washingtonpost.com  > Arts & Living > Movies

More Powerful Than . . . Ever

On-Screen and Off, Superheroes Are a Force to Reckon With

By Vincent P. Bzdek
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page N01

Holy spandex, Batman.

Seventy years after a pair of Cleveland teenagers created the first superhero out of a primordial soup of pulp magazines, rough neighborhoods and absent dads, primary-colored crimefighters are more popular than ever. Just ask Hollywood.

No fewer than 18 big-budget movies scheduled for release this year were inspired by comic books or superheroes, including, this spring and summer, "Batman Begins," "Fantastic Four," "Constantine," "Sin City," "Ultraviolet" and "Sky High."

Keanu Reeves in the title role of "Constantine," one of 18 big-budget movies scheduled for release this year that were inspired by comic books or superheroes. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

The boom was already well underway last year. Eight superhero movies made it to multiplexes in 2004, led by two of the year's five biggest box-office draws, "Spider-Man 2" and "The Incredibles." Together, "Spider-Man" (2002) and "Spider-Man 2" have made more than $1.6 billion in the United States, making them the sixth and eighth most popular movies ever here.

And the hero worship doesn't seem likely to stop any time soon. "Superman Returns," under the direction of Bryan Singer ("X-Men," "X2"), is scheduled for release in 2006, the first new Superman movie in 20 years. DC Comics hopes to release films of "Wonder Woman," "The Flash" and "Shazam" in the next couple of years. Its rival, Marvel Comics, has ambitious plans to bring more of its wards to the big screen, too, including "Captain America," "The Phantom," "Ghost Rider," and sequels -- or additional sequels -- to "Hulk," "X-Men" and "Spider-Man."

"If you look at the success of 'Spider-Man' and the success of 'The Incredibles,' Hollywood is saying: Hey, there's gold in them thar hills," said Joe Quesada, editor in chief of Marvel Comics. "The superhero genre is today's western."

Gerard Jones, who sits on the advisory board of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, recently published "Men of Tomorrow," a book that chronicles the history of superheroes, the birth of comic books and their impact on American culture.

"No other icon comes back so strong again and again after so many decades, and just keeps going," Jones says. Adults aren't embarrassed anymore about their interest in a genre that used to be regarded as kid stuff, he said, adding that superheroes are "one of the major shaping influences of pop culture."

So why have tights-clad geek fantasies vaulted to the pinnacle of Mediapolis at this moment in history? And how to explain their superhuman resonance and longevity in a culture with the attention span of a newt?

For one thing, the caped crusaders have a great pedigree. The familiarity and built-in nostalgia of superheroes makes them a relatively safe bet in an increasingly risk-averse studio system, said David Cook, author of "A History of Narrative Film" and director of film studies at Emory University.

"These stories are presold," Cook says. "There's a public out there that is already familiar with the narrative and character. More and more, Hollywood tends to recycle and borrow icons from popular culture. They ran out of ideas 50 years ago."

Though a few superhero movies have bombed recently ("Catwoman" and "Elektra" come to mind), the two "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" films seem to have cured producers of their qualms about the genre after the Batman sequels went bust in the early '90s.

Another reason for the proliferation of super-films now is simply that technology is catching up to subject matter. With the evolution of computer animation, directors are finally able to realistically simulate the fantastic feats that comic artists dreamed up on pulp.

"For directors of superhero movies, it's like being in a candy store," says Peter Rainer, past president of the National Society of Film Critics and a film commentator for National Public Radio. Directors don't have to hire 20,000 extras when a city is destroyed, they don't have to build sets, they don't have to pay stuntmen. "They're doing things much cheaper than before."

At the same time, the super stunts have grown extraordinarily realistic and engaging in the past few years. Seeing Spider-Man swing convincingly through the real-life canyons of Manhattan certainly wows children, but it also satisfies a deep-seated desire of many adults to see how the movie version of their favorite superhero stacks up with the image that has been locked inside their heads since their comics-reading childhood.

That ability to cross generational lines is a large part of why superhero movies do so well when done right. Thanks to the repeat showings made possible by videos and DVD, children's movies have become one of the primary vehicles by which children and parents bond. Watching superhero movies together, the kids get to dream about being more powerful than Mom and Dad, and the parents get to laugh at the inside jokes while resampling the joys of their own childhoods.

Four of the five most lucrative movies of 2004 were nominally children's movies: "Spider-Man 2," "The Incredibles," "Shrek 2" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." Together they made more than $1.3 billion at the box office worldwide. (It should be noted that a recent 7 p.m. showing of "The Incredibles" in Washington was attended by several hundred adults and two children.)

