Superman exists, and he’s American. Intentionally or not, Hollywood’s obsession with Marvel and DC subject material has led to a pseudo-repetition of the evolutionary stages of the caped crusader in comics while simultaneously making him more prominent in popular culture than ever before. He is not just for comic book fans anymore.
The superheroes we all know and love were born in a period known as the Golden Age of Comic Books, an era that lasted roughly from the late 1930s until 1950. During this time, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were born from the wombs of their creators’ imaginations: Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, Bob Kane and William Moulton Marston.
After the popularity of superheroes declined after WWII, they were made relevant again by the Silver Age, which ran from 1956 to 1970. Here, writers and artists like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko made their marks on the world of comics by reinventing established characters like the Flash or creating new ones like Spider-Man.
The Bronze Age, from 1970 to 1985, saw darker plot lines and relevant social commentary, a major divergence from the campier tones of previous eras. This was furthered in 1986 with the publications of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen” and Frank Miller’s “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.” Both were unflinching visions of the superhero genre and, together, ushered in the Modern Age of comics and the birth of the graphic novel, which both persist into today.
While superhero movies have technically been around since the days of film serials, many of them have been poorly received or fallen into obscurity over the years. The main obstacle is imparting realism and emotional resonance into an exaggerated version of reality. Perhaps the most iconic superhero films of the 20th century were Richard Donner’s “Superman” and Tim Burton’s “Batman” films, yet they still fell victim to the campy pitfalls that only work in print. With their cheesy one-liners and laughable special effects, they represent the Golden Age of superheroes in cinema, more akin to the archetypes and styles first established in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
It wasn’t until the turn of the century that Hollywood brought superheroes back into the public consciousness by reinvention like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko did so long ago in the Silver Age while the social relevance of the Bronze Age also played its hand. In 2008, Jon Favreau took “Iron Man” out of Vietnam and set him against the backdrop of the War in Afghanistan. Bryan Singer’s first “X-Men” movie centered on refashioned heroes — once reflections of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s — who were now metaphors for modern alienation for simply being different. The fact that Magneto was a Holocaust survivor speaks to the fact that the themes of discrimination and intolerance are timeless and can be ascribed to any era.
Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” placed the sticky-fingered hero into a modern day New York City, his arch-enemies representing the possible dangers of technological advancement. With modern technology that gives us more control over the everyday (one could say that it gives us superpower over the surrounding environment), Ben Parker’s “with great power comes great responsibility” was beginning to sound more and more relevant.
Soon enough, superhero movies were taking a turn for the dark and brooding as their comic book counterparts did in the Bronze Age. We can probably pinpoint the birth of the thinking man’s superhero film with Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins.” In it, you can also see traces of the Modern Age with its treasure trove of antiheroes, moral ambiguity and psychological complexity.
By tackling the Dark Knight of Gotham City, Nolan brought more realism to the character, who in the 1960s was an advocate of doing homework, wearing seat belts and drinking milk to grow up strong. This was a Batman for the Modern Age, a hero whose actions could not be considered completely devoid of sin. In addition, there were flickers of current day fears of terrorism and taking on responsibility in a topsy-turvy world.
Nolan’s approach to Batman made Hollywood think that it was finally time for a “Watchmen” adaptation, an adult-oriented comic book that was long thought to be unfilmable. Still, its overarching question is the mindset that is now used when producing a superhero movie: “What would the world be like if superheroes existed?”
Most likely a god-like superman such as Dr. Manhattan would be apathetic toward humanity and would have a profound impact on geopolitics. He would have no practical use for “Truth, Justice and The American Way.”
Like Orson Welles said, “The classy gangster is a Hollywood invention.” So too would the completely valiant and righteous superhero archetype probably never exist in the real world. More recently, Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” supposed that our military would be in an uproar with the revelation of the existence of aliens; a similar thought proposed by Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” in a more light-hearted way.
Thanks to movies, we are living in the age of the superhero, a being that represents sense in a nonsensical world. They may not be the heroes we deserve, but definitely the ones we need, and they evolve accordingly with the world so as to save us from what current issues frighten us most.
With the establishment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there has been a recent and heavy influx of superhero movies. This year alone, there will have been three movies from Marvel Studios at Disney, which has films stretching all the way into 2028. Sony, and 20th Century Fox are not far behind, releasing “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” the latter of which has mutants playing a large role in the course of American history.
Moreover, Warner Bros. is taking a lesson from Marvel, trying to tie together the DC universe with a more grounded and mature approach: a Justice League movie. Before that, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Cyborg will be seen in Zack Snyder’s sequel to “Man of Steel.”
While superhero properties have proven themselves extremely lucrative for studios, one may wonder if audiences will tire of them if the market becomes saturated with masked vigilantes, talking raccoons, mutants, galactic gunslingers, web-slingers, lasso/hammer swingers, sentient plant life, and god-like beings. All I can say for sure is that soon we’re going to need a multiverse in order to contain them all.
Josh Weiss is a sophomore communications major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected].