause some on-screen collateral damage in 2016’s Civil War, it’s treated as a shocking anomaly.
Invincible treats violence more realistically. In our world, soldiers and law enforcement officers don’t only kill the “good guys.” And they’re not unaffected by a life of violence.
Killing might sometimes be necessary, but it always comes at a steep cost, to ourselves and to others.
M. Night Shyamalan’s trilogy spans the contemporary history of superhero films. Unbreakable came out the same year as X-Men, long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe began. The studio marketed it without mentioning the superhero angle, worried the genre wouldn’t perform at the box office.
The film takes superhero tropes and strips them away of any hint of the fantastic. Bruce Willis plays a security guard who spends most of his life not even realizing he has superpowers. They’ve just always felt like intuition to him.
As John Squires put it in an article at Bloody Disgusting, “Shyamalan imagines a comic book storyline that’s been stripped free of all the colorful, cartoonish commercialization of the artform, leaving only a very human story that damn near makes you believe that superheroes can (and perhaps do) exist in our world.”
By the time the trilogy concluded with Glass, superhero movies were the most reliable bet in the business. The coda claiming that “anyone can be a hero” seems hollow after being repeated so many times in the past decade, but Shyamalan’s focus on reality makes this didact feel like more than a perfunctory moral.
This Best Picture-winning film stars Michael Keaton as a washed-up Hollywood actor famous only for playing the superhero “Birdman.” He’s attempting to stage and star in a play based on a Raymond Carver story, but part of him is still Birdman and desires a return to the blockbusters that made his career.
I think of Birdman as the “Superman of La Mancha,” a thematic link director Alejandro González Iñárritu has pointed out in interviews.
“I see Riggan [Keaton’s character] as a Don Quixote. There is an innocence to him, but like many people, he has confused love with admiration, and he has to realise the irrelevance of this second quality,” he told BBC. A UCLA exhibit featured an 18th-century edition of the novel and quoted Iñárritu as elaborating “If you stretch tragedy, it will always become comedy. That’s the comedy that I like. And I always thought about Riggan Thomson as a Don Quixote of La Mancha, where humor comes from the disparity between his solemn, furious attempts and ambitions to become a serious artist and the ungovernable reality that is contrary to his wishes.”
Don Quixote deconstructs the character of the chivalrous knight in much the same way Birdmandoes so with the 21st-century version of the knight, the superhero.
Quixote is a man looking for a new purpose and distinction as he ages. He fuses with a fantasy image of himself as a knight errant. Throughout the two Quixote novels, the character moves through different levels of “sanity” and “insanity,” like Keaton’s character. The public grows to love Quixote and finds his lunacy hilarious, just as it loves Keaton’s excursion in his underwear and his destructive act toward the end of the film.
Birdman only makes sense with Michael Keaton playing the lead. It follows the Brechtian strategies of constantly reminding the audience it is watching artifice. It creates an eerie experience that forces viewers to constantly contrast the superhero character that Keaton embodied with the knowledge that Keaton is an actor with a life and motivations that are not the ones of the fictional Batman or Birdman. Here, it follows in the footsteps of earlier classics like Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, as Matthew Pejkovic examined in his review.
5) Wonder Woman
It seems like Hollywood is constantly forgetting and re-learning that movies with female leads can make money. A lot of money.
Fans of superhero films sat through three Iron Man and a couple of Hulk remakes before a female superhero got another shot. Wonder Woman was a low-risk project. Her character, unlike Black Widow or Captain Marvel, was already instantly recognizable among people who don’t read comics. The 1970s TV series with Lyda Carter had turned millions into Wonder Woman fans. The character’s long-established feminism and popularity helped to insulate it against the toxic criticism from the incel gangs that have attackedCaptain Marveland Ghostbusters.
If Wonder Woman had flopped, would it be added to Perlmutter’s list of reasons not to cast an actress in a lead role in the MCU?