Many of the shapers of pop culture today were weaned on Marvel Comics, which enjoyed its heyday 40 years ago when Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk all came into being.

"You have no idea how many closet comics lovers there are," says Avi Arad, president of Marvel Studios.

"The thing about comics and graphic novels, they're ready-made storyboards for movies," says Cook. "They lend themselves incredibly well to filmic adaptation."

Rainer calls superhero movies an "actor's holiday."

"It's fun for them to play superheroes," he says. "We all grew up reading comic books and imagining flying through the sky. For a lot of Hollywood talent, it's a real kick to do a superhero movie. And actors like a big payday, too. These movies, by and large, make money."

Few in Hollywood turn up their noses at superhero films these days. Christian Bale, not yet a major star, is this season's Bruce Wayne in "Batman Begins" -- but that movie will also feature Academy Award winner Michael Caine and Oscar nominees Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson, as well as director Christopher Nolan ("Memento"). Kevin Spacey has signed on to be Lex Luthor in "Superman Returns," and British actor Ioan Gruffudd, the lead in A&E's "Horatio Hornblower" films, is Mr. Fantastic in "Fantastic Four" this summer.

Well-regarded filmmakers, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Bryan Singer among them, have used comic books as source material in recent work. Kevin Smith, director of "Clerks" and "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," is writing and producing the upcoming "Green Hornet." Michael Chabon, the novelist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," his fictionalized history of the birth of the superhero, co-wrote the screenplay for last year's "Spider-Man 2."

"A guy like Michael Chabon, who grew up reading 'The X-Men' and loved them as a teenager," Jones says, "he can say, 'Well, there's actually something kind of exciting and meaningful there. There's something there that's still speaking to me.' "

Jones thinks superhero fans have helped trigger a huge shift in how popular culture is created. "This geek-nerd culture that they were part of really has taken over as the shaping, dominant force in pop culture," he says.

These fans have erected an entire industry of consumer mass-market fantasy. Comic-book characters are being converted not just into movies but into entertainment franchises, replete with profitable tie-ins such as video games, computer games, toys, action figures and costumes. Related comic books and graphic novels also get a bump when a superhero movie succeeds.

"Public awareness of comics doubles and triples when one of these movies comes out," Quesada says.

Superhero Web sites such as SuperheroHype.com, Efavata.com and SuperheroTimes.com keep the fan base stoked, tracking all the latest developments in the world of comic books and superheroes. A popular new Internet game, "City of Heroes," even allows players to create their own superheroes and do battle against each other in cyberspace.

Reality TV is next on the bandwagon. This month MTV will start producing "Who Wants to be a Superhero?," a show in which contestants will dress, act and compete as superheroes against other wannabe superheroes and an assortment of stock villains. The grand prize winner's invented character will be published in a comic book.

"Geek culture is sexy again," Marvel's Quesada says.

But there may be something deeper afoot. During the past century, Americans often turned to superheroes as an escape in times of national jitteriness. The comic book "Superman" made its debut in 1938, as war clouds were gathering over Europe. Within five years of Action Comics No. 1, 90 percent of kids were reading superhero comic books, which enjoyed a kind of golden age during World War II.

"The desire for some big, bright escape that had something to do with fighting off big, bad scary things was a big part of that," Jones says.

Superheroes nearly disappeared from pop culture after the war, but reemerged in a new, more morally complicated way during the Vietnam War. The Marvel superheroes who made their debuts in the '60s often found they did more harm than good with their powers.

Spider-Man, the Hulk and Daredevil "were real people first, acting in real places, like New York and Brooklyn," and dealing with real-world problems, Quesada says. "Their alter egos became the real story."

And now, as we wring our hands over Iraq and terrorism, America's superheroes have arrived en masse on movie screens.

"We need heroes," said Cook. "Heroism and extraordinary feats of derring-do are in the headlines."

"There is some comfort," he adds, "in watching superheroes who conquer world problems without significant repercussions."

Jones agrees that Sept. 11, 2001, and the consequent war on terror have something to do with the popularity and box office power of superheroes. "Spider-Man," he says, was released eight months after 9/11, "and it seized people in a way that nobody really expected." It went on to become the most popular superhero movie ever.

"I think that had a lot to do with the fact that our nerves were really raw," Jones says. "Here comes this story that wasn't just about a good guy overcoming a bad guy, but it was about how complicated and unknowable the process of fighting the bad guys was. It really grabbed our anxieties."

