How a Popular 1980s Film Genre Was Replaced by Superhero Movies

Fish out of water stories and where to find them.
fish out of water Thor
Marvel Studios
By  · Published on September 30th, 2016

This week marks 30 years since the release of “Crocodile” Dundee, a comedy that not only introduced us to Paul Hogan but also made him both an Oscar nominee and an Oscar host. While it has its cringeworthy gags representative of a bygone era, the movie remains a likable entry in the fish out of water genre that was so popular in the 1980s.

Primarily set in New York City, those movies involve any of a variety of outsiders, from aliens to robots to mermaids to African princes to a rugged wonder from Down Under. We don’t really see this genre anymore, though, because the combination of globalization and political correctness has made Hollywood less likely to exoticize a place like Australia.

Are the refugee and immigration crises too serious to inspire something with even light humor for a film like Moscow on the Hudson? Can urban race and class issues no longer to be played with as broadly and metaphorically as they are in sci-fi and modern fairy tale fare such as The Brother From Another Planet, Batteries Not Included, and Coming to America?

Whatever the reason for today’s lack of straight fish out of water comedies and dramas, we can still find plenty of movies with plots reminiscent of those 1980s films. They just happen to be entries in the superhero genre. Today’s “Crocodile” Dundee, for instance, is Thor. The wild Australian from the Outback is replaced by a wild god/alien played by an Australian actor.

It’s not that weird that superhero movies of today are so focused on strangers in a strange world, as a lot of the big comic book adaptations of the last decade and a half have been based on Stan Lee creations, and he was always interested in outsiders and outcasts. Even preexisting characters, like Captain America, were turned into fishes out of water under his watch.

Superheroes were not treated so out of place in movies in the 1980s, unless we count Howard the Duck (we shouldn’t). Superman, although a visitor from outer space, was still raised here his whole life, and in the Christopher Reeve era was immediately accepted by the people of Earth. And Batman was a hometown hero protecting the city he grew up in, even if he did so in a way apart from society. The latest version of Superman, however, is treated more as an interstellar immigrant who doesn’t belong here.

Once the DC Extended Universe gets its full footing, it may involve more fish out of water scenarios than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But will we see much comedic or dramatic conflict mined from Wonder Woman and Aquaman being from civilizations detached from the rest of the world? These days, “the other” to be exocitized can hail from fictitious lands like Themyscira and Atlantis if not a real place. But is that still interesting?

Outside of a few moments following Thor’s arrival on Earth and Captain America’s awakening as a temporal foreigner, the MCU doesn’t deal too much with the fish out of water stuff because there are more pressing plot matters for the characters and their movies to be concerned with. But most of the Avengers can sort of be aligned with some 1980s character. Thor is Dundee, Black Widow is the former Soviet of Moscow on the Hudson, Vision is a more humanoid version of the robot from Short Circuit. Cap’s parallels are actually in early 1990s movies such as Encino Man and Forever Young.

Marvel movies are avoiding the expected scenario in positive ways, though. You’d expect Black Panther to be linked with Coming to America in the analogy, but rather than having the African prince/superhero out of place in the US, or anywhere else, he seems to be getting to feature in a story set entirely in his own nation of Wakanda. And even in Captain America: Civil War, he never seems out of his element on foreign ground.

The truth is fish out of water situations can be kind of corny and uninspired. A lot of times the jokes and gags and drama that come with them are unrealistic to implausible. It was for the best that X-Men: Apocalypse cut out the montage where young Nightcrawler is mesmerized by a shopping mall, exercise videos, breakdancing, and worst of all brain freeze.

When the Movies Took Manhattan: NYC Through the Eyes of Hollywood in the 1980s

Alas, they’re not gone for good nor forever supplanted by superheroes. There was actually a rumor recently that Thor’s Chris Hemsworth would star in a “Crocodile” Dundee remake, and there’s already an official Splash rehash on the way, though that could easily find humor in material not related to Channing Tatum being a merman on land (a decade ago, one of the few ‘80s-esque fish out of water movies, Enchanted, already basically redid Splash with a cartoon princess in place of the mermaid). The upcoming sci-fi drama The Space Between Us also promises fish out of water moments.

Of course, it’s going to primarily be aliens and fantasy creatures that fill the genre in the future. If there is any kind of regular human character in the fish role, it will be a rarity and not something from a mainstream movie. Unless it’s about a human in alien or fantastical waters. Even then, however, it’s more appreciated when something like Guardians of the Galaxy can skip the usual conventions and cliches of the fish out of water genre.

Related Topics: , ,

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.