But it didn’t flop, and its success has helped loosen the studio pursestrings to make other, riskier films that feature female superheroes. When Dark Phoenix did poorly in 2019, it didn’t feel like the end of the line for superhero women. And that’s because Hollywood had Wonder Woman to look back on.
4) Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
With the notable exception of Blade, pre-2018 Black characters in superhero films were always the sidekick, never the star.
“So the blockbuster seeks to flatter white peoples’ self-conception as “not perpetrators of racism” while also offering nonstereotyped black characters, thereby signifying the filmmakers’ respect for black actors and spectators. These films offer to multiple audience segments the opportunity to feel valued by the film.”
Claverie notes that “after the success of Batman Begins, Marvel Studios began casting major black stars as sidekicks, confidants, and enablers to white heroes while isolating them from any black social or political context. Heroes get lovers, dreams, and social histories; sidekicks do not.”
Claverie prophetically writes of the then-announced Black Pantherstand-alone movie, hoping it will give T’Challa a love interest and will speak about Wakanda’s technology, its relation to colonialism, and the transatlantic slave trade.
Fortunately, Black Panther was not the only Black superhero to make his mark that year. The animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse cast the biracial Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man, at least in his universe.
Both Black Panther and Spider-Verse were huge critical and blockbuster hits. Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture, while Spider-Verse won Best Animated Feature. Sequels are being made for both.
It’s too early to tell if their success means permanent change for superheroes and race. But it does set a positive precedent and momentum for the future.
Watchmen came out as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy was wrapping up and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was just getting underway. It offered a critique of superhero movies when they seemed to be at some sort of apex, but were in reality just starting to get underway.
In this sense, Watchmen may have come out too soon.
Zack Snyder stayed close to the source material, the comic book series written by Alan Moore and published from 1986 to 87. The series is widely regarded as the “Citizen Kane” of comics and is acclaimed by literary critics outside the world of comics.
In the story’s alternate history, the super team wins the Vietnam War for the United States, committing brutal acts of murder and rape along the way. They suppress the Watergate scandal and keep Nixon in power.
One, Doctor Manhattan, gives the U.S. the edge in the Cold War over the Soviet Union. He is the result of a nuclear accident and his radioactivity may be poisoning those around him. When he flees to Mars, America loses its protector, and the Soviet threat increases.
Another superhero plans an act of mass murder that, he believes, will end the Cold War and bring peace to the planet. The collateral damage is worth it to him.
From the brilliant opening scene to the horrific hijacking episode to Season 2’s fascist storyline, The Boys is an unsubtle, over-the-top satire that turns virtually every major part of the superhero genre on its head.
The comic began during the George W. Bush Administration, explaining the choice of “Homelander” as the name for the patriotic superhero leader, a parody of Superman and Captain America. Homelander and his team are portrayed in the media as the powerful saviors of humanity who embody the best of what America has to offer.
This, of course, is a front. Homelander and the rest of the “Seven” in reality function as corporate property – the most significant cogs in a money-making machine. The Vought Corporation protects its heroes’ public image while they perform their real task: inspiring the masses to grant their masters wealth and power.
It’s a caricature of the relationship Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and The Walt Disney Company have with their intellectual property.
The Boys continuously targets more and more aspects of American culture to satirize. The superheroes engage in the type of boardroom sexual predation the #MeToo movement has just begun to expose. They become mascots for warfare and the military-industrial complex.
The show does more with the theme of power and its abuses than any other show on this list.
Watchmen was released in late 2019. In retrospect, it almost seems to have been created to prepare America for the coming years of police violence, mask-wearing, and historical reckoning.
Like the 2009 film and the 1986 comic series, this iteration of Watchmen uses its deconstruction of superheroes to lead viewers into questioning American values. This HBO series soars beyond the source material by focusing squarely on America’s “original sin” – racism.
I'm a journalist and film enthusiast who lives in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I've been writing about movies for 15 years and I hosted a weekly movie review television show on UATV for two years.