The Rise of the Super-Hero

 

This piece was published today by Mouth London. I don’t know where they get their pictures from!

You may have noticed but summer these days guarantees the emergence of one thing other than festivals and outrageously-priced iced goods and that’s the blockbuster comic book movie. Whether it’s a long-awaited silver screen debut, someone you’ve never heard of before or a gritty reboot, the super hero is big, big money right now. Not always critical darlings, but big budget super hero spectaculars are nearly always guaranteed to make stupid money at cinemas (sorry, Green Lantern, I did say ‘nearly always’).

But why now? There is an argument to be made that the geek dollar is strong; with every childhood cartoon or video game being optioned for the big screen, the interests of the common-or-garden variety nerd are being catered for more than ever and that obviously covers super heroes. But it can’t just be that. Otherwise Thundercats would have gone Hollywood super-nova and picked up nods in Oscar categories instead of the Dark Knight. There has to be something bigger, something we connect to on a deeper level. But what?

How about this? Global turmoil, economic crisis, the USA’s place in the world is uncertain. Is that describing the 1930s, today, or both? It isn’t hard to imagine that the reasons caped, colourful characters that captured the public’s imagination in the first place are the same reasons for their renaissance.

In 1938 and 1939, Superman and The Bat-Man made their indelible mark on pop culture. More than 70 years later two of the most discussed movies are the up-coming Man of Steel reboot and the Dark Knight Rises. There is something about an invincible man with ridiculous powers doing his best to save the world repeatedly that speaks to the optimist in all of us. Even at times when glorifying that image seems perverse, it is never wise to underestimate the power of escapism.

And then there’s the every man aspect (and no, Every-man isn’t another super-hero. What would his abilities be? The power to go to work and pay bills on time?) Stan Lee famously wrote the X-Men as a rather transparent allegory for racism, Spider-man was an ode to puberty, Thor was… er, well Thor was a god who hit things with a magic hammer but that’s not the point. Tales of normal young people turning into something extraordinary when it came to crunch time struck a chord that still resonates. We like to think we could behave so courageously with or without irradiated spider bites but we doubt we would and hope we never have to find out.

So we live vicariously through these spandex-wearing do-gooders who fly out windows and punch bad things in the face until they are no longer a worry. Not only is that something comic book readers all wish they could do (metaphorically and literally I daresay), it also offers a simplified world-view, an unwavering moral compass designed to guide the young and unsure.

But let’s not get too carried away with ourselves here. Despite everything, the birthplace of the super hero, the comic book, is about as accepted as the lonely teenager.

Currently, super hero comics are struggling to be as relevant as possible and to a large degree, they don’t have to bother. Do we really care if Spider-man defeats the bad guy of the week with the help of an iPhone? Or if he tweets about it immediately afterwards? Why this cloying need to have pop culture icons conform to modernity?

For me, a lot of the joy in comics comes from their timeless quality. But now, super heroes have to walk this constant tightrope of staying relevant and relatable while at the same time zipping across the galaxy to punch some Lovecraftian horror in one of its many faces. It isn’t a formula that makes for massive commercial success.

Maybe that’s all just too confusing. Maybe it’s the medium, not the message. The films and the TV shows are adored when wrapped up in manageable, glossy chunks with attractive, talented actors but if you try to tell much more satisfying, challenging stories in comic format, the attention you’ll get will lie somewhere between shy man at a party and nutter in McDonalds at 10pm whispering into his burger. Yes, super heroes have achieved a higher degree of mainstream acceptability than ever before but their medium of origin has a long way to go.

But if anyone can do it, super heroes can. I mean, Captain America punched out Hitler! You don’t see that on Glee do you?

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