Save us What do we want from our superheroes?

What do we want from our superheroes?

First published in Meanjin | Autumn, 2020

Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an idea. 

Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better idea.

—Grant Morrison, Supergods 

It seems the superhero is an idea whose time has come. Popular culture is saturated with men and women with extraordinary powers and glib one-liners, thanks primarily to Marvel’s cinematic domination of the box office. The twenty-second film made by Marvel Studios—Avengers: Endgame (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2019)—bested James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) as the biggest movie of all time, reaping almost US$2.8 billion. Collecting comic books might remain a niche activity, but the superheroes born in their pages are everywhere. As critic Glen Weldon says, ‘The wall between nerd and normal is now a thin, permeable membrane through which ideas like Batman flow freely back and forth.’

This isn’t the first superhero boom. The first occurred barely after the superhero was born. The general consensus is that it took place in 1938 with Action Comics #1 and the first appearance of Superman. While there had been pulp heroes before him—Zorro, Doc Savage, the Shadow—Superman’s teenage creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, seemed to create something entirely new. Superman appears on the cover, effortlessly lifting a car overhead; in the bottom-left corner, there’s a man losing his mind at the sight of it. He wasn’t the only one. Superman scholar Ian Gordon describes the character as one that ‘by 1941 appeared in the monthly Action Comics and the bimonthly Superman comic book, a radio serial that aired three times a week, and a comic strip carried by 230 newspapers to a combined circulation of twenty-five million readers’. DC licensed the character to a toy company the year after he first appeared, already proving that Superman is as much a corporate brand as a superheroic character. Gordon adds, ‘Not only has Superman sold us an array of products from peanut butter to American Express cards, but these products have sold us Superman.’

More recently, Tim Burton’s blockbuster Batman (1989) made the bat-symbol so ubiquitous that superhero writer and editor Paul Levitz said ‘it was virtually impossible to buy black T-shirts in America not emblazoned with the Bat-symbol’. The superhero logo is about more than easy branding opportunities. It’s a way of holding together all the various incarnations of a character. The gun-toting Batman of his earliest comic book appearances? The utterly and comedically sincere Batman of the sixties TV show? The grim-and-gritty Batman of eighties graphic novels? They’re all contained in that simple logo. One of the differences between superheroes and the various ‘mystery men’ who preceded them is that, according to comic book academic Peter Coogan’s definition, the superhero costume proclaims their identity; furthermore, ‘The chevron especially emphasizes the character’s code name and is itself a simplified statement of that identity.’ More succinctly, as cult comic book writer Grant Morrison puts it, ‘Superman was his own T-shirt.’

But why this contemporary resurgence? Academic Liam Burke boils down the main reasons to three, and we’ve already discussed the third: ‘Contemporary filmmaking paradigms that favor content with a preexisting fan base and an amenability to franchise.’ Superman’s radio show in the 1930s immediately proved this franchise potential, as did the onslaught of Batman branding in the eighties. When Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment for $4.24 billion in 2009, it added a constellation of superheroes to its overwhelming catalogue of beloved intellectual property. Variety went so far as to say that Disney doesn’t just own our childhood stories; it owns ‘all the mythologies’. It’s why I don’t need to explain who Batman is, or what Superman’s origin might be, or how Spider-Man’s powers work—you already know. You may not read their comics or watch their movies, but these narratives have seeped into general consciousness. According to Bradford W. Wright, for instance, Superman’s story is as ‘as familiar as any in the English language’.

Another reason for the current popularity of superheroes is that new technology allows spectacle from the comic page to be more easily re-created on screen. Superman: The Motion Picture (Richard Donner, 1978) promised us that, thanks to cutting-edge effects, we’d ‘believe a man can fly’. It took a little longer for us to believe a man could swing from a web. As Spider-Man (2002) director Sam Raimi said of its hero, ‘I don’t think there’s ever been a time in history, up until now, that you really could have made this Spider-Man picture.’ CGI spectacle has its own kryptonite, however. As superhero scholar Scott Bukatman writes in the provocatively titled ‘Why I Hate Superhero Movies’, digital imagery often produces ‘some vaguely rubberoid action figures harmlessly bouncing each other around the space’. It’s one thing for a superhero to defy gravity. It’s another for them to become weightless, and too many of these films still have a third act that’s mostly pixels mashing together. This tendency was satirised in Spider-Man: Far from Home, as the villain Mysterio’s illusions needed destructive drones behind them to add any kind of impact.

These industrial reasons for peak superhero, however, seem unsatisfying. Burke’s remaining reason for superhero prevalence feels the most intuitive, the most powerful: ‘Cultural traumas and the celebration of the hero following real-life events, in particular the 9/11 terrorist attacks.’ Many creators agree with this position; for example, Iron Man (2008) director Jon Favreau said 9-11 set the stage for the popularity of the movie. These characters require cultural trauma to justify their existence. Frank Miller, the man behind the iconic Dark Knight Returns comics from 1986, once said that Batman ‘works best in a society that’s gone to hell. That’s the only way he’s ever worked.’ Unless we need saving, superheroes are pointless. Luckily, then, we’re not exactly in danger of living in a risk-free utopia. This leaves superheroes free to embody what Ben Saunders poetically describes in his book Do the Gods Wear Capes? as ‘the wish that things were otherwise’.

Read the full essay at Meanjin.