By Áine Kenny
While we all eagerly wait for Avengers: Endgame to land on our cinema screens in April, I can’t help wonder why we are so fascinated and partial to superheroes nowadays. Comic books have been part of the mass media since the 1930’s, but the main urban legend who was a predecessor to the superheroes was Spring-Heeled Jack, the Victorian’s version of Slenderman. Many penny dreadfuls featured Jack, this devil-like creature who had clawed hands, the power to jump higher than any man and spit blue flame. Perhaps he was the first antihero?
When I was a child, I remember my grandparents showing me old videos of the Fleischer Superman cartoons from the 1940’s. What I now realise is that this animation style was ingenious. Fleischer invented rotoscoping, a technique which involves animating on top of film footage, giving a new fluidity to cartoons. Check out the series on YouTube, it is in the public domain now. One of my favourite scenes is where Superman folds up an airplane like it’s a tin of sardines… a nod to Popeye, one of Fleischer’s other famous cartoons!
Moving onto the latter part of the 1900’s, who can forget the hilariously badly animated cartoon Spider-Man from the 1960’s? For some reason, this particular characterisation of Spider-Man was shown on RTE’s children’s programming in the early noughties (cue mumbles about the cost of the TV license). At least we got some brilliant memes from that show.
However, the turn of the century also heralded the new age of superhero media: the superhero cinematic universes. A clever marketing strategy on behalf of Marvel and Disney, fan loyalty has never been so rewarding. Now, instead of having individual superhero films all safely confined into their own neat franchises, we see a conglomerate swallowing up characters one by one, in order to encapsulate them into one unified, phased storyline.
I don’t like seeing a concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few studios, but the results that Disney has produced are epic. We now have storylines spanning decades, careful planning of interconnecting galaxies and characters, and perhaps for the first time, a more comic book like approach to making superhero films. Heroes transcend time, space and comic book universes in print, and so why not in film?
But does the clever marketing strategy of the cinematic universes explain pop culture’s obsession with all things Marvel and DC? I don’t think so. Perhaps the beginning of this new age of superhero media was Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man in 2002. While Tobey had the face of a forty year old, he nonetheless pulled off the role (although I am more of a Tom Holland fan myself). Scoring 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and grossing $821.7 million in the US box office, Peter Parker was a hit. But why?
I believe that the advent of new technologies such as smart phones and social media is crucial to the ever-increasing popularity of the superhero genre in a few ways. Firstly, the world just seems to be a crueller place nowadays. While some parts of society have always had it tough, we were partially shielded from the worst atrocities by careful media coverage and more government censorship.
Nowadays, anyone can post anything online, from ISIS beheading videos to government secrets, which may have been kept out of the traditional mainstream media back in the 20th century. All of this has undoubtedly lead to a more worried and divided population. We need something to look forward to, figures to look up to. Superhero films fill this void.
In a time of growing political apathy, superheroes are a comfort. Many people look to them as a unifying force (a force that should be in our elected leaders, but I digress).
Most heroes’ origin stories are never great: neglectful parents, poverty, and difference mar the childhoods of most. But these people kept fighting, and this endears us to them.
Back to the technology theme, social media plays another role too. For example, the release of a new trailer is a massive online event, fans furiously commenting underneath a thirty-second clip, with theories springing up on Reddit.
Even the Marvel actors occupy a superhero-like space in popular culture, just look at Robert Downey Jr. From the brink of career death, the immensely talented yet troubled actor fought his way from jail and addiction to being one of the most-loved and successful actors across the globe. It is safe to say Downey Jr encapsulates everything about Iron Man, Stan Lee said so himself.
The way in which the actors engage with fans on social media also transcends the boundaries of most films. Mark Ruffalo tweets Hulk memes, Tom Holland has a running joke with fans that he will accidentally leak major plot spoilers, Chris Hemsworth has Thor banter on Instagram. And the fans love this. To me, this seems to make the cinematic universe one that is for everyone: actors, production team and fans alike.
In any case, it is clear that superhero films aren’t going away any time soon. And for those who insist they are for children, maybe start watching Captain America and think about how the themes of government and governance, duty and honour are analysed by the Russo Brothers.
People claim there are “too many films now” and that they are too interconnected to understand, but no one is saying that about the Greek tragedies. And to me, the superhero films of today are the Greek tragedies of tomorrow; they exert the same type of cultural influence.
Image copyright Marvel Studios