This piece is part of the The Whiplash Decade, a package on the wild ride that was the 2010s.
The most significant pop-culture story of the decade is superhero culture’s evolution from nerd culture to monoculture. Nothing else has altered the map as profoundly; nothing else that seemed this unlikely 10 years ago feels as inevitable and possibly irreversible now. It feels weird to even refer to superheroes as “nerd culture” at this point. It’s like calling Facebook “computer culture.”
But for the record, there was once a social cost associated with being into superhero fiction past the age of 14 or so; it marked you as an immature or unserious person. When people made movies and TV shows based on comic books they were generally pretty bad; bad in a cynical why-try-harder way, and largely uninterested in digging into the thematic richness of their source material. Even the okay ones weren’t tailored to the tastes of people with a preexisting investment in the characters or otherwise optimized as product. The best you could hope for, as a comic-book-loving moviegoer, was either a competent action film that happened to be about Blade or the Punisher, or an actual filmmaker running away with comic-book subject matter in some interesting direction: Ang Lee using the Hulk to tell a story about the sons of angry fathers, or Tim Burton using Batman and Catwoman to tell a story about freaks. If any of the people making these movies and shows imagined their work might someday tie into a massive interconnected fictional universe to rival the Star Wars galaxy, they kept that weird notion to themselves.
Anyway, that was then, and in terms of comic-book-based filmmaking you could argue that “now” starts in 2005 with Batman Begins, the first of three self-serious and super-well-made Christopher Nolan movies starring Christian Bale as Batman. Or it starts in 2008, when Jon Favreau’s Iron Man made almost $100 million during its opening weekend. There’s also a case to be made that the advent of nerd-culture entertainment not watered down for general-audience consumption starts with the shift from the interpretive to the comprehensive — the…