Superheroes On-Screen: The Evolution of a U.S. Ideal

Eighty years after Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Action Comics introduced the world to Superman, the superhero ranks just below Mom and just above apple pie among the United States’ most beloved institutions. Film and television have been increasingly fertile ground for superpowered comic book heroes in the decades since: Ten years after “The Dark Knight” broke box-office records and earned rapturous critical acclaim, Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers regularly wear capes.

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Sean T. Collins
, New York Times

Eighty years after Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Action Comics introduced the world to Superman, the superhero ranks just below Mom and just above apple pie among the United States’ most beloved institutions. Film and television have been increasingly fertile ground for superpowered comic book heroes in the decades since: Ten years after “The Dark Knight” broke box-office records and earned rapturous critical acclaim, Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers regularly wear capes.

The movies and shows that have resulted from Hollywood’s superhero obsession provide a moving picture of the United States’ changing mores, aesthetics and technological capabilities — a way to track the growth, and occasionally the regression, of a nation, one spandex costume at a time. Here’s a guided flight through the evolution of this modern-day pantheon.

Truth, Justice, Etc.

‘Adventures of Superman’ (1952-58)

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When Siegel and Shuster created Superman in 1938, they invented an entire genre. Fittingly, their character’s live-action incarnation became the first superhero superstar. The actor responsible was George Reeves, who brought the Man of Steel and his alter ego, Clark Kent, to square-jawed, barrel-chested life in the long-running syndicated TV series “Adventures of Superman.”

But while Superman commanded the adoration of millions of children, the actor who played him had some secrets of his own. Reeves chafed at being typecast as the Man of Steel, and he died of a gunshot wound to the head at age 45. The death was ruled a suicide, although suspicions of foul play have never fully subsided (among other reasons, he was having an affair with the wife of an MGM studio “fixer” who had ties to the mob). As an allegory for the dark side of the postwar decade’s postcard perfection, Reeves’ story was like something out of a movie — which it became in 2006 with the fictionalized true-crime drama “Hollywoodland.”

Superheroes Go Pop

‘Batman’ (1966-68)

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Holy zeitgeist, Batman! Starring Adam West as the titular character and Burt Ward as his sidekick, Robin, the TV show “Batman” remains the definitive example of superheroes who capture their moment. The show’s Camp Crusader sensibility owed nearly as much to the Pop Art irony of Roy Lichtenstein (who designed the show’s first TV Guide cover) as to the work of the characters’ original comic-book creators, Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson.

With-it adults could snicker at the sendup of straight culture, embodied by the impossibly corny Dynamic Duo, while the skintight get-up of Julie Newmar’s Catwoman and a little Bat-innuendo gave the show the slightly naughty air of Johnny Carson and Eva Gabor playing Twister on “The Tonight Show.”

For children, however, “Batman” provided a window into a colorful world of larger-than-life characters delivering justice with a sock to the mug of