How long will the Superhero Era last? Searching for clues in the history of family comedies

In a few weeks, with the arrival of Captain America: Civil War, one more superhero film will march on the box office and swallow the planet”s culture whole. And once again, we will ask: how long can this go on?

Not long ago, a person could go to the multiplex in the middle months of the year and barely glimpse a superhero. 10 years ago, in between Superman and X-Men, there was still plenty of room for pirates, cars, spies, and gangsters. 20 years ago, there wasn”t a cape to be found in the movie theaters and we made do with aliens, tornadoes, hard-charging lawyers, and Renée Zellweger.

These days, however, from March to September, you can”t go near the multiplex without getting slapped in the face by an airborne cape.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, but the superhero genre has already far outlived fad status. So how long will the Marvel/DC hammer rest upon us? Are the end days at hand for Iron Man et al, or are they just getting warmed up? To all evidence, the films are only getting bigger and more popular.

To get some sense of a genre”s trajectory, we turned to history: specifically the history of the genre that dominated television for most of the device”s existence. From the 1950s to the 1990s, the family sitcom, centered around the dinner table, was America”s leading form of entertainment. From the Cleavers to the Bundys, families ruled the airwaves as the dinosaurs once ruled the earth.

But eventually, in the way of all flesh, the mighty family comedy proved mortal. By the end of the 1990s, they occupied but a humble corner of the landscape, outshadowed by gritty dramas, doctor shows, workplace comedies, and most fatally – the sitcom built around a bunch of friends all just hanging out.

How did the family comedy go from all powerful to nearly extinct? And what does this trajectory say about the fate of superheroes? Let”s take a look at the Eras of Family Comedies and see what they say about the road ahead for Batman and friends.

The Golden Age: The Nuclear Family
1950s – 1960s

The formational age of TV sitcom genre, in which the new medium found its footing in that coziest of settings, the American family home. In the journey from The Honeymooners to Leave It To Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet, the sitcom shed its early harsh edges and rough urban setting, to become cozy, suburban and uncomplicated. It focused on the domestic adventures of a single American family constructed along archetypal lines, consisting of a mother, a father, and preferably two children, preferably both boys.

The birth of the current superhero boom is generally pegged to Spider-Man“s debut in 2002; a film which shed away the campy mugging of the earlier, stumbling attempts at the superhero genre for a slick, technologically turbo-charged new vision. The films of this early, formative period sought iconic, mythical heroic plots centered around a single hero, spending great swaths of time on the creation stories to build up larger-than-life iconic characters. The Dark Knight, Iron Man and Thor films are the other great series of the Golden Age.

• Bridge to the next era: While the 60s were still in progress, the sitcom was straining to break out of its four person, nuclear family confines. My Three Sons pointed the way forward to a world where a family could be contain more than two children.

The Silver Age: Big Family

Eventually the comic possibilities of mom, dad and their two, and no more than two, kids were going to be exhausted. For TV, that process took 20 years but the end of the nuclear family”s reign came at last. By the 1970s audiences were restless and for the creative minds behind the sitcom, that meant – give them more. Family sized suddenly exploded. We were no longer watching anyone”s just three sons, but the whole Brady Bunch (including cousin Oliver), and the sprawling endless expanse of the Partridges.

Likewise, after a few dozen origin stories and stories of a superhero standing toe-to-toe with his arch-nemesis, it was time to supersize things. The Avengers burst through, bubbling with superheroes out of every pore. Suddenly having a movie built around just one little super felt measly, like you were cheating the audiences out of their money”s worth. Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Guardians of the Galaxy ensured moviegoers would never have to make do with a mere one superhero on their night out.

• Bridge to the next era: For some daring creative types, big wasn”t enough in the 1970s, and they had to experiment with the notion of “What is a family really?” With A Family Affair, suddenly the hearth was occupied by two children, their bachelor uncle and an omnipresent butler.  

The Bronze Age: Incomprehensible Family

The growth of family size couldn”t go on forever.  With the arrival of the drama Eight is Enough television had squeezed about as many children under one family”s care as they could legally manage. Left with nowhere to grow, the family structure freaked out and we entered an age where children and grown-ups and Uncle Jesses were thrown together in seemingly random combinations for a world of hodgepodge full houses. No more was dad cracking the whip while mom tended to the pot roast. Instead we were left wondering, Whom, indeed, was the Boss? Why was Charles in charge?

On the superhero side, having filled up the screen with more capes than anyone could count, studios were at a loss how to top the Big Family films. Flailing for something more, they kicked off an era of chaotic experiments, mixing up the formula by increasingly desperate means. It was no longer Superman and Batman but Superman versus Batman, as the pair became the least convincing enemies in cinema. X-Men: Days of Future Past attempted to stir things up with a time travel, generational crossover melange that even fans had a hard time explaining.  And finally – Civil War. Let”s just throw the whole superhero universe into battle – with each other.

• Counter Example: Amidst this confusion of the Incomprehensible Family era, the reigning TV sitcom was actually something out of the Golden Age.The Cosby Show was built around as traditional a family as one could find. But while popular, Cosby stands as an outlier reacting against its age, but leading very few back to the past and ultimately, having little impact in the genre”s progress.

The Styrofoam Age: Ironic Family

Having torn apart the family structure to a point beyond recognition, there was no putting Humpty Dumpty back together again and returning to the good old fashioned family. All that was left to do was mock its own history. Led by Rosanne, Married With Children, and The Simpsons, family sitcoms in this era became self-aware satires of the genre and its icons.

Unfortunately, as the playwright George S. Kaufman observed, “Satire is what closes Saturday night.” Having turned themselves into joke, TV families had nowhere left to go and largely disappeared from the airwaves giving way to office and friend-based comedy.

For superheroes, the Ironic Age clearly is off and running with Deadpool, which tapped into a sense of exhaustion and confusion with the genre, exciting audiences with its ability to subvert a genre which has become impossibly bloated and overwrought. For many in the industry, Deadpool“s success means self-mockery must the path to riches, and others will surely follow suit. Unfortunately, satire is a one-joke show, and a joke that will age quickly. And there is one sure thing about the the march of genres: it moves one way only.  There”s no putting the genie back and declaring the Golden Age hereby rebooted – as the makers of the ill-fated Spider-Man update discovered.  

And so the future course is clear for Superheroes. However, a goliath this size does not die quickly or surrender the stage easily, and even when the soul has died, it remains an open question how long the body can still flail about.