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Warner Bros | Lions Gate Films

How Horror Movie Directors are Screaming Up Superhero Success

Countless superhero movies that have been helmed by former horror directors have gone on to massive box office success. What's the secret element that makes horror directors so good at making superhero films?
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Some of the biggest superhero films of the past two decades were created by horror movie directors. We’re talking about the likes of Sam Raimi, James Wan, Zack Snyder, and David F. Samberg. These directors have all found success behind the camera of superhero films as well as horror movies.

These two genres, on paper, couldn’t be more different. In a horror movie, the characters are often powerless against a monstrous threat. In superhero films, the protagonist is powerful by definition and obliterates the threat with their superior fighting abilities.

However, when you look a little deeper, you can see all the ways that shooting a horror movie would prepare a director for the world of superhero cinema.

Striking a Tone

James Gunn gets audiences to relate to Harley Quinn, of all people, in the new Suicide Squad film.

In both superhero fiction and horror fiction, the creator needs to work to marry fantastical elements and the real world in a way that allows the story to feel like it has real stakes. Superheroes are more awe-inspiring when their stories take place in a world like ours, while horror movies are more frightening when they feel like they could happen in the world you know.

In both of these cases, setting the stage with relatable human characters before gradually amping up the fantasy elements is important for the director.

Special Effects

Justice League
Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League pulled in huge streaming numbers for HBO Max. | Image: Clay Enos/©Warner Bros. Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Both genres rely heavily on believable special effects. The best examples in both genres use numerous practical effects that make the action believable. While CGI and VFX are great, true special effects can make a film feel grounded, which helps with the tone and realism that make these stories more affecting.

Learning the best ways to bring horrors to life in the horror genre prepares directors to create believable superhero action using practical effects. This is on display with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, where many of the wall-crawler’s stunts are performed with practical effects like wires and camera tricks.

Making You Feel It

The best horror and superhero movies alike make you feel what the protagonists are feeling. If you’re watching a horror movie and you aren’t feeling as scared as the main characters, then something went wrong. But, when the movie does it right and puts you in the shoes of the characters, the scares feel more genuine and earned.

These skills translate perfectly to the best superhero movies, where identifying with the title character is the whole point of the movie. In Shazam, for instance, feeling like you’re an underdog who develops superpowers by shouting a magic word is the entire point of the movie. Of course, the film’s director, David F. Samberg, is also well-known for his role as the director of Annabelle: Creation, so he has quite the background in making audiences identify with his protagonists.

Shared DNA

In a sense, horror and superhero fiction seems to share some DNA. The two can almost be viewed as two sides of the same coin. After all, a Batman film from the point of view of a henchman might play just like a traditional horror movie. (Editor’s Note: Vader’s scene from Rogue One comes to mind!) The same techniques are at play, just reversed. No wonder so many horror directors find success with capes and cowls!