Super Longevity: How the Superhero Genre is Flying High

How superhero fascination has become a worldwide sensation on the rise that transcends the hearts of so-called "geeks"

To date, three Marvel Studios superhero movies occupy the top ten list of all-time highest grossing box office films worldwide. Spider-Man will soon return to the big screen after two fairly successful reboots, this time along with Iron Man and Captain America. Christopher Nolan’s Batman sang his swan song recently. Zack Snyder will replace Nolan’s version with his Dark Knight, dragging Superman and Wonder Woman in tow. Both Green Arrow and Flash have enjoyed enormous praise in their recent TV adaptations and prepare to launch a time traveling spin-off with other DC Comics heroes. Daredevil and Jessica Jones rule the new realm of binge-worthy digital streaming services. The “retro” X-Men sequel-reboots have also done exceptionally, with a third one on the way. Even lesser comic heroes like Ant Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy have seen the big time, with more installments on the way.

It is, to say the least, an excellent time to be a fan of super-powered beings. Never has there been as much interest in the superhero genre as there is today. Comic book character lovers are no longer just limited to young, timid hermits. The current generation celebrates all facets of being “geek,” especially its obsession with costumes and justice.

A Parallel Universe

It wasn’t always like this. The world of a mere 16 years ago would’ve seem like an alternate reality to a current follower of Marvel, DC Comics and their competitors. Superhero stories were limited to the comic industry that nurtured them as well as the occasional animated series such as Bruce Timm’s Batman and Saban’s X-Men. Being a teenager and declaring your love for people with superhuman abilities would attract the resentment and mockery of society’s self-proclaimed “popular kids”.

Events like Comic-Con existed, but never on a scale as they are seen today. In the past conventions were sponsored by distributors, attended by collectors and never sold out tickets six months in advance.

A newspaper ad for San Diego Comic-Con 1977.

Reign of the Superman (and the Dark Knight)

Back then, Batman was the only comic icon that the masses respected. For better or worse, his Bill Dozer-produced 1996 TV show with Adam West (along with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno’s portrayal of the Incredible Hulk) defined the public image of the superhero for years. Audiences rediscover and treasure it today as a comedy milestone.

Superman dominated the first half of the Eighties thanks to his films starring Christopher Reeve. Interest in those waned long before director Tim Burton redefined the flying-mammal-themed sleuth in in 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns. After that, helmer Joel Schumacher (Phantom of the Opera) had a questionable idea. He would mix Burton’s seriousness with Dozer’s campy style. Batman Forever, his first time at bat, was well received. Schumacher later soiled the Dark Knight’s reputation after the filmed superhero fiasco known as Batman and Robin.

Thus, with the exception of alternative titles like The Crow, the general consensus was that any movie based on a comic book property would be a financial risk. That was the point when, out of economic necessity, Marvel decided to take superhero cinema seriously.

Batman can either be funny or dark, but not both at once (from left to right): Adam West in Batman (1966); Michael Keaton in Batman (1989) and George Clooney in Batman and Robin (1997). (SOURCES: 20th Century Fox & Warner Bros.)

The Switch

Over the years, comics giant Marvel had sold off the film rights to some of its characters. The most infamous result of this was the George Lucas-produced Howard the Duck. Nearing bankruptcy from some lousy marketing decisions, Marvel struck an exclusive deal with action figure company ToyBiz. As a result, ToyBiz executive Avi Arad heading up Marvel Studios, their film and TV development division.

With Arad serving as liaison, the company started helping to develop superhero film projects together with the studios holding those rights. 1998 saw the release of the first product out of this initiative. Blade, the martial arts vampire action film with Wesley Snipes (Rising Sun). Its surprising success made Hollywood reconsider its stance on comic properties. Soon Arad started overseeing other properties that put superheroes back on the cultural map. First it was the X-Men and Spider-Man series. Vehicles for Hulk, The Punisher, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Elektra and the Fantistic Four followed, each enjoying varying degrees of success.

Distinguished Competition

Public goodwill toward Spidey and Xavier’s mutants prompted DC to re-launch its most famous movie franchises. Filmmakers Christopher Nolan (Memento; Insomnia) and Bryan Singer (Valkyrie; the first two X-Men flicks) were tasked to revitalize the Dark Knight Detective and the Man of Steel, respectively. With Batman Begins Nolan launched a lucrative trilogy anchored in reality, but Singer was defeated by nostalgia and an overblown budget in his Superman Returns.

