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Category:    Home > Essays > Superhero > Action > Adventure > Politics > Filmmaking > The Superhero Genre Debate.

The Superhero Genre Debate.


By Nicholas Sheffo



While so many bad films (more than experts and Hollywood executives expected for 2012) have rightly bombed, there is still a backlash, shock and bewilderment that superhero genre films are the big attraction.  This extends to even smart film critics who don’t get it.  With the Superhero genre, each person who does not get it tends to misunderstand it for different reasons, but it is fair to say it is the most misunderstood genre of filmmaking since Film Noir.


That is odd since Noir is not a genre Hollywood studios invented, but one filmmakers did invent (Orson Welles, followed closely behind by John Huston, other key names like Fritz Lang and hundreds of unsung filmmakers making independent works) and one so subversive it helped lead to the Hollywood Witchhunts of the 1950s.  Unlike Superhero films, Noirs are respected though they were usually considered B-movie fare mistakenly at first.  In comparison, Westerns were B-movie fare for decades before John Ford made Stagecoach in 1939 and Superhero films really began in the silent era as action serials as precursors to what would soon make the pages of comic books.


Comic strips were as serial as the serials, but sound and an upsurge of pulp magazine production in the 1920s changed that, followed very closely by the rise of dramatic radio network programming.  Though Superheroes are usually sited as coming from the DC or Marvel publishing arms, many companies were responsible for the genre (including Fawcett which gave us now DC-owned Shazam! (aka Captain Marvel) who was monstrously popular in his time and Quality, who gave us Plastic Man, also now at DC).


The well-read, articulate and cinematically literate New York Times duo of A.O. Scott (whose recent review of the megahit Marvel Avengers movie had co-star Samuel L. Jackson calling for his resignation) and Manohla Dargis co-wrote an article called “Super-Dreams of an Alternate World Order” which you (if you have access to the great newspaper’s site) can access at the following links:


Here is the first page link:



The full text link:



The general argument and gist of the article is that the genre (which we can say finally cemented itself on TV after some key serials with Batman (two), Superman (two), The Green Hornet (two, and he is a descendant of The Lone Ranger), The Shadow, Captain America and the especially classic Adventures Of Captain Marvel with the huge hit 1950s Superman and 1960s Batman TV series) is that the new cycle of films are only happening because billion-dollar companies want them to happen, that they are all suddenly serious films (despite the failures to the contrary of Green Lantern, Jonah Hex and Green Hornet (the last an intended comedy) though some reboots are getting a little darker and more serious) and that they are still white heterosexual male power fantasy narratives despite some female heroes (is that comment on Scarlett Johansson in the Marvel Avengers actually sexist on their part?) and African American heroes (Jackson in the same film was referred to as a cheerleader more or less) and that endless toy tie-ins are a big financial incentive and plus.


That is a convenient set of arguments, but I think they are both oversimplifying and tailoring what they see to fit neatly (too neatly) for their own good just to make their arguments valid.  If anything, something much more interesting is actually happening and just about everyone seems to be missing it.


There is enough about the genre to write a big book, so I will try to stick to basic points.  I can start by continuing my explanation of the rise of the genre.


Following the success in print, in filmed serials, sometimes on radio and in the earliest (and some of the most valuable if you have them) toys and collectibles, the next thing that happened to allow Superheroes to have their own genre was the advent of color on film.  The George Reeves Superman did start in black and white, but it soon became (in part because the makers could cut episodes into artificial movies and put them out in theaters for people to see color, which was ten years away for analog TV) the first regularly filmed color TV show even though hardly anyone had a color TV.  This was even before NBC owners RCA started making Bonanza that way because they were about to introduce color TV.


Suddenly, a filmed superhero tale could look like a four-color comic book and even feel like one.  For the genre, this was very important, even when it was under political assault and had its ups and downs.  Like Rock Music, many thought it would be a fad that would go away and many somehow remarkably still act this way, but Superheroes and Rock have some strong common denominators and they include American ideas (whether myth or not) of freedom, justice, progress and a better future because one is pro-active in going for such a future.  Thus, Superhero genre books were attacked as Rock Music would soon be.


