Diana Prince and Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman

The superhero movie genre needs more period dramas

Contributed by
Apr 19, 2018

Rudyard Kipling once said, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Cinema has long played a part in helping people remember the past, and now, as the comic book movie has become a dominant genre in the film industry, it's time to make more of them set within the annals of history.

There was certainly precedence for this seven years ago, when two major superhero movies premiered in theaters, both of them boasting a period drama label. The first, in May 2011, was 20th Century Fox’s X-Men: First Class. Two months later, Disney introduced Steve Rogers to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Captain America: The First Avenger

X-Men: First Class, the fifth in the franchise, traveled back to 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, to introduce Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr (Magneto) as young men before they became adversaries. Captain America: The First Avenger was set 20 years earlier, during World War II, and centered on a sickly Steve Rogers and his transformation into a super soldier who would come up against the Nazis and the Red Skull.

Since then, there has been an increase in superhero movies taking place in the past. Warner Bros. chose to set its solo Wonder Woman film during the First World War, with Diana heading to the front to battle both the Central Powers forces and the god Ares. The plot benefited greatly from the historical backdrop and context it provided, and now the sequel may be set in the '80s, during the Cold War. Still to come are X-Men: Dark Phoenix and Captain Marvel, both set in the '90s. This might not be entirely applicable to Dark Phoenix (which takes place just after X-Men: Apocalypse), but the latter's setting in the past means that its narrative and character arcs do not have to be influenced by events of movies set in the present day.

Captain Marvel Brie Larson Pilot Training

Credit: Marvel Studios

Captain Marvel gets to use characters from the MCU that have already fallen, like Ronan the Accuser and Korath the Pursuer, who previously appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy. If Marvel Studios chose to set more of their movies in the past they would be able to reintroduce additional characters and fan favorites who deserve more of a run, like Peggy Carter.

That film will also allow Brie Larson's hero to shine without having her story diluted by the presence of the Avengers, or vice versa. Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige has said that Captain Marvel is the most powerful hero in the MCU so far, so if she was knocking around in the 21st century, the Avengers would be second-tier heroes. However, by setting it in the '90s, Carol Danvers is free to face off against the Skrull villains and enjoy her own narrative while Steve Rogers is still cryogenically frozen, Thor is back on Asgard, Natasha Romanoff is in training to become a Russian spy, Tony Stark is dealing with the death of his parents (maybe, depending on the exact date), and Bruce Banner is simply just ... being Bruce Banner.

The brilliant thing about the superhero period drama, like Captain Marvel, is that it doesn't need to interfere with the present-day Marvel movies but instead offers a separate narrative that works to enhance both the genre and the breadth of storytelling. It also gives subordinated individuals a chance to lead.

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So often when it comes to historical films or non-romantic period dramas, the stories revolve around men. To quote Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” and that has long been the case for cinema, even in the fictional retellings of historic events in superhero movies.

However, through Wonder Woman and the sadly short-lived Agent Carter TV series, women were put at the center of these historical moments and able to offer a brilliant commentary on the social and cultural issues of the time. Both the Warner Bros. film and the Marvel series highlighted the gross misogyny and sexism of each era but gave ultimate agency to their super-women in order to demonstrate the wrongness of those patriarchal attitudes. Future superhero movies could do something similar, but with established or new heroes.

Take, for example, an X-Men movie. Instead of using the mutant crisis as a metaphor for the civil rights movement, both events could be occurring simultaneously, pairing fictional and real-life struggle. It would provide a perspective on the cultural event that’s not entirely dominated by the central white points of view of Professor Xavier and Magneto, but rather the mutants of color, like Storm. Ororo Munroe has no doubt experienced prejudice in terms of her sex, race, and mutant status, but more often than not she has been pushed to the margins of the onscreen X-Men narrative. 

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The Suffragists

There’s also the scope for an alternative historical narrative that has already proven successful for TV shows like Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, films like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and even comic book movies like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen.  Marvel Studios could bring to the big screen a new superhero group like the Suffragists, who appeared in the alternative Earth-12591 universe. Columbia, Libertas, Miss America, and Riveter battled Nazi zombies, who in this multiverse had won World War II, but managed to save the day. An adaptation of that comic book run would allow for more female heroes from diverse backgrounds to take center stage and improve the rather lacking female perspective that currently exists in the MCU.

Disney, Fox, Sony, and Warner Bros. have so much rich comic book material from several decades to work with that it seems obvious to expand their investment in the superhero period drama—and the commercial and critical success of this kind of movie proves they’re worth continuing. Here’s hoping their writers don’t stop looking back at history in order to bring future superhero stories to life.