January 06, 2013 at 12:00 PM EST

Imagine a world where everyone is a superhero. Would you like to live there? Do you think it would be better than our own world? Or would it be worse? This is an important question, because judging by the most successful movies made in 2012, our country — and our world — really likes superheroes. We all know that the two highest-grossing films of 2012 were about superheroes – The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. The third major superhero movie released last summer was, The Amazing Spider-Man, which earned $262 million domestically. It was the sixth-highest-grossing movie of the year in American theaters. We tend to lump these movies together because they are all about costumed codenamed characters who originated in comic books. They are Superhero Movies.

But when you actually watch the movies, they don’t initially seem to have very much in common. The Avengers is an ensemble action comedy, essentially a superpowered riff on the Love, Actually model, with each spin-off superhero’s character arc mixing together into what amounts to a series of mini-movies. (The final battle in New York = “All I Want For Christmas is You.”) The Dark Knight Rises is a bleak epic with explicit (perhaps desperate) Dickens references. It barely seems interested in its own superhero – you could chop out all the scenes with Batman in-costume and still have 90 minutes of a movie. (It would basically be The Siege without Denzel Washington.) The two movies feel like diametric opposites, Goofus and Gallant, colorful and monochrome; one promises the moviegoer a whole series of neverending adventures in a universe filled with heroes, while the other is an explicit capital-C Conclusion to a capital-S Saga, filled with capital-T Themes.

Meanwhile, redheaded stepchild Amazing Spider-Man is essentially a hyper-extended remake of the first half hour of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man which plays like a weird attempt to mash-up The Dark Knight and Twilight, but which is also arguably far more human-focused than the other films. The characters in Amazing Spider-Man interact with a real-feeling awkwardness; compared to the Joss Whedon Banter Brigade and the Christopher Nolan Expositionbots, Amazing Spider-Man feels like a Cassavetes family drama.

So Superhero Movies have evolved to the point where three of the genre’s standard-bearers can embody radically different filmmaking styles – this is a good thing, right? Well, maybe. But the problem is, when you dig underneath the three films’ respective stylistic excesses – and they are excesses; few genres in film history are more fundamentally decadent than the Superhero Film, with the ever-expanding budgets and the swooping digital-effects-crane-shots and the ruined cityscapes and the supervillains planning to conquer/pillage/destroy every city/world/galaxy in sight – there is a depressing sameness to lurking within each movie’s basic DNA. The essential tenets of the modern-day Superhero Movie are:

1. The main character must triumph over their own self-doubt. Indeed, the whole process of becoming a hero becomes a process of Messianic self-realization. Weirdly, all three of these movies are origin stories, even though Avengers and Dark Knight are sequels and The Amazing Spider-Man is a reboot. (And the tendency to focus on origin stories isn’t stopping anytime soon.) This means that all of these movies revel in hyper-extending the audience’s experience of the “Ghost Ship” moment. The Avengers is a movie about superheroes who decide, in the third act, to become The Avengers; The Dark Knight Rises is a movie about a guy who, around the two-hour mark, finally decides to rise – like, literally and figuratively, y’know?

2. The main character must also triumph over adversity. However, that “adversity” does not just represent the nominal villains of the piece; it also represents societal forces which are charged with maintaining order, and which view the hero as a detriment to that order. Spider-Man and Batman are both hunted by policemen; the Avengers are assailed throughout their own movie by the hilariously shadowy World Security Council, who all appear to be calling in on a Skype line from their own private rendition of “Our Town.” This arguably makes the heroes of these movies “misfits,” although it’s probably more accurate to call them descendants of the ’70s loose-cannon cop figure: “You’re off the case, McGarnagle!”

3. On the flip side, even if our heroes are hunted by authority figures, they are praised, even sanctified, by the masses. Batman has become a cult hero in Dark Knight Rises. The first two Iron Man movies establish that the movie incarnation of Tony Stark is a beloved tycoon, Howard Hughes without the dark side, Steve Jobs without the turtlenecks — for that matter, he’s Tony Stark without the alcoholism. And Amazing Spider-Man features the Crane Swing Scene, in which every construction worker in New York teams up with Spider-Man – it’s a vision so ridiculous and sublime and Proletarian that it could have come out of Eisenstein.

4. The heroes’ goodness is constantly called into question, but is ultimately and irrefutably confirmed. There is, in the end, no moral gray area; even characters like Catwoman or the Hulk, who explicitly follow their own anarchic moral code, will wind up selflessly fighting for the cause of human decency by Act 3.

5. The movies exist in a universe built on franchise iconography. This could manifest itself in visuals that are abstract (the child drawing the Bat-symbol in chalk in The Dark Knight Rises), or visuals that are eerily precise (Spider-Man, encountering yet another villain on yet another New York bridge; Batman, getting a kneecap to the spine) or winking dialogue where the whole joke is in the reference (“Hulk smash puny God”).

6. None of the main characters ever die. Any main characters who do die are not really important, and their main purpose is to become a sacrificial lambs whose death serves to justify/inspire the hero’s journey. (See: Agent Coulsen in The Avengers; Rachel Dawes and Batman’s Murdered Parents in the Dark Knight trilogy; Uncle Ben, Captain Stacy, and Spider-Man’s Murdered Parents in Amazing Spider-Man.)

7. Each films revels in an image of self-sacrifice. Batman flying a Nuclear Reactor over the ocean; Iron Man flying a Nuclear Missile into a Black Hole; and, on a slightly less-nuclear note, Peter Parker promising to the dying Captain Stacy that he will stay away from Gwen. In turn, each film ultimately undercuts that self-sacrifice. Batman survives and moves to Europe; Iron Man survives and orders shawarma; Peter Parker basically waits a week after Captain Stacy’s funeral before he flirts with Gwen Stacy again. It’s a have-your-cake-and-eat-it form of catharsis – which, to be fair, is also what happens to the protagonist of the Gospels.

8. There is no blood. And no swearing. And nothing that could possibly come close to earning the movies an R rating.

Here’s the interesting thing. If you remove the costumed-codename requirement and use these six key commonalities, then a funny thing happens when you look at the highest-grossing movies of 2012: They are all superhero movies. Or, anyhow, the top 7 are. The Hunger Games (#3) was, in book form, a darkly comic send-up of reality TV which doubled as an effective thriller; the movie removed all the sting of the satire and reconfigured Katniss Everdeen into a crossbow-wielding superheroine. She has her very own Uncle Ben – poor Rue, born to die.

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