July 16, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s been a decade since X-Men first dressed Hugh Jackman in leather and claws, and since then the multiplex has seen more styles of spandex than Lady Gaga’s dressing room. Quippy do-gooders (Spider-Man) have worn it, and so have brooding vigilantes (Batman). By now, even people who don’t know the Hulk from Shrek get the whole superhero thing. Superheroes have origin stories, secret identities, and superpowers. They attract enemies, but can’t keep a girlfriend. They can be metaphors for timely themes (e.g., terrorism, gay rights) and timeless values, but all of them can be boiled down to Peter Parker’s maxim ”With great power comes great responsibility.” So as we enter the second decade of modern big-screen masked avengers, we wonder: Do superheroes have anything more to say?

Comic books themselves have had to wrestle with that very question many times over the past 70 years. In fact, almost all modern superhero movies come from two distinct comic-book renaissance periods: (1) the ”Marvel revolution” of the ’60s, which put a contemporary, relatable face on superheroes and gave us Spider-Man, Iron Man, Daredevil, The X-Men, and The Fantastic Four; and (2) the late-’80s edge-and-irony era, which made the good guys as morally dubious as the bad guys and gave us Hellblazer, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, and Frank Miller’s bleak Batman reboot, The Dark Knight Returns. All that edge and irony made comics cool again, but over time it actually narrowed the appeal of the medium to just the geekiest geeks.

Today that same comic-book history seems to be repeating itself on movie screens. In the aftermath of Christopher Nolan’s $533 million-grossing The Dark Knight — and the relative failure of the earnest Superman Returns — Hollywood became glib and grim about superheroes, with mixed results. Zack Snyder’s epic translation of Watchmen grossed just $107 million, in part because it connected best with the more hardcore fans. Already this year the edgy Jonah Hex (think Ghost Rider-goes-country) tanked, and Kick-Ass, Matthew Vaughn’s witty adaptation of the ironic meta-hero, arrived in theaters with great reviews and still mustered only $48 million. The buzzy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World — a quirky romantic comedy that spoofs both superhero and videogame conventions — hopes to fare better when it opens next month. The year of superhero irreverence will conclude with the animated Megamind, in which the villain (Will Ferrell) is the star and the hero (Brad Pitt) is an insufferable ass.

When any movie genre starts toying with parody, it’s a sign that the genre may be played out. With our caped crusaders swimming around in self-referential fare, does that mean the superhero movie is past its prime? We may know the answer by this time next year. The summer of 2011 will bring three new franchises that cross genre lines: Green Lantern, starring Ryan Reynolds, is science fiction; Thor, starring Chris Hemsworth, is mythic fantasy; and Captain America: The First Avenger, starring Chris Evans, is a war movie. If they succeed, the next decade of superhero cinema could be as fertile as the last, and, one hopes, marked by greater diversity. (Cut to Wonder Woman, impatiently tapping her red leather boot.)

Should next year’s mystery men fail to Flame on!, Hollywood can still look to comic-book history for guidance. After the edge-and-irony era threatened to limit readership, publishers reached out to new audiences by giving makeovers to characters that had been collecting dust. Hollywood is already following that example by rebooting franchises that aren’t even old. Matthew Vaughn will relaunch X-Men next summer. The year after? Sony’s next-gen Spider-Man, starring Andrew Garfield as the new-model Peter Parker. Yes, the same heroes who ignited the current superhero boom are not only being revamped for a new generation, they may be burdened with the great responsibility of revitalizing the very genre they started. Hopefully there’s a superpower for that.

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