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October 11, 2013

Heroics. The Super Kind.


It’s that time again, ladies and gentlemen. New York Comic Con is upon us. The celebration of comics, television, film and books from all corners of the nerd spectrum takes over Javits Center in Manhattan this weekend. Although not quite as large as its San Diego cousin, NYCC still brings in a huge number of actors, creators, artists and fans of all kinds. While the scope of the convention has widened to include almost everything pop culture related, it still focuses on comic books at its heart. And comic books mean superheroes. So in honor of our friends polishing their Captain America shields or working on their Hulk voice, I’m going to devote this blog to looking at the superhero craze in our culture: why it happened, where it came from and where it might go.

Unless you’ve been living as a hermit in the woods and shunning all forms of digital communication for the last several years, you’ve noticed a dramatic increase in the amount of tights and spandex on the big screen. Superheroes dominate the summer blockbuster lineup these days, getting mainstream recognition, garnering critical acclaim and making huge piles of money. (Really, Robert Downey Jr., did you need 50 million for the Avengers? I get you’re a big deal now, but daaang.) And they’re not finished yet. Two weeks ago, the premiere of ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” brought Marvel to your TV (or laptop or iPad or whatever non-television device you prefer). This extension of Marvel’s massively popular movie, The Avengers, follows the normal men and women who make up S.H.I.E.L.D, a fictitious law enforcement agency that deals with supernatural or alien threats in Marvel’s world. With Avengers director Joss Whedon at the helm, and a strong cast led by the supremely likable Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, this series seems primed to inject a little human drama into the whizz-bang of Marvel’s universe.

But the Powers That Be of Hollywood didn’t just start the superhero craze to cash in on a couple of comic book nerds (who’d just pirate the movies anyway). Caped heroes have a long history in film and an even longer one in our culture in general. I’ll give you my two cents on the “why superheroes” question --- after I chart the history of the superhero boom and show how we got to where we are now.

The Past

Batman and Superman have been starring in movies since the ‘70s --- with varying levels of success --- but the first real step toward the superhero movies of today came with The Crow in 1994. Much darker and more violent then Christopher Reeves’s boy scout-like Man of Steel, this cult classic was followed by Spawn in 1997 and Blade in 1998. These had less cheesy flight effects and more Wesley Snipes beheading vampires with a katana (I firmly believe that all vampire fiction could learn a lesson or two from Mr. Snipes). Then came the X-Men trilogy, which proved that superhero fiction could tell engaging, complex stories that dealt with real world issues: “Mutants” versus normal people sounds an awful lot like real-world racism or homophobia. We also had the more urban and realistic Unbreakable in 2000, directed by M. Night Shyamalan back when he actually made decent stuff. Of course, none of this would have happened if Blade hadn’t already shown that people would pay money to see superhero movies.

After X-Men, the floodgates opened wide and the blockbusters came pouring in, starting with Spider-Man in 2002 (Yes, it’s Toby Maguire, but lets look past that for now, okay?). Marvel began its Cinematic Universe series of films (more on that in a minute) with Iron Man and started checking names off the list of Avengers members. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins made dark and gritty into an art form, while Watchmen laughed and thought, “That’s cute.” (The graphic novel on which the movie is based was one of the first “dark and gritty” graphic novels, and started that trend in the mid-‘80s. Check it out here). Several other movies based on lesser-known comics like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Kick-Ass and Hellboy expanded superhero movies beyond the typical blockbuster-type genre. The Dark Knight brought in a huge amount of critical acclaim (and two Oscars) and Superman and Spider-Man both got in on the “reboot” game with Man of Steel and The Amazing Spider-Man. Which brings us to the present (give or take a year), with The Avengers giving the public a superhero team-up of truly epic proportions and making more money then most third world countries.

The Future

The best part? It’s not over. Thor: The Dark World is slated to come out in just over a month, and the Captain America sequel will be released in April. These are part of “Phase Two” of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, which also includes Iron Man 3 and the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy, which will feature some lesser-known Marvel heroes. Phase Two will end with Avenger: Age of Ultron in 2015. “Phase One,” by the way, included all the individual Avengers films (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America). Details of Phase Three are still a little up in the air, but possibilities include movies about Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Luke Cage plus more sequels for Thor, Captain America and Iron Man. X-Men is still going strong with DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, scheduled for a May 2014 release. The film features a time-travel based story that will combine characters from the original trilogy with their younger selves from X-MEN FIRST CLASS. Two other possible films are in discussion (film-speak for “maybe”). I predict we’re going to keep seeing superhero movies as long as we keep going to see them.

So. Why Superheroes?

Let’s set aside the obvious answer --- “Because they’re cool” --- and think like Hollywood for a second. A big part of the answer is money. Someone had the brilliant idea that putting Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson in tight clothing would sell tickets. As much as we like to accuse the movie biz of stifling creativity and being formulaic, you can’t blame producers --- who invest a lot of money in these movies --- for wanting a guarantee that there will be a return on their investments. So once the first few superhero movies (green-lit through luck, dedication or friends in the right places) were successful, more started getting made. Comic books also offer a large range of easily adaptable material, plus plenty of opportunities for merchandising tie-ins (novelizations, video games, action figures, the whole nine yards). Even better, they come with ready-made fan bases, so the studios’ marketing people don’t have to worry too much about attracting audiences. Superhero films have many characteristics that make them profitable, so studios like to make them.

But more than the money, I think these stories are generally so popular because they offer a kind of escapism that still has one foot (sometimes a very small foot, but still a foot) grounded in the real world. Comic book superheroes evolved out of pulp sci-fi magazines back in the ‘50s and remain, at their core, very positive stories. The bad guys lose and the good guys win; no matter how big or strong the villain seems, he or she (or it) will ultimately lose. The one with great power will shoulder the great responsibility of protecting the innocent --- and, of course, save the day in the end. We all want to be Batman or Wonder Woman or Wolverine just a little bit, or at least we like the idea that people like us could become heroes like them in the right situation. After all, every superhero has an origin story.

Superheroes also reflect the times in which they were written in a way that keeps stories about aliens, gods, mutants and killer robots from being too ridiculous. Some comics scholars (yes that is a real job, and one I desperately want) have even said that superhero comics are modern American folktales because they reflect our society’s important values (individualism, bravery and personal responsibility sure do crop up a lot in comics). Superhero stories pluck issues out of the real world, like industrialization (Iron Man), discrimination (The X-Men), war (Captain America) and class struggles (The Dark Knight Rises), and turn their inherent drama up to eleven. We see just enough of the real world in these stories, along with the reassurance that everything will be all right in the end. Even the Hulk struggles with anger management, but always ends up --- somehow --- smashing just the right thing.