Register Monday | June 24 | 2019

The Superhero Film Grows into its Powers

Meditations on an all-American franchise

The audition was an open call; even on a frigid midwinter day in Boston, a misfit herd of thousands—including myself and two friends—lined up, hoping to play sidekick in the third Batman movie, Batman and Robin. I wasn’t particularly a fan, but I read some comics when I was a kid. And like most kids, I’d cultivated aspirations to superheroism—not to better humanity, you understand, but to satisfy my id with vaguely antisocial plans. Superheroism hadn’t come naturally to me, alas, so I decided to settle for the next best thing: superstardom.

The casting people took us into an enormous auditorium and said they didn’t want a real movie star for the role; what they wanted was to make a discovery. Then, with a nearly superhuman patience, taking one applicant at a time, they shook our hands and quickly looked us over, as if scanning us with some kind of X-ray vision.

My friends and I weren’t Boy Wonder material. Nor was anyone else who turned out that day: Chris O’Donnell got the part. You could safely argue that he isn’t a real movie star, so I won’t begrudge the casting people. I never saw the movie—many, many people told me not to; and many thought that with its release, the superhero film, a mini-genre so recently considered invincible, had been dealt a mortal blow. Recent viewing, however, suggests otherwise.

I wouldn’t call this a golden age of superhero cinema and wouldn’t expect such a thing anytime soon, if ever. But the brand—part coffee-klatch expat culture, part bohemian pride parade and, in the words of Thomas Carlyle, the nineteenth century’s leading scholar of hero worship, part “perplexed jungle” of paganism—does seem to be undergoing something like a troubled, and supernaturally charged, adolescence. And going by the paradigm set forth in many comics, a primary source for superhero movies, adolescence is the most dramatic and interesting time, the time to really pay attention.

As they struggle for a place in the complex, adult world of genuinely

artful cinema, today’s super-movies are impressively self-involved and, save for their occasional fits of sarcastic humor, sullenly earnest. Like so many of the characters they portray, these films are hugely disaffected. They search for legitimacy and meaning even while battling their own bipolar impulses toward escapism and conformity. They shimmer with flashes of righteous social conscience and other pretensions to maturity. And as it happens, they also shimmer with awesome special effects. But will they ever grow up?

Superheroes seemed to infiltrate the popular culture in the 1930s, a decade that began with depression, ended with war and saw atomic power on the horizon. By the mid-forties, the whole future was atomic—it meant either some utopian promise of infinite energy or, depending on whom you asked, the sublimity of mutually assured destruction. The underside of technology’s great hope was the very unsettling idea that it might twist Americans into unrecognizably monstrous versions of themselves, and many of our intrepid heroes met their super-fate by unfortunate association with atomic science gone wrong. If such an atmosphere of vulnerability doesn’t foster adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies, what does?

Add to this the degrading expansion of the postwar urban landscape; a series of quantum leaps in the mechanics of popular entertainment and the ubiquity and undeniably gauche extravagance of its delivery; rampant cults of celebrity; and good, old-fashioned population growth. Life in recent decades has enlarged, but movies are still larger than life. It makes sense that superheroes should turn the cinema into their home.

Clearly the superhero movie owes a debt to other, otherwise irreconcilable genres of popular entertainment: early horror stories (consider the Hulk as a Frankenstein’s monster), film noir (Batman), post-noir (the Punisher) and, not least, song-and-dance musicals (the near-ubiquitous fight-and-flight motif, as canonized by The Matrix, with its literally show-stopping production numbers). As protagonists, superheroes also maintain links with the heroes of the pre–mass media age, and even the demigods of mythology (witness Stan Lee’s Thor). Thomas Carlyle did some groundwork on this subject in 1841, with a series of lectures, “On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History.” Carlyle’s heroes—Odin, Mohammed, Dante, Shakespeare, Luther, Rousseau and others—were, to a varying extent, embodiments of divinity, men of letters and deep thought, morally righteous and sometimes risky social actors. They were men to be emulated.

Many superheroes, by contrast, are set apart from their societies by endowments that famously can’t be emulated or even aspired to. Intellect, ingenuity, leadership skills and compassion are generally up to you (or your guru), but when it comes to shape-shifting, flinging fire or reading minds, you’ve either got it or you don’t. Carlyle showed a prescient awareness of the postmodern obstacles facing today’s superheroes when he described an age that “denies the existence of great men; denies the desireableness of great men.” Today’s superheroes wouldn’t be caught dead under the dusty old moniker of “great men,” and they aren’t really allowed much in the way of godliness. Superheroes do have permission, however, to be god-imitators, avengers, innocents abroad, quirkily endowed outcasts and—by virtue precisely of their most sensational traits—celebrities. They can, in other words, be Americans. Hence the emphasis in their ongoing pageant on costume, which at once draws attention to and affords refuge from celebrity. Coupled with acrobatic transcendence over sometimes violent adversity, this is the coping mechanism of self-reinvention. And it goes way back.