America sees itself as the world's superhero, Jones argues, stronger than any other country on the planet, uneasy about the ways that power is wielded, yet still persuaded it has a destiny to fix the world.

Rainer points out that Hollywood has always been evasive about portraying what's going on in the real world -- in real time -- when it's grim news. Hardly any movies during Vietnam were directly about Vietnam. Instead, movies deal with the violence and anxiety of such periods in code. "This is how Hollywood talks about Iraq: with superheroes," he says.

Superheroes are experiencing something more than just a new round of popularity, however. They've evolved into much more complex and ambiguous beings in recent movies. They're being taken seriously by critics, directors and scholars as a unique American storytelling form.

"The cruel irony is that these superheroes are more complicated than many real actors in live action movies today," Rainer says. "They have more shades of feeling, and there is tremendous psychic conflict that they come out of."

"X-Men" was really a story about prejudice, substituting mutants as the persecuted and cast-out minority. Ang Lee, the director of "Sense and Sensibility" and "The Ice Storm," made "Hulk" (2003), a story about the wounds that egomaniacal parents can inflict on their children. And on one level, "The Incredibles" was a meditation on midlife crises.

In his book "Superman on the Couch," Danny Fingeroth identifies several different mythological archetypes in superhero movies, such as the angry young man (Wolverine of "X-Men"), the avenging orphan (Batman), the dual personality (Superman) and the empowered Amazon (Wonder Woman).

Other countries, too, have superheroes -- Turkey, in particular, has a love affair with low-budget superhero movies, and Japan prints millions more comic books a year than does the United States. But most foreign-born heroes are derivative of America's. It's here that they started and here that they maintain their strongest pull.

Arad makes an analogy to jazz, which was once regarded by cultural arbiters as junk music but gained acceptance and cachet over time until it achieved a reputation as one of America's most original art forms.

"Superheroes are the jazz of art history," Arad says.

Still, their metamorphosis into icons wouldn't have happened if they hadn't touched some primal nerves from the get-go.

Fingeroth, Jones, Cook and others speculate that we're drawn to superheroes because they tap strongly felt emotions clustered around helplessness, identity issues, and an ancient ache to connect to something more powerful, higher and nobler.

"We all have this sense that 'I'm going to be Peter Parker [Spider-Man when he's off duty] or Clark Kent on the outside, because I really don't trust my own impulses or trust the world enough to accept me raw.' I don't think any other fantasy gets to that sense that 'I have a hidden self that if I dared to show it would really would be amazing,' " Jones says.

We all want to be unique, but not different, in other words.

Superheroes also express our "hope (and fear) that there may be more to this world than what we see," Fingeroth writes in "Superman on the Couch." Religion taps the same yearning, in a different, more serious and ritualistic way.

Jerry Siegel created Superman when he was in his late teens, a time when a person's limitations are keenly felt in contrast to his powers. Siegel may have felt the helplessness that results from that power gap more than others. In "Men of Tomorrow," Jones reveals that just a few years before Siegel and his artist/partner Joe Shuster committed their first Superman stories and sketches to paper, Siegel's father had been shot and killed in his Cleveland haberdashery. It was a crime that was never solved, and an incident Siegel never talked about publicly the rest of his life.

Instead he created a bulletproof father figure who brought the bad guys to justice over and over again. What Siegel gave us was a playful format for the expression of a very painful and universal human frustration.

Siegel's creation of the first superhero didn't provide him the kind of catharsis and pleasure he brought to so many others, until very late in his life. Shortly after Superman first appeared, Siegel and Shuster sold the rights to their invention for $130. For 40 years they received none of the royalties that accrued to America's most popular fictional character.

It was the movies that finally brought Siegel a measure of vindication. In 1975, when he heard that Warner Bros. was paying $3 million for the rights to film "Superman" and he wasn't getting a penny, Siegel began a full-out public campaign for better compensation, reviving efforts to settle a lawsuit that had languished for a decade.

The press soon picked up the story, which touched a nerve in a public fed up with corporate scandals and Watergate. The pressure built until Warner Bros. and DC Comics decided it was best to clear the decks of the Siegel lawsuit before the movie opened.

On Dec. 19, 1975, Siegel and Shuster received a settlement of more than $20,000 a year for life. More important, they were promised credit as the creators of Superman on all printed matter, TV and movies in perpetuity. When "Superman Returns" comes out next year, at some point the screen will announce: "The character of Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company