Superhero burden: Superman Returns' Brandon Routh ["My girl left me and I got a kid with asthma than can only throw pianos!"] vs. Man of Steel's Henry Cavill ["Could've saved my dad and been a hero since birth, but he said I shouldn't!"] (SOURCE: Warner Bros)
Burden of the Supermen: Superman Returns‘ Brandon Routh [“My girl left me and I got a kid with asthma than can only throw pianos!”] vs. Man of Steel‘s Henry Cavill [“Could’ve saved my dad and been a hero since birth, but he said I shouldn’t!”]. (SOURCE: Warner Bros.)

Rise of the Juggernaut

The failure their rival suffered with their number one character, compounded with their own stumbles on the majority of movies they co-produced, made Marvel yet again reformulate their strategy, only this time they’d take matters into their own hands. Under the tutelage of new CEO David Maisel, Marvel Studios became an independent, self-financed production company in 2004 under the creative direction of Kevin Feige, self-trained Marvel historian and associate producer on most of Arad’s superhero movie projects.

This enterprise would labor under a visionary strategy: to develop various film properties with respect to their comic book roots—and then team them up in an epic motion picture free-for-all. Positive reviews for 2008’s Iron Man movie guaranteed the go-ahead of this master plan which brought us The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and ended with the main course: The Avengers.

Marvel Studios has continued its impressive winning streak of interconnected superhero properties through two stages, both of which have culminated with a big Avengers team-up. DC’s sister studio Warner Bros. took a page from Marvel’s playbook and is planning their own free-for-all film strategy which began with Man of Steel, will continue with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and will eventually lead to a Justice League film. It’s safe to say that, thanks to production quality of all these examples and the success they have enjoyed, love for superheroes is not only accepted and appreciated, it’s very much in vogue.

General Impact

This phenomenon isn’t limited to film and TV. Costumed heroes are now used as tools for teaching, analysis and self-improvement. Four students from the University of Leicester in Britain wrote a paper in 2011, Trajectory of a Falling Batman, where they analyze the Dark Knight to discuss aerodynamics, gravity and physics. Educational scholarly publisher Wiley-Blackwell distributes a series of essays that use renowned characters to breakdown philosophical concepts as such as Captain America’s modesty, Spider-Man’s happiness and why Batman won’t murder the Joker. Even Deepak Chopra has put the capes and cowls to good use. In his book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes, the self-help guru together with his son Gotham dissect the seven basic virtues of all superheroes and explain how we can all apply them in our lives.

The popular kids: Batman (Christian Bale) in 'The Dark Knight Rises'; Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in 'The Avengers' (SOURCES: Warner Bros. & Marvel Studios)
The popular kids: Batman (Christian Bale) in The Dark Knight Rises; Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in The Avengers. (SOURCES: Warner Bros. & Marvel Studios.)

I Believe I Can Fly

Masked vigilantes still haven’t conquered the religious category per se. Nevertheless, churches based on the Jedi knights of Star Wars and Jeff Bridges’ character from The Big Lebowski already exist. How far behind could a superhero religion be? Already there are people on the web who preach the exploits of Superman as a Jesus Christ figure. (Both Richard Donner’s Superman and Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel alluded an analogy. Kevin Smith, film director and avid fan of both Star Wars and Batman, hosts a weekly podcast which opens with a prayer: “Our Batman who art in Gotham, cowled be thy mane…”

Kevin Smith: film director, podcast maker, Bruce Wayne's witness (SOURCE: SmodCo.)
Kevin Smith: film director, podcast maker, Bruce Wayne’s witness. (SOURCE: SmodCo.)

Real-life crusaders

Regardless of having not yet found their own systems of belief, these creations have inspired many people to follow in their footsteps. It’s common in many large cities around the globe to find masked people in bright tights. Seattle’s Phoenix Jones, for example, “patrols” the streets like a real-life Kick-Ass.