Though a comedy affair, the Adam West Batman series was an event because the comics were good, there were so many great characters to work with (more than Superman) and that is why it became a pop culture phenomenon and some of the most talented actors and stars in Hollywood who would have never worked in such a field otherwise were suddenly tripping over each other to be on the show.  There was no Dark Knight yet and only some Superhero comics were dark to begin with.  As a result, the show brought a classiness and respectability (albeit in a semi-comedy variant of how we know Batman now) that permanently set the stage for Superhero production to be A-level product.


There were still many problems with translating the genre to film, though some animated series that followed in the wake of Batman (including the 1967 Spider-Man series, some less-expensive other Marvel series (Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Sub Mariner) with great theme songs that cut out artwork straight from the comics and brought them to life (including then-groundbreaking art from one of the all-time visual giants of the artform, Jack Kirby) and Filmation Studios launching their whole legendary company on Superman, followed by Superboy, Batman, Aquaman, Justice League, Teen Titans, Green Lantern, The Flash and a few other DC characters.


The huge commercial success of those cartoons, led by an unstoppable combination of children, adults with heart and members of the counterculture moments who saw these characters as subversive and vital as any pop culture (including artists like Lichtenstein and Warhol) permanently cemented Superheroes in pop culture worldwide for good, even though no one took them seriously except for some laughs and to make money.


The 1970s continued the trend with the even more massive success of Superfriends!, a show DC made with another animation studio, Hanna Barbera.  Though child-safe to a fault, its 1973 debut stunned the industry with its high ratings in the middle of the Golden Age of Big Three Network Saturday Morning Cartoon programming and the show ran for over a dozen years, not coincidentally ending when the genre was being “rolled back” in the early part of the Reagan 1980s for being a threat to that ideology.


Marvel finally found a live action success with Kenneth Johnson’s take on The Incredible Hulk, but would not duplicate that success with actors for 20 years, while DC saw Batman become one of the most successfully syndicated TV shows of all time in reruns along with the older Superman still doing business and after a failed short film attempt in the late 1960s and odd TV movie with the beautiful Cathy Lee Crosby in 1974, the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman was a smash hit (around the time Johnson’s Bionic Woman was a hit) and the first round of the building of the genre was complete.  The Superhero world had strong, smart progressive women before the feminist movement ever happened, with Wonder Woman, Batgirl and others reflecting future progress out of the suffrage movement that led to the 18th Amendment in 1920 allowing women to vote.


All it took was Richard Donner’s hit Superman – The Movie in 1978 and the genre was suddenly full fledged and had come full circle from its simple origins.  Though each film got worse and bad films and TV projects mostly followed, the genre was established, left for dead by major studios, not taken seriously and was assumed dead.


Then Frank Miller gave us the classic graphic novel comic book The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 and the return of the repressed began.  Hollywood tried to Reaganize the movement with the 1989 Tim Burton Batman with its right-of-center ideology atypical of the genre, but it was a hit and because of an unprecedented promotional campaign by Warner Bros., more a darling of great marketing than great filmmaking.  That is why the follow-up films were not as commercially successful and Burton’s idea of weird-for-dark instead of being dark threw off the audience enough that he was replaced by Joel Schumacher for the somewhat underrated Batman Returns and then horrid Batman & Robin, killing the series.


The two films that brought on the current cycle of films include Russell Mulcahy’s The Shadow (1996, a basis for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins) and Marvel finally after decades of trying, found Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998) bringing Marvel into the feature film genre fold.  The successes that follow stem from those films and they are not necessarily based on some kind of corporate white nationalism that Dargis and Scott are arguing.  That was not the case with Bryan Singer’s two X-Men films, doesn’t necessarily fit any of the four Spider-Man films (Peter Parker is hardly in any position of power, save when he wears that uniform) and the films that work that people are paying to see has to do with a genre that is usually anti-racist, anti-sexist and about the underdog, so their arguments in this respect are limited.


I would say that calling the DC characters “born of the Depression” has some validity, but why do they not note non-DC characters like Captain Marvel, The Shadow (who arrived around the time of the crash), Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger and even Popeye and Plastic Man.  Many of the Marvel characters were born in the 1960s as they noted, but that does not include The Human Torch, Sub Mariner or Captain America who were form that first wave, so I just think their ideas are not soundly argued, spelled out or based on all the facts.


There is so much more to the genre, but we’ll save that for another time.  Now that the Marvel Avengers has had record box office, watch how the terrific new Amazing Spider-Man (in 3D yet, and 3D that works) and Dark Knight Rises is going to be more than just about the money.


We’ll again return to this territory soon.


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