Perhaps the first superhero on the contemporary record was concocted by Rabbi Judah Loew from river mud in sixteenth-century Prague, to protect the city’s Jews from the local axis of evil (i.e., hostile Christian neighbours). As a pre-emptive weapon against anti-Semitism, Rabbi Loew’s golem was a mighty advocate for the oppressed, and also, unmistakably, a monster. After an effective career, the lore recounts, the golem was returned to its constituent elements and stored in a synagogue attic—leaving the door open, as it were, to the possibility of a sequel. Which just goes to show that franchising was around long before Hollywood. (Even King Arthur, the Once and Future King, is said to sleep in Avalon, resting up for another call to duty should the need arise; nine centuries is a long time to wait for a sequel, but perhaps that fact makes a good marketing opportunity.)

The movies’ notable first try at a man-made automaton was of course Karloff’s monster in Frankenstein, a vital and unsettling melting pot of a film, imported from Mary Shelley, adapted, serialized and made visually iconic by director James Whale. Whale’s influence is obvious in today’s movies; a few years ago he was even the subject of a great little film called Gods and Monsters, a title which aptly describes the parentage of movie superheroes.

But consider, too, the cast: Brendan Fraser, whose stardom has been supernaturally fortified by turns as George of the Jungle—a riff on that proto-superhero Tarzan—and as a prettier, hokier version of Indiana Jones in the Mummy movies; and Ian McKellen, who now anchors the X-Men franchise as Magneto. The clincher is Gods and Monsters’ stunning and surreal ending: Fraser’s character hobbling alone at night through a rainy street, with the affected gait of Karloff’s monster. It’s Shelley meets Gene Kelly. To me that looks like a super future.

For now we have the not quite credible Hulk, who epitomizes the tragic consequences of mixing bad anger management with the irresponsible use of high technology—a fate to which superhero movies themselves sometimes succumb. I find it delightful that the earthbound, green-skinned golem invented by Stan Lee has at last been animated on the big screen by Ang Lee. With or without wirework choreography, there’s only one way to go: up.


Any coming of age is an internal battle, a decision to take responsibility for how you address the world. So it is with the battle for the super-movie soul, riven as it is with subversive impulses, and riddled with box office–tested homogeneity. The genre’s identity crisis finds a particularly kaleidoscopic expression in the X-Men films, with Ian McKellen’s Magneto in charge of those asocial mutants who act from rage instead of hope, and the well-meaning ones going in for the socially constructive tutelage of Patrick Stewart’s bald, throbbingly telepathic Professor Xavier (a headmaster in every conceivable sense of the word).

The super-movies’ ascendancy depends, in part, on whether or not they go mad with branding (the Hulk drinks milk and Mountain Dew, the X-Men drink Dr. Pepper, Keanu and the Matrix crew drink Powerade), trying to please every segment of their peculiarly diversified target audiences. This is, after all, a genre that has inherited the heavy duty of reconciling the put-upon faction of urban queer culture with the macho, jingoist devotees of the summer blockbuster; a genre that allows fan-boy wallflowers and the spawn of soccer moms to safely hang out together in theaters and Internet chat rooms; a genre that placates a culture in desperate need of superheroes, however much it hates to admit it.

The defiance of death and gravity has always been an Icarus game, terrifyingly adolescent, based on the uncertainty of one’s limits and the surprise of their discovery. Going totally mainstream is a risk for superheroes and movies alike—both seem most productive when they work from the margins, when they feel free to disappear into the shadows, retreat from their own conspicuousness. They thrive when the awareness of their own composite identities—the toggling back and forth between wallflower and wallcrawler—is a real issue, not just a bit of camera- or market-ready shtick. Under the close-range glare of eternal spotlights, what fate will befall the innocuous Spiderman, the uncanny X-Men?

 “I would love to break off every one of these characters into their own movies,” says X-Men and X2 producer Lauren Shuler Donner, who is also the wife of Superman director Richard Donner. But can even the power of super box office protect a franchise from that kind of overexposure?

