America is in a superhero movie trend. Some pundits take X-Men (2000) to be the trendsetter. Some point to Blade (1998) as the movie that put the trend in motion. Others say that Spider-Man (2002) got it going in earnest. There can be no doubt, though, that superhero movies have been trending. For example, 2011 alone saw the release of Thor, Green Lantern, X-Men: First Class, and Captain America. In 2008, The Dark Knight and Iron Man came to the screen, along with The Incredible Hulk, Punisher: War Zone, and The Spirit. There have been some every year in between. The latter two may not be superhero movies proper, Punisher the antihero and The Spirit the pulp hero, but they deserve to be noted. Toward the beginning of the trend, in 2003, came Daredevil, X2: X-Men United, and Hulk. The list continues. While three may not seem terribly many for one year, the point of comparison may be the whole decade of the 1970’s, which produced only one, Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978), albeit it is a classic.
The point of comparison could even be the 1960’s, 1980’s, or 1990’s. In the 1960’s, the single superhero movie produced was 1966’s Batman, starring Adam West and Burt Ward from the television series, which is fondly remembered but was already a parody of the genre. The 1980’s saw many more releases. Perhaps the only superhero movie from the decade that will endure in cultural memory by its own rights is Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), although there is also the sometimes above-average Superman II, which likely gains from being associated with Superman: The Movie. The 1990’s produced maybe two or three as many superhero movies as the previous decade and yet only two or three that deserve note in a short overview of the genre. The most notable two are Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) and Blade (1998). The possible third in the 1990’s depends on how to rate Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995) and how to rate and classify The Rocketeer (1991), The Shadow (1994), and The Mask (1994).
Rating leads to the discussion of how to rate a movie, that is, what criticism is, for another time. In this post, I have rated the movies with a blend of the two main ways, critical and financial success. Classification leads to the matter of defining a superhero, and I will return to that in my next post.
Also Trending: Superheroes
(1) in animated series, such as Justice League (2001-2006), Teen Titans (2003-2006), The Batman (2004-2008), The Spectacular Spider-Man (2008-2009), Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-2011), Young Justice (2010-2012), Iron Man: Armored Adventures (2008), The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (2010-2012), Ultimate Spider-Man (2011-2012), and many more, many of which are excellent;
(2) in animated features released directly to video, such as Batman: Return of the Joker (2000), Ultimate Avengers (2006), Wonder Woman (2009), Green Lantern: First Flight (2009), All-Star Superman (2011), and many, many others, most of which are excellent;
(3) in live-action series, such as the long-running Smallville (2001-2011) and the upcoming [Green] Arrow (2012);
(4) in video games, such as Spiderman: Web of Shadows (2008), Batman: Arkham City (2011), and others besides, with or without narratives, some being quite competent and several being highly regarded, one man putting Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) in the top ten of anything related to Batman;
(5) in toys, clothes, and other merchandise, which have always sold, but most visibly T-shirts with better and lesser known superheroes;
(6) in properties from the United States or outside of it that are like superheroes but lie away from main of the genre or whose classification is questionable, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, He-Man, Ultraman, Power Rangers, Krrish, and Mercury Man, some of which I know very well, some of which I do not.
Classification again leads to the matter of defining a superhero, but I will return to that in my next post.
I leave aside from the tally radio dramas, theme park attractions, and live stage shows, such as Batman Live and the troubled Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark. I also leave aside advertisements, such as the billboard for a children’s hospital that, quaintly enough, proclaims that volunteers, too, can be superheroes, and ads for more banal things, such as ice cream, ductile iron pipe, or tax accounting. All of these advertisers seem to believe that there is trend that they can capitalize on. Evidently, they also feel that a hero is insufficient to sell what they are hired to sell.
Classification a third time leads to the matter of defining a superhero, but I will return to that in my next post.
The Future of the Trend
Superheroes came from the pages of comic books. After rejections from several comics publishers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, turned down an opportunity to debut their creation, Superman, in prose. Superheroes still dominate the medium inAmerica, if not in Europe,Japan, andSouth America, but it may come as a surprise to the reader that the current superhero trend has not significantly increased sales of superhero comics.
Some have put the blame on comics companies, whose superheroes’ adventures take place almost entirely independently from the movies. Someone who liked Jon Favreau’s Iron Man will not see the story continue in the pages of Matt Fraction’s The Invincible Iron Man. Joss Whedon is one of the few to have corrected this discrepancy with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and others have done the same with the Nathan Fillion vehicle, Castle, and Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time, but none of these are superheroes. On the superhero front are Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Young Justice, but neither these titles nor the ones above share a continuity with any movies.
