My colleague Binyamin Appelbaum noticed something interesting yesterday: Robin Hood movies are tied to recessions. We're talking here about the adult Robin Hood movies. So set aside "Men in Tights" and the Disney cartoon. Instead, look at first major Robin Hood film, "The Adventures of Robin Hood". Release date? 1938. Similarly, "Prince of Thieves" came out in 1991, another recessionary year. And I ran a quick Google search: Sure enough, there's another Robin Hood movie slated for May of 2010.
Is there a similar pattern for superhero movies? We know that many of them tend to be topical. Look at The Dark Knight, which dealt with issues of terrorism and national security. But is there anything to when they are released?
There actually might be. However, I think the connection has more to do with politics, international affairs and culture than it does with economics.
Consider the first wave of really grand, popular superhero movies. It began in the late 1970s with Richard Donner's Superman. It is interesting because the 1960s and early 1970s marked the peak of the arm's race between the United States and the Soviet Union. And those who will remember the plot of Superman will recall that the villain, Lex Luthor, had plotted to deploy missiles to destroy a considerable portion of American soil, which was a big national fear at the time. But then, the valiant and heroic Superman, championing the spirit of America, defeated Luthor and brought him to justice.
Following the release of Superman, the late 1970s and 1980s saw the release of several successful superhero movies, including three sequels to the Donner film, Swamp Thing, Supergirl, The Toxic Avenger, The Punisher, Dick Tracy, and of course, Tim Burton's Batman. All of these movies had set the hero against a known villain, depicting the eternal struggle between good and evil. And all of them had occurred during a time when the social milieu of the United States was that of having an enemy to face.
Then came the 1990s, the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Suddenly, the United States did not have a single, firm enemy. And superhero movies became overshadowed by movies in which enemies, rather than being supervillains, were natural disasters. Armageddon, Deep Impact, Volcano, Dante's Peak, Twister, Avalanche, etc. were extremely popular movies during the decade. The few superhero films that did come out were much less successful. I need not dwell on the tragedy that was Batman and Robin.
Following 9/11, the United States had a new enemy: terrorism. And once again there was a resurgence in the release and the popularity of superhero films. Examples include the Spider-Man series, X-Men, Daredevil, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Hulk, and the list goes on. Superheroes were back in action, pounding the bad guys and standing up for what they believed to be right. The only difference is that in the new age, "right" and "wrong" are not as black and white as they appeared to be in the films of the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the superhero movies today deal with moral gray areas, such as the distinction between "hero" and "vigilante" as well as the difference between "villain" and "terrorist."
The one major film that does not quite fit into this paradigm is Bryan Singer's X-Men, which was released in 2000. Though this film seemed to be less about a battle between good vs. evil and more about persecution and acceptance. With lots of pounding.