Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Super Hereos in Culture: Why We Need Superman

As most everyone knows, the new Iron Man film has been released. And it seems to be doing well from the reviews I've read and those people who have made mention of it. Honestly, I'm not surprised. I have seen the film, and I must say that the first thing that captured my attention was the Stark corporate logo. Many years ago, I worked for Lockheed Martin (once simply known as Lockheed), and their logo was pretty much one-half of the Stark logo (visit the www.lockheedmartin.com site to compare). That has nothing to do with this post, unless we can make something of it. I bring this up because of a real world connection between Stark Enterprises and defense contractors. Someone is being mirrored.

Regardless of that sidebar, what has captured my fancy for the past few years - maybe nearly a decade - is the resurgence of super hero films. They've certainly appeared on television, but it seems they've done far better at the box office and perhaps DVDs. Why I'm interested is because I wonder about the attraction. Something attracts people to super hero films. I could say nostalgia from comic book days is the cause, but many of the audience members know little of the comic books or even the history of some characters (such as the X-Men or Iron Man). Perhaps there is something appealing in these films, or in their formula, that keeps people returning to the theater - and keeps the studios trying their best to make a pleasing version of The Hulk (why hasn't this one worked yet?).

There are many commonalities in super hero films, but perhaps the most striking one is that super heroes usually work outside the "system" or the law. Quite often, they are mistaken for villains before recognized as heroes (this means they act like villains in some fashion). Or at least F22 fighter pilots attempt to shoot them down believing their are threats before being told otherwise.

It would seem this quality places such films in opposition of what holds society together, making the films a touch rebellious in nature. In fact, sometimes these films must go beyond all institutional means available to society. When the police and military fail, when politics crumble, something must be done: super villains need super heroes to defeat them. Is it an overstatement to say that buried in this concept is a fear or feeling of inadequacy in government (on any level) to protect? Mind you, the return of this genre has spanned at least two presidencies, so I don't think it is purely political.

Other elements of super heroes and their tales are the aspects of being outsiders. They always stand out from the crowd, whether it be Clark Kent with his clever glasses disguise, or Superman with his bright outfit (did anyone notice in the last Superman film, he said that he defended "Truth, justice..." - what happened to the "American way" part of that line - seems like politics did jump in there). Yet, while these grand figures are usually outcasts, lonely, prowling on the edge of society, brooding and misunderstood, they are the only ones who can save the day. They seem to be counter-culture. Most importantly, when they do, the audience cheers. Is this a symptom of everyone wanting to be a super hero, or everyone wanting a super hero - or just a hero?

From outside the entertainment business there is often a confusion about cause and effect. That is to say, it is argued that people watch super hero films because film companies make them. In most business models, manufacturers produce what the market wants. I would think that if people did not attend such films, the number produced would decrease or vanish. This means that argument is inverted: film companies are making films the public wants to see. The question it begs is why does the public want to see them?


Jeff Edwards said...

The attraction to superhero movies is a mix of the things you mentioned.

I was always a Marvel fan rather than a DC fan. Setting aside heroes like Captain America, the (original) Human Torch, et cetera, most of the Marvel heroes we know today (Spiderman, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, et. al.) were launched in the early 60s. I think that touches on your counter-culture comment.

In large part, Marvel heroes were also flawed heroes. This was by design. It allowed predominantly male adolescent readers to identify with characters like Peter Parker because maybe they were nerds, too. Then, Parker dons his costume and saves the day and gets the girl. (Unless we're talking about the famous issue #121 of Spiderman.)

Another reason for the success of the movies is the "cinematic" quality of comics themselves. Panel layout is important in comics; the drawings have to present images of action and interesting "camera angles." Comics were just waiting to be adapted to the big screen as loud, action-packed, special effects-filled summer tentpole movies.

Just a few random thoughts...This could go on and on...


Charles Gramlich said...

Good question. I was never a comic book fan of any magnitude and I particularly didn't care for superman. I have watched a number of these films, though, because they usually have cool special effects and because in at least some cases (Spiderman) they seem to do good work with developing the character. I think people also long to "be" super heroes themselves and this allows them to do so in a way.

Mark Rainey said...

I just knew this was inevitable...


William Jones said...

Jeff & Charles - I think you guys represent the wide variety in the audience, something that is a bit new to this sub-genre. Traditional fans and new fans, and maybe both connect with being a superhero. But does that mean that they (we) want to be heroes, or is there some "anti-something" in it?

Mark - I've seen this fiend at conventions (they have slippers too). :) It appears that your link was cut by Blogger, so I'm posting it again - hopefully it will make it:


William Jones said...

Ack! Let me try it as an HTML link:

Mark's link

Jeff Edwards said...

William, given that you're a reader of Nietzsche, are you nudging this talk into the topic of the √úbermensch?


Rob said...

This is OT. I've seen the your new book Blackmoore Global Laboratories listing Paizo. Can you tell us anything about it?

Sue L said...

I never was a big fan of the comics, but I love the movies. I think it has to do with the hope that lurking in ourselves is something more.

I think that, in our hearts, we know the Bad Guy is out there. And it's nice to be able to believe that superheroes are out there as well, walking around with us, disguised as average guys, and that when worst comes to worst, they'll come to our rescue.

William Jones said...

Jeff - I'd never guide a conversation toward Nietzsche. :) Although I'll make sure to work him into my next post.

You do make a good point. I believe, and I might recall this incorrectly, but the original Superman comic was based on Nietzsche's Uberman (history is replete with this notion). Then something happened, and Superman turned "good." Or at least, he was no longer beyond "Good and Evil."

To be honest, I'm not sure I'm trying to guide anything. I'm interested in how super heroes are outside the "law" and still are heroes - wouldn't they be vigilantes? Of course, as a culture, comic book fans or not, there is something attracting us to them now (more so than in the past). If the films flopped, no one would make more of them. This means as a culture we're looking for heroes of the super sort. Maybe...

Rob - Yes I can provide more information. :) I'll do it in a post this week (unless someone else beats me to it).

Sue - I find many people today share your view. Not fans of the comics - often didn't even know of them comics - but enjoy the films. It is comforting to think that there is a super hero lurking, waiting to help or protect those in need of help.