Desire for escapism fuels success of superhero films

Like the rest of America, I spent last weekend at a movie theater with two of my kids, watching the latest Marvel movie, “Avengers: Endgame.”

This is a movie that in a single weekend made $357 million in the United States, and $1.2 billion globally. There is little doubt, at this point, that it will end up becoming the highest grossing film of all time.

Aven LaPlant, 10, of Bucksport, has his picture taken with The Pine State Heroes, including Dr. Strange, Dead Pool, Captain America, and many other Marvel super heroes Thursday night at the “Avengers: Endgame” premiere at Bangor Mall Cinemas. Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, to which this movie is the grand culmination of, began in 2008 with the release of “Iron Man.” Overall, the franchise has released 22 films that have made roughly $20 billion.

These are all, of course, superhero and comic book movies.

It has been remarkable to watch the rise of this type of film over the last 10 to 20 years. Not just comic book movies, but science fiction, fantasy, and all forms of escapism are on the rise.

Consider this. In 1987, the highest grossing film in the world was “Fatal Attraction,” a psychological thriller. The next year, 1988, it was “Rain Man,” a comedy drama. In 1989, it was “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” an action-adventure film. 1990 it was “Ghost,” a romantic thriller. Then came “Terminator 2” (science-fiction and action), “Aladdin” (animated family), “Jurassic Park” (science-fiction and adventure), “Lion King” (animated family), “Toy Story” (animated family), “Independence Day” (science fiction), and then “Titanic” (romance/disaster) in 1997.

You see a trend or two in that list, but it is still pretty varied.

The further back in time you go, the more varied the genre claiming the top prize. Crime films, straight dramas, romantic comedies, historical fiction, you name it.

But for the last 20 years, starting with “Star Wars Episode I” in 1999, there has been a nearly unbroken line of science fiction and superhero films that have emerged as the top grossing film of the year.

This year it is “Avengers: Endgame.” Last year it was “Avengers: Infinity War.” Before that, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Then came “Captain America: Civil War,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and the most recent Transformers movie.

Indeed, the one “blip” in this pattern was “Frozen” in 2013, and in reality that is a fantasy movie about an ice princess who has magical powers commanding the cold. So, I don’t think it diverges much from the pattern.

Lord of the Rings movies. More Star Wars. Batman. “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Harry Potter.

Our fictional tastes for two decades seem to be entirely focused around superpowers, magic, and futuristic space travel.

What is the thing that these movies all have in common?

All of them — each and every one — seek to transport us away from the current bitter, divided, miserable society we live in today, and bring us to another one that is completely and totally divorced from our reality.

It is impossible for us, today, to get away from the constant conflict in our lives. Political bickering that never ends. People offended at everything. Moral ambiguity in even the most banal of things.

We’re all tiptoeing around each other, waiting to explode. Easter dinner is just waiting to turn into an unstoppable, completely unproductive argument over Donald Trump. Social media posts about children playing baseball turn into arguments evoking Adolf Hitler. Sending off a text message to someone ends up getting misinterpreted because of the lack of human connection, and you get in an argument with a friend you didn’t mean to get into.

It never ends. It is relentless, and it never stops. Our supposedly interconnected paradise has turned into an exhausting experience that we desperately need a break from.

It used to be you could lose yourself in music. Yet now, musical artists are in a competition with each other over who can weigh in on the issues of the day faster, in order to virtue signal to America at large.

It used to be you could lose yourself in sports. Now everything from kneeling for the national anthem to political tweets by sports stars is sucking all the diverting joy out of that too.

And so, the world turns to movies. Desperate for a way out, desperate for a distraction, desperate for a societal armistice, they turn to movies about men that can fly and women that can punch space aliens, as their last hope for their desperately needed escapism.

Is it any wonder these movies have taken over the entertainment landscape? I don’t think so. And the only thing that can stop this is if they, too, try to drag the real world into these havens. It is only a matter of time, and when it happens these giant box office totals will decline.

But until then, pass the popcorn.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.