With 2022 seeing the wide popularity of superhero/horror genre mashups, the subgenre may start catching on to become a new movement.
This year saw the Marvel Cinematic Universe tackling yet another new subgenre in its catalog of superhero genre mashups: horror. Between Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Moon Knight and Werewolf by Night, 2022 really was the year of the superhero horror story. With Marvel’s influence and all these massive hits, the superhero-horror genre mashup may easily start to become a trend going forward. While the two genres have certainly crossed over the past (Batman Returns, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the mashup has usually been viewed by big studios as alienating to the younger, assumed target demo for the comic book picture. But now, with these stories selling well, the mashup might become the next big thing.
The superhero movie genre has been around since the 1940s, and while it has gone through changes, it wasn’t really until the last decade, when the MCU gained the “too big to fail” right to experiment, that the idea of mashing up the superhero film with other movie sub-genres became trendy. The 2000s superhero films were generally visually dark and gritty and crime-thriller-esque in a bid for cred in a market that only took visually dark “realistic” cinema seriously. But the 2010s saw some change to that trend, and the MCU started trying on new genres like spy thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), teen comedy (Spider-Man: Homecoming), sitcom (WandaVision) and beyond. Now genre experimentation is almost expected.
The Evolution of the Superhero Horror Movie: From Batman to Scarlet Witch
The superhero movie and the horror genre have certainly crossed over before. As mentioned, Batman Returns was such a scary picture to kid fans in 1992 that McDonald’s pulled its happy meal toy deal. Plenty of horror franchises like Buffy and the slasher sub-genre have taken inspiration from the superhero comic. But these experiments were usually either controversial attempts to bring horror into the comic book film like Batman Returns or horror franchises, like most subgenres in speculative fiction often do, following some of the blueprint laid out by comic books rather than a full-on genre mashup like the MCU enjoys.
Then 2022 saw the two genres suddenly blend perfectly. Certainly, shows like The Boys and Invincible have laid some groundwork for superhero stories to go graphic and horrifying. But having the mainstream superhero Big Two, and, in particular, The Big One, the MCU, make so many horror mashups and do so on a grand, box-office and ratings-conquering, possibly award-nominated scale has made superhero horror into a household name. The idea is out of the box and has proven that it will no longer be forbidden for fear of canceled Happy Meal deals. So will it become a trend?
Why Did the Superhero Horror Genre Boom So Suddenly?
The mashing together of horror and superhero is a rather curious pairing when given some thought. Superhero stories are usually fundamentally about extraordinary individuals battling evil and succeeding. Be it The Avengers vs. Thanos, Superman vs. Lex Luthor, Batman vs. the Joker, etc., the heroes face evil and eradicate it. This is also true of horror, of course; Laurie vs. Michael, Van Helsing vs. Dracula, the hero vs. the villain conflict usually plays out in both. The usual difference, however, is that in the traditional superhero tale, the hero triumphs, justice wins and evil is vanquished. In horror, even if the protagonist does succeed in killing the monster, there is rarely that sense of good triumphant in the end.
So if this genre mashup is truly becoming a trend, what changed in the last decade to make it viable to unite two genres with such fundamentally different focuses? Perhaps the change came with the Snap in Infinity War. When the MCU proved that the biggest superhero movie of the year could follow the horror format — a monstrous villain succeeds in slowly killing heroes who struggle in vain against the murderous onslaught until the chilling finale leaves a body count bigger than any horror film — suddenly the doors were wide open. And with that new permission, the horror-superhero floodgates are open. Hopefully, this concept will flow in both directions: Horror is big at the box office and has plenty of crossover franchise potential, and the MCU has, so far, only benefited from making their comic book heroes a little spookier.