Over at io9, Charlie Jane Anders has a post about lessons learned by the entertainment industry in 2014, and her number one lesson is that subject header above. And I think she’s wrong.
There are two ways to come at the question. First, do we pin the blame of a box office failure on a poorly-used plot structure? Well, you can try, but it’s not very convincing. Eventually, we’ll have something like Raimi’s version of Spider-man which, for all its flaws, made the structure of super-powered-nice-guy-vigilante-with-two-identities-trying-to-stop-crime-in-secret really come together. Audiences went nuts for the first one, and if they’re less enthusiastic now it’s because later iterations have been really, really flawed, and far too familiar.
But are superheroes a genre?
What unifies the books in the horror genre? The emotion they invoke.
What unifies the books in the mystery genre? The central plot question.
What unifies the books in the western genre? The setting.
What unifies the books in the fantasy genre? A plot element.
Some genres are easy to mix. You write a scary story set in the Wild West: Horror western. You write a romantic story with fantasy elements: Fantasy romance.
So the real question becomes: Are superheroes a “plot element” genre or are they a plot structure genre? While it’s true that there’s a standard plot formula that has become associated with superheroes (true with any genre, really), the remainder of the “superheroes are not a genre” argument Ms. Anders makes demonstrates how well they mingle with other genres.
Notice also that those other genres are mainly settings and plot structures: dystopian time-travel, space opera, etc. That’s because the superhero genre is a “plot element” style. You wouldn’t say that Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier isn’t a superhero movie because it has spy thriller plot. It’s both, in the same way that Romancing the Stone is a romance and an adventure.
BTW, did you know that I’ve been pitching my new trilogy as “Epic Fantasy that reads like a Thriller”? It’s epic fantasy because of the setting and the inclusion of magic, and it’s a thriller because of the pace and tone. Genres based on different things are easy to mix. Genres that are very similar can be really difficult.