INEVER have been drawn to serious superheroes. Yet, given that the phenomenon now has taken over much of mainstream cinema, this makes things a bit dodgy for a film professor. Of course, one only can study a genre if it is broken down more fully. Consequently, what one would call the world of Marvel Comics really falls under the still-broad genre umbrella of fantasy.
Fantasy is best considered with the sister genres of horror and science fiction. All three categories normally are placed under the designation sometimes called "genres of the fantastic." One might liken it to that violent crime parasol that covers gangster movies, film noir, and prison pictures. Parallels can exist, and even combine in the same movie, such as iconic gangster James Cagney's "White Heat" (1949), which includes a pivotal prison section. Indeed, given its period violence, and Cagney's unraveling mental condition, some critics have labeled it as film noir.
Regardless, returning to genres of the fantastic, some basic differences are present For instance, fantasy embraces things that never can happen, from Dorothy in "Oz," to the superhero of your choice. In contrast, science fiction is supposed to have one foot in reality. For instance, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004) is a near-future sci-fi in which clinics can provide low-grade lobotomies to erase painful memories. Fittingly, almost immediately, The New York Times revealed that such a scenario was approaching rapidly. Horror is something that always has existed--man's "Jekyll and Hyde" nature. This is one of the pivotal stories Stephen King's Danse Macabre credits as the face of horror.
King's perspective might best be showcased by "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006), a dark fairy tale that segues into horror. Set in 1944 Franco Spain, it has early fantasy components--an unhappy youngster finds herself upon a quest to find "home." There even is the standard scary figure, a most-disturbing beast with eyes in his hands, which he holds to his featureless face like a macabre mask. Yet, the real genre horror story fiend is the Fascist stepfather. His child-killing "theater of the real" ending makes the genre somewhat ambiguous.
Consistent with "Pan's Labyrinth," the genres of the fantastic seem to have a greater compounding tendency than other groupings, "White Heat" notwithstanding. For instance, one critic described the original "Alien" (1979) as just "a haunted house in outer space," with Sigourney Weaver's cat...