In 2004, not long after the first two X-Men movies brought their mutant powers to multiplexes, Sam Raimi delivered one of the most emotionally affecting superhero films ever made: Spider-Man 2. Like the majority of mainstream Hollywood comic book releases that preceded it, starting with 1978’s genre-defining Superman: The Movie, Spider-Man 2 focused primarily on one individual, his desire to protect average citizens, and the challenge of reconciling that desire with his more “mild-mannered” alter ego. There was no team of heroes in Spider-Man 2 as there was in X-Men. It was a hero’s journey, singular, and one that struck a chord because, even though most of us can’t shoot spiderwebs out of our wrists, we can relate to the basic issues Peter Parker deals with, from his urge to lead a simple, happy existence to his wish that the love of his life would make a U-turn and head back into his orbit. Spider-man’s abilities may have been extraordinary, but his struggle was real.
In the dozen years since Spider-Man 2’s release, the comic book movie, as a genre, has grown even more dominant. At this particular moment — as Captain America: Civil War hits theaters with a fully loaded ensemble cast of Marvel heroes, including, yes, Spider-Man — it feels like the genre is officially entering a new era, one where the hero’s journey, singular, has been supplanted by the heroes’ journey, plural.
In 2016, superhero movies are all about groups, posses, teams. They’re focused more on squad goals and resolving intra-organizational squabbles than individual internal conflict or a single justice-vigilante’s hunger to help the average citizen. It’s a trend that coincides with studio efforts, pioneered by Marvel and now being duplicated by Warner Bros. and DC Comics, to build these films into so-called cinematic universes, where each comic-inspired sequel and spin-off narratively interlocks with the others, mimicking what comic books have long done. In a way, the act of enjoying comic book movies itself almost feels like being part of a club. If you don’t go through the proper initiation ritual — say, watching and fully absorbing most of the dozen previously released Marvel Cinematic Universe movies before seeing Captain America: Civil War — there’s a chance you’ll feel left out.