Who needs superheroes?
For the past decade we have been swooped on by Spider-Man and rescued by Avengers, and now the Dark Knight is rising again. Holy syndication, Batman, how did this happen, asks LIAM BURKE, while PATRICK FREYNElooks back on how the phenomenon started, with ‘Superman’ and a string of other cult comics
WHETHER The Dark Knight Rises breaks the box-office records newly minted by Marvel Avengers Assemble or Robert Downey Jr’s super squad hold their ground, one thing appears certain: the most successful film of 2012 will involve superheroes.
In 2002 the unprecedented success of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man found superheroes leaping from the fringes of pop culture to the centre of mainstream media in a single bound. Over the past 10 years you could hardly miss the garish costumes, superhuman feats and co-ordinated colours. How did it happen? How did orphaned vigilantes, costume-clad demigods and schools of mutants come to dominate modern entertainment? Why have we spent a decade under the cape?
Unsurprisingly, as the modern superhero movie trend gained momentum when Spider-Man broke US box-office records in the summer of 2002, many were quick to link the renewed popularity of superheroes with post-9/11 sentiment. It was easy to draw parallels with the origin of these masked adventurers on the comic-book page; some of the most famous characters, such as Superman, Batman and Captain America, were created on the eve of the second World War and their popularity rocketed as their Nazi-smashing adventures offered readers respite during those difficult times.
Despite comics today being a rarefied pastime, their adaptation to film, television, video games and other media has ensured that these characters enjoy cross-generational recognition. It could be argued that post-9/11 comic-book heroes indulged the desire of a country rocked to its core to escape to a simpler time. The film-makers certainly played on such wish fulfilment, with many superhero movies offering optimistic reworkings of 9/11 narratives. Batman prevented terrorists crashing a train into Wayne Tower at the climax of Batman Begins, and Superman’s first act in Superman Returns was to land a falling plane safely in that crucible of Americana, a baseball stadium.
However, while these films might have found a receptive audience post-9/11, Tom Brevoort, the senior vice-president of publishing at Marvel Comics, who is responsible for the print versions of Spider-Man, X-Men and the Avengers, attributes the change to special effects. According to Brevoort, “the technology has got to the point where you can legitimately realise some of these characters on film in a way that you might not have been able to do 20 years previously.”
Throughout film history, certain genres have flourished in the wake of technological advancements. Synchronised sound gave us the musical; historical epics benefitted greatly from widescreen; and it is possible that superhero movies are simply a natural outlet for digital film-making techniques.
Certainly, Spider-Man can now swing with pixel-powered panache, but even in predigital times Christopher Reeve’s graceful pirouettes made audiences believe a man could fly.
Perhaps the greatest consequence of the digital age is not the verisimilitude it allows these heroes but the power it has given the once-marginalised superhero fans. Before the internet these enthusiasts had little opportunity beyond the narrow boundaries of fandom to create awareness of their pop-culture icons. With the dawn of social networking, however, fans began using the skills they developed on fanzines to navigate and utilise the web.
Annexing much of this new digital arena while most were still lost in cyberspace, these early adopters were able to shine a spotlight on their niche interests, including superheroes. The publicity generated by the Comic- Con convention in San Diego last week shows how these fans have repositioned what was once dismissed as geek culture in the mainstream.
Now the geeks have inherited not only Earth but Hollywood. Mark Waid, the writer of the popular superhero comics the Flash and Daredevil, says: “The biggest catalyst was that film and development studios were being run in 2000 by people who had grown up reading comic books.” Joe Kelly, the writer of X-Men and Superman, agrees, saying: “There’s a lot of executives who are definitely of the age where they grew up loving this stuff.” Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, who produced the comic-book-based films Men in Black and Cowboys Aliens, also identifies a changing of the guard as the reason superheroes are so central to modern entertainment.
It is not simply fanboy desire that has fuelled this superhero explosion; there are many economic incentives for being in the cape-and-cowl trade. Today comic-book publishers, movie studios, television networks, video-game developers and other entertainment companies are often parts of the same media conglomerate. These integrated companies favour content that can be spread across their subsidiaries. The Great Gatsby and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest might make perfectly serviceable films, for example, but they are not about to inspire video-games, theme-park rides or mobile-phone apps. (Imagine a Cuckoo game in which Angry Bird McMurphy flings patients over the hospital wall.)
But superheroes are ideal conglomerate fodder, as Time Warner discovered in 1989 when its motion-picture division, Warner Bros, adapted a character from its DC Comics arm. Batman was not only the most successful film of that year but fuelled Time Warner’s other divisions through merchandising and tie-ins, such as Prince’s number-one soundtrack on the company’s record label.