There’s something about the idea of masked righteousness that brings out the best in humanity. For proof, look no further than the story of Miles Scott. Having endured treatment for leukemia since he was 18 months old with the help of superhero tales, he wished more than anything else “to be Batkid”. On November 15, 2013 his request turned into the largest, most elaborate Make-A-Wish Foundation project ever. One where volunteers dressed as comic characters and San Francisco turned into Gotham City. Scott got to ride the Batmobile, beat the bad guys and save the day. Today Scott is cancer free and his story, well told in documentary feature Batkid Begins, will be adapted into a movie starring Julia Roberts.

The Dark Side

However, the fantasy of comics can inspire both heroes and villains. During an early-morning premiere showing of The Dark Knight Rises, a 24-year-old exited one of the screenings at the Century Aurora 16 Multiplex in Colorado. He then went back inside armed and fired at the audience, leaving 12 dead and 58 wounded. James Holmes, the head of the so-called “Batman Shootings” had dyed his hair orange and proclaimed himself “the Joker”. He was charged with 142 counts, including first-degree murder, attempted murder and use of firearms. Last August, Holmes has found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Best of Us

Warner Bros. made a donation to help those affected. Likewise, other members of the film production, such as star Christian Bale and composer Hans Zimmer, gave their time and effort to aid the victims. Out of respect, DC Comics postponed an issue of their Batman Inc. title, in which a similar event transpired.

Despite Holmes’ twisted intentions, that tragedy highlighted the heroism of several spectators who risked their lives to save others. The trio of Jon Blunk, Alex Teves and Matt McQuinn, for instance. These young heroes died using their bodies to shield their female companions from the bullets. They had the chance to escape. However, as CNN’s William J. Bennett pointed out, their values and their code of honor led them to put the lives of those women before their own. Noble deeds from true heroes.

Lead by Example

From where does this human fascination with fictitious creatures of impossible skills stem? In part, the fragility of the human condition makes us wish to be as powerful as these individuals. Imagine flying like Clark Kent, running as the Flash, tumbling down all barriers that stand in our way Hulk-style, all without real world repercussions. The adventures of these characters serve as brief escapism from our troubles. There’s an even greater reason, based on the mantra behind most superheroes (especially Spider-Man): “With great power comes great responsibility”. Blessed with all their amazing abilities, superheroes choose to serve and save mankind rather than oppress it. Their exploits—same as those of mythological and religious beings before them—teach us about good, evil and how to better ourselves.

Hulk in 'The Avengers:' Role model? (SOURCE: Marvel Studios)
Hulk in The Avengers: Role model? (SOURCE: Marvel Studios.)

Closing Thoughts

Whatever the reason behind their popularity, the truth is we will continue to enjoy superheroes and their exploits for a long time. Suicide Squad, the next installment in DC’s version of the “Marvel formula”, is on its way. Meanwhile, Marvel will soon premiere Captain America: Civil War and Thor: Ragnarok, the newest films in their so-called “Phase Three”. Kids, grownups, men and women will enjoy these and many more releases on TV, books and comics in the future. The superhero resurgence is only beginning.

Who’s Your Savior?
Just like pets and their owners, your favorite superhero says a lot about your personality according to Krista Bloom, PhD, author of The Ultimate Compatibility Quiz.
A little rough around the edges, but noble and always willing to help. Loves to serve others.
Quite responsible, open and dependent on his sense of humor to escape any jam.
Mysterious, which complicates his relationships. Tools and gadgets calm him down.
Sensitive and easy to infuriate. Likes contact sports and destruction of property.
Self-confident, maybe too much sometimes. Loves the good life as well as getting into conflict.
Proud and a nature lover. Likes animals and extreme outdoor sports.
Gets a kick out of physical activities and living in the moment. Believes it’s never too late to be punctual.
Wonder Woman
Very agile and self-sufficient. Hates being deceived.
Iron Man
Smart, but cocky. Suffers from an addictive personality.
Green Lantern
Creative and optimistic. Appreciates accessories and teamwork.
Cranky, hotheaded and unkempt, yet more mature that meets the eye.
Captain America
Loves public service. Can’t stand the abuse of power.

An abridged version of this essay first appeared on the August-September 2012 issue of Revista U magazine, with a revised edition uploaded to their official website on August 30, 2012. This version has been translated from the source and expanded with references originated after the date of first publication.

A big shoutout to my former work buddy Willy Abreu for his killer layout job on the print article and opening image. Click here for the original article (in Spanish).

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