Feature originally written for Vulture Hound magazine, read it here.
I’m not sure if you guys have noticed, but there are a lot of superhero movies knocking about recently. I know. It sounds crazy – but apparently we really love watching caped crusaders. Audiences flock to the big screen to watch Bruce-Kent-Banner bumbling around in civilian get up. Born with a perfect set of pearly whites and intense core muscles, these hero-types sure know how to save the world and rake in the box office figures.
Why? Why have we all decided that this is what we want to see? Why not octopuses with guns or a drama about digestives?
I have a theory based around the events of the last decade that may explain our sudden thirst for a mighty hero. For me to explain it properly we must briefly look to the past, WWII to be specific. Yes, it is actually a remerging thirst that first awoke when The Nazi’s began committing terrible atrocities. Against a force as evil, powerful and terrifying as Hitler, who better to turn to than Superman?
Unsurprisingly, since the release of a cover depicting Superman bringing Hitler and Stalin to justice, the already successful comic book industry boomed. The public did not want to indulge in a fantasy of fear but an enjoyable escapist world where the physical embodiment of justice is a Man of Steel with an iron fist. It is telling that in 1938, Superman could not fly. Since the attack on Pearl Harbour and America’s involvement he developed more advanced powers such as heat vision and the ability to hypnotise. Queue star-spangled Captain America. His first cover debut pictured the patriotic hero burying his fist into the The Führer’s face.
Fast forward 25 years and it’s hard to ignore the popularity of superhero T.V series such as Batman and Robin, The Hulk and Wonder Woman. These could arguably be a welcomed rest-bite from Vietnam news reports, blasting into every comfortable sitting room. At a time of extreme violence and looming uncertainty, solace could be found in slapstick superheroes representing the American way or a lonely, troubled man that turns green (because that doesn’t sound like a metaphor for ‘Nam veterans at all).
After that extremely brief low down of superhero culture and a disgustingly condensed account of American history, I’m hoping you are picking up what I am trying to put down. In times of trouble, we turn to superheroes for entertainment because it is comforting.
So why do we need a hero now?
It’s pretty easy to pin-point the exact moment we all cried out for help – September 11th 2001. Once again, terror was upon us and nobody knew where or to whom we should turn for support. In 2002, Spider-Man was released in cinemas, making $114,844,116 (according to Google) on it’s opening weekend, with an extremely apt message to give: “With great power comes great responsibility.” A year later the war in Iraq began and questions began to surface, such as, is this all really necessary? Do we need to go to war?
As Tom Pollard notes (in Hollywood 9/11: Superheroes, Supervillains and Super Disasters) the post-9/11 superhero movies: “Embody a reaction to widespread feelings of distrust, powerlessness and growing paranoia about government surveillance, interference and control.” These levels of anxiety and paranoia are reflected perfectly in Batman Begins (2005). The plot has a very strong message about terror, how much power it holds and what it can do to people. The surmounting fear of weapons of mass destruction or another large scale attack was a very real thing – art imitated life.
Just as Batman seeks vengeance on The Joker and Superman seeks vengeance on Lex Luther, America sought retribution from al Qaeda and the Taliban. Civil war began and a surge of troops were deployed to the Middle East to help ease the conflict, this continued on for many years.When Saddam died in 2006, things really started heating up for superhero cinema, but the market was by no means over-saturated.
In 2008, Jon Favreau brought to life a hero specializing in war profiteering; Tony Stark couldn’t have taken his first breath on the big screen at a more perfect time. I mean seriously, come on. He is an eccentric playboy who gets kidnapped in Afghanistan and reconsiders mass producing weaponry. In 2012 Bin Laden was killed, prior to this, multi-superhero-universe movies, such as X-Men, were already released. The Avengers was already in production, but it unknowingly became a beacon for unity against terror. A God from another dimension, a mutated scientist, a soldier from the past, a successful businessman, a Russian spy and a circus performer band together – There is definitely an overarching message here. From the God’s to the circus folk, we are banding together to stop an interloper from destroying our world.
This trend in multi-superhero-universe movies is ever growing with ISIS and the political discourse in both the U.S and U.K. I have no doubt that there are more on the horizon, and until things change, superhero movies will only increase in popularity.
There is definitely something to take away and mull over. Why do we like superhero movies so much? Why has their popularity surged? Perhaps it is because, now more than ever, we want someone to save us.