A loss of true self-consciousness—that feeling of identity in action, of something at stake—can spell doom for a budding superhero franchise. Consider the combined successes of the first two Superman and Batman films; then consider the increasingly goofy abominations of their subsequent big-screen outings. They seemed to outlive their usefulness, and it just got embarrassing. I’m afraid even my getting a shot to play Robin couldn’t do much about that.

If the genre really wants to find itself, it will need to surmount another difficult obstacle, namely the attitude of folks back home. Where superheroes are concerned, purists abound. Michael Dean, an editor for the Seattle-based Comics Journal, expounded rather succinctly on the subject of breeding superhero movies not long ago. “Hollywood is full of formulaic hacks and corporate idiots,” he said, “whose collective imagination is tinier than Ant-Man's cybernetic helmet.” I wonder if Dean, who sounds an awful lot like the Comic Store Guy on The Simpsons, shivered or screamed when he read of Ms. Shuler Donner’s aforementioned plans.

Like the fearmongering politicians in the X-Men films, purists tend to be narrow-mindedly nostalgic, deeply worried about the mercurial future. It’s the rapid and visible mutation of the genre itself that so worries them. Interestingly, this is a central concern for superheroes themselves—the very issue over which the X-Men so spectacularly duke it out: What to do about the uncomfortably far right “normal” humans who dread and oppress us? The question resonates profoundly with the experience of persecution, and concomitant fantasies of omnipotence, in North America’s gay culture, broadening the fan base into known but relatively uncharted territory. As if managing all those special effects wasn’t work enough.

Film critics, like parodies of the purists, also seem suspiciously eager to hold the films accountable to the sources from which they were derived. “How often,” carped Elvis Mitchell in his New York Times review of Daredevil, “must we note that the comic-book rendition of a character is more fully realized than the movie version?”

Regarding the relationship between movies and comics, there has been some confusion. Obviously comics matter. Not only because they furnished many of the colorful characters on display in theaters everywhere this summer, but for reasons of readership and authorship as well. Those readers who sponsored the renaissance of comic books in the early 1990s have turned out, in many cases, to be the new commanders of Hollywood film studios and video game manufacturers.

It is no coincidence that movie storyboards evoke comic strips, and there is a kind of cinematic mythmaking at large that suggests that movies are better than comics at realizing artists’ and audiences’ dreams. Special effects have “caught up” with the imaginations of comic book artists, so the myth goes; finally, paper visions can be fully realized. To say this denies the fact that the best comics and graphic novels are not limited by the use of still pictures—denies, ironically, the very essence of cinematic technology. Montage, the art of generating motion and meaning between pictures, has always been essential to both comics and films, and well plied in each. As an inexpensive, low-tech special effect, the juxtaposition of comic book panels makes good practical sense and allows an audience to share in the most rewarding work of all: imagining the super story.

It is worth worrying about what will be left to the imagination. Are the human values of the film world in real jeopardy from unsubtle, merchandise-laden superhero franchises? Should the super-movie trend be labeled impure and locked up? Or is it actually quite a natural development; in fact, a blessing, by whose means we shall all be liberated from the tyranny of our philistinism? A surprisingly durable question. It’s probably being debated for credit at elite universities as we speak, not to mention getting worked into the self-referential, profane pomp of a Kevin Smith screenplay, along the lines of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

With such heavy issues weighing on them, and such weirdly aestheticized views of themselves, today’s superheroes deserve to be angsty. Wouldn’t you be if your legacy included Perseus, Travis Bickle and a million others in between, with the dubious destiny of saving a largely ungrateful world from its own insidiousness?

The purists and critics have it wrong. The genre already is a genetic mutt, and its prosperity will depend on how willingly it recognizes that fact and embraces its centuries-deep mixed ancestry—a collage of influence that over time has made room for spandex-arrayed flag wavers of nearly every stripe. Real vitality is possible here; or phony vitality, all latex padding, flashy special effects, soft drinks and toy-store tie-ins.

We witness the adolescence of the super-movie on a magnified scale, so it’s no surprise its growing pains appear overblown and grotesque. The form will endure if it finds enough strength and agility to straddle the high and low cultures lurking within it and, eventually, to tell us something good and true about ourselves.

Out of curiosity—not because I’m a fan, you understand—I recently confirmed that Disney is developing a big-screen version of The Greatest American Hero—an early-eighties television series in which a math teacher receives superpowers from aliens, but can’t quite control them because he loses the instructions. That seems just about right: when trying to renew something so derivative as the American superhero movie, it may be a good idea to lose the instructions, allow for some sense of discovery.

I wonder—and I know I’m not alone here—if the casting people understand this, and whether or not the auditions will involve an open call.