After the last decade of blockbuster filmmaking, it’s easy to forget that superheroes weren’t always part of the mainstream. Most people know the names and basic origin stories of popular superhero characters, and for obvious reasons.
“Superheroes are, in a sense, all of society’s modern mythology,” said William Ford-Conway, co-president of USC’s comic book club. “Even if you don’t read the source material, everyone identifies Batman, Superman and Spider-Man.”
Even so, how many people can say they’ve ever picked up a comic book?
From the first appearance of Superman in 1939 until the end of the last millennium, comic book icons held a particular niche status. The number has fluctuated as the popularity of comics has waxed and waned throughout the decades, but traditionally the most dedicated fans of superheroes —the ones willing to spend the time and money to follow their printed adventures every month — have never had the sheer numbers for comic books to influence our culture as much as other media.
It’s no surprise, then, that most people’s familiarity with these characters comes from onscreen adaptations of their printed origins. Television shows like the Adam West Batman of the ’60s or the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno Incredible Hulk of the ’70s and ’80s certainly made their mark, but as is usually the case, it’s film that has the greatest opportunity to impact our culture. For a long time, nothing illustrated the box office potential of superheroes as spectacularly as the Richard Donner Superman films and Tim Burton’s take on Batman.
But this excitement has never been permanent. As the quality of the Superman and Batman film franchises deteriorated, the hype surrounding the characters simmered down to a general awareness buoyed by the enthusiasm of the ever-present comic fans.
“Comic books, graphic novels and superheroes are not only a part of our entertainment, but of our lives,” Ford-Conway said.
Then, in 2000, everything changed with the release of X-Men, the first big-budget film based on a property unmistakably from the world of Marvel Comics. Thanks to believable CGI and a talented cast, Bryan Singer’s film and its 2003 sequel, X2, coupled with the concurrent success of Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films, set a precedent that Hollywood couldn’t help but notice: Superheroes sell, more than ever before.
Follwing Singer’s and Raimi’s example, a tidal wave of origin stories hit theaters. And though the likes of Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider did nothing to endear audiences to the comic book movie trend, the successes drew far more attention than the failures.
But the true responsibility for solidifying the recently renewed strength of this new superhero culture can be traced to the visions of two men.
The first is Christopher Nolan, whose Dark Knight trilogy took the world’s most popular superhero and rooted him in a thrillingly realistic environment, allowing for a dark and modern vision of the story that — thanks to Heath Ledger’s Joker — will go down as perhaps the definitive take on the Batman mythos. Nolan won true mainstream appeal for mastering a strategy that USC screenwriting student Robert Browning thinks welcomes a wider audience: “Minimizing what most people would consider to be the fantastic or nerdy side of superheroes,” making the idea of a man dressing up to fight crime believable to everyone.
But when it comes to the most recent superhero blockbusters, Nolan is only one side of the coin. The other is Kevin Feige. Feige spearheaded Marvel Studios’ effort to create an interconnected cinematic universe, the first phase of which culminated this summer with Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, a purely fun blockbuster effort so monumental in ambition that it earned its own temporary exhibit on campus at the School of Cinematic Arts. Tour guide Preston Walker identified this as the source of the purest sense of excitement not only from prospective students and adults, who are “truly awestruck” at the props as they “recognize childhood heroes-turned movie stars,” but also younger children who act like “the place just became Disneyland.” As more grow up in a culture where superhero love is the norm, it’s really not surprising that costumes and concept art can rival USC’s athletics in generating visitor interest. After all, no one told these kids that superheroes didn’t used to be popular.
But with The Avengers setting box office records and Dark Knight Rises completing Nolan’s celebrated trilogy, it’s fair to say superhero obsession has reached its zenith. Now, not only is everyone aware of these comic characters, but most people are fans of them as well —- -and with an unprecedented level of familiarity. Even five years ago, how much of the American public knew anything about Iron Man, Thor or Hawkeye? Now these are household names, cultural icons whose imagery people wear without a second thought as to their social standings. Comic books are cool now. In fact, the last decade or so has seen the whole of nerd culture hit the mainstream, the rise of superhero films being the chief cause.
Reading comic books no longer carries any negative stigma; if anything, it indicates that one is more in-the-know about our cultural landscape simply because — thanks to the clear profits already won by trusting the genre — Hollywood has adopted the mentality that today’s comics are tomorrow’s tentpole summer movies and serialized TV shows.
Readers who might have been thought of as basement-dwelling pariahs 20 or 30 years ago are now the furthest thing from that. They’re ahead of the curve, and more want to join them every day.
And the die-hard fans couldn’t be more pleased.
“It’s great to see our heroes, our legends and our mythology branch out to the masses,” Ford-Conway said.
It’s an assimilation of comic books into the mainstream so universal, so tangible and so game–changing on every level of our media that it’s created a new cultural era.
This is the age of the superhero.