Since that first phase of Batmania, these strategies have become commonplace, with media conglomerates eager to take advantage of their transmedia ties. Over the next year, fans can enjoy the caped crusader in cinemas with The Dark Knight Rises, video games with Batman: Arkham City, animation with Beware the Batman, stage shows with Batman Live and roller coasters with the Six Flags ride, not to mention the original comics – Batman appears in a dozen monthly titles including Justice League and Detective Comics – with each version providing a revenue stream for Time Warner while also promoting its other lines.
THE COMIC-BOOKorigins of most superheroes make them uniquely suited to this environment. The characters rarely change, as to do so could harm the publisher’s finances. Consequently, Superman and Batman find themselves in much the same position 70 years after they were introduced: fighting never-ending battles for justice. These struggles may eschew narrative closure, but they allow for endless iterations across a number of forms, which is the goal of today’s media conglomerates.
It might be cynical to suggest that the repetition endemic in these characters is the only reason they have proven so resilient over the past decade. While superheroes may recall Sisyphus’ endless struggles with the boulder in their endeavours, the mythological comparisons do not end there. From Superman’s evocation of Hercules and Achilles to Batman’s careful citation of Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes and Zorro, these characters make up our contemporary folklore.
As modern mythology, these Spandex-sporting icons hold up a mirror to the times and cultures in which they were created, but what do superheroes say about us? Do they represent the desire to escape into reassuring fantasies when faced with harsh realities, the digitally empowered triumph of underground culture, or proof that conglomerate strategies dictate entertainment? No single reason can account for their all-conquering popularity, but, in truly superhero fashion, these characters have proven ideally positioned in the cultural, technological and economic shifts of the past 10 years. To paraphrase the closing moments of The Dark Knight, they might not be the heroes we deserve, but they are the heroes we need.
And the geeks shall inherit the earth: The evolution of comic-book heroes
Even people who love comic books can’t avoid the fact that they are infested with superheroes. For every award-winning and inventive work of graphic literature such as Maus, Eightball, Hate, Jimmy Corrigan or Love and Rockets, there are thousands of muscle-bound, pneumatic men and women in Lycra having a bit of a fight.
It began with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s invention of Superman, a godlike hero who could leap buildings in a single bound. This was quickly followed by Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s Batman, who responded to the death of his parents by dressing as a bat. (In the world of comic books, this is a reasonable response.)
Why a generation of skinny weaklings took to these muscly defenders of justice isn’t hard to fathom (although the scenario may currently carry tragic resonances given the terrible events in Denver this week). In the 1960s Marvel’s Stan Lee made the subtext text, with tales of teenage superhumans who struggled with bullies, school and fancying girls while secretly being amazing.
Batman’s parents were conveniently dead, but Stan Lee’s X-people and spiderfolk had to circumvent elder relatives to save the world. “I have to fight the Green Goblin and finish my homework!” Spider-Man would whine. “I have to save the world from Magneto and feel funny looking at bra advertisements!” the X-Men said. (Okay, they never said that.)
In the late 1960s the sex-and drug-filled underground comics of Robert Crumb and his ilk had little influence, but some superhero creators did try to shoehorn in “issues”. In Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil’s Green Lantern Co-starring Green Arrow the eponymous heroes attempted to outpunch racial prejudice, political corruption and drug addiction. While the sight of a man in a bright green Robin Hood costume shaking his fist and shouting “Noooo” in relation to heroin use is hardly the stuff of Mike Leigh, at least they were trying.
By the 1980s, writers of a more philosophical bent began asking a question that has obsessed thinkers for centuries: What if superheroes were real? Alan Moore’s labyrinthine, genre-bending Watchmen explored the lunacy of the masked-hero concept.
That was a great comic, but Moore himself lamented its influence. In the 1980s Justice League International provided a smart and witty antidote to this.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s the “subversive” superhero comic became a norm. There was Warren Ellis’s The Authority, with politicised superheroes, Brian Michael Bendis’s Powers with cops versus superheroes, Brian K Vaughan’s Ex Machina, with a superhero as mayor of New York, Alan Moore’s excellent Top Ten, with superheroes as cops, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with characters from Victorian novels as superheroes.
Marvel comics even got into the deconstructive action themselves with their Ultimate series, featuring a hard-drinking Iron Man and a more psychotic Hulk. The recent Marvel movies have borrowed heavily from these, just as Christopher Nolan borrowed heavily from Frank Miller. And what was the result of all this subversion? More superheroes. No matter what you do to lampoon, deconstruct or subvert them, they emerge stronger.
Maybe it’s because the idea of a tormented man in his underpants putting the world to rights rings even truer in an age of internet comments. Maybe it’s because, as the comic writer Grant Morrison says, superhero tales are our culture’s version of Greek myths. Or possibly, and I think this is more likely, they represent our suppressed need to look at men in tights.