Others blame comics companies and retailers alike for selling comics in small specialty shops, which new readers have to go out of their way to find. Gone are the days of comics on newsstands and in corner drug shops. Only in the last year or so have I seen Barnes & Noble add comics to their periodicals. There is a push for digital sales on the comics companies’ websites and online retailers—there is a link now to read Marvel comics for free on Starbuck’s Wi-Fi main page—but the future of comics sales, online and in print, is uncertain.
There has been talk for years that the trend must come at an end soon. The reasons given are that all of the superheroes that the public knows have been used already, that all the good superheroes have been used already, or that all public interest in superheroes has been used already. But after the surprising success of Marvel’s The Avengers, that talk has not been spoken lately, and it will not return before The Dark Knight Rises. But then another round of Marvel solo movies will be expected, for example, Iron Man 3, Captain America 2, and Thor 2, which have all been announced, a certainly a second Avengers, which has not.
In addition, there are movies about Marvel characters currently being produced by other companies, for example, Fox’s sequel to X-Men: First Class and its reboots of Daredevil and The Fantastic Four. Also, Sony has begun scripting a sequel to this year’s The Amazing Spider-Man, although the same fate might befall that as the scripting of last year’s Green Lantern, a superhero from across the street at DC. DC has one movie currently in production beyond The Dark Knight Rises, namely, Man of Steel, but it has announced development on several others.
The trend, barring some highly unexpected event, will not end soon. Not now that the special effects so necessary for superhero movies are possible. Not now that studios budget for the cost of special effects in advance. Not now that American and international markets have shown a taste for the fantastic. Not now that fantastic movies in general and superhero movies in particular have proven to be so profitable.
Westerns may come into and go out of fashion. Swords-and-sandals may come and go. Science fiction may do the same. But tales of heroes will always be in demand, and whereas Western, sandaled, and science fiction heroes belong to other times, the hero of our times seems to be the superhero.
Classifying superheroes as the heroes of our time leads into the matter of defining a superhero, but I will return to that in my next post.
The Trend’s Past
An argument could be made that superheroes belong to the newspaper age of post-industrialAmerica. Just as superheroes first appeared in comic books, and comic books were folded sheets of newspaper, so might the last superheroes disappear when every newspaper and the form of newspapers have been discarded.
A secret identity is often presumed to be an essential part of a superhero. A secret identity is the identity of an ordinary citizen, not the costumed identity of an extraordinary superhero. The news was as standardized as the citizens whom the superheroes were supposed to protect, and one’s knowledge of the world may have dwindled at the edges of the city where the superheroes’ protection also dwindled. This idea is poetic, if not convincing.
In the pre-industrial age, before the press that industry brings, a hero may rise to public office or retire to a private life. With the onset of industry, public offices are maintained in a structure largely independent from individuals’ heroic actions. A democracy of elected officials corresponds to the literacy of a printed press, at least conceptually, though not always historically. A hero’s actions will be therefore somewhat outside the law, and the hero’s entry into politics will be somewhat unwelcome. Outside of democracy, rulers rule in the first place by the initiative of the ruler, with the assent of the ruled placed second. A hero’s actions may qualify him or her to be a king or queen, but not a president or governor.
Moreover, with increasing industrialization, a hero’s privacy becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. A superhero often preserves the apparently desirable distinction between the public and the private with a secret identity. A secret identity allows the superhero to act alongside democratic law and maintain his or her private life. The superhero’s identity would be difficult to maintain if enemies or the public in general were to learn who was behind the mask. The citizen’s identity would be difficult to maintain if the citizen’s family, friends, and acquaintances were to learn what he or she did in the mask.
The difficulty is at least twofold. The lesser and secondary difficulty is convenience. A superhero may have his or her supporters, but even supporters can become troublesome, as celebrities well know, both to the superheroics and to one’s private life. This is not even to mention detractors, although convenience is rarely mentioned at all. The first mentioned and greater difficulty is safety. Family, friends, and acquaintances may suffer reprisals from enemies, and the superhero himself or herself may become liable to attacks.
Every so often, a critic levels his or her criticism at the conceit of a secret identity. They say that a secret is practically unnecessary, ethically dubious, or politically irresponsible. These criticisms hold weight, but if they tip the scale away from secret identities, then the scale would seem to tip toward heroes who are not super.
Classifying heroes as super or not super leads a fifth time to the matter of defining a superhero, and to that matter I will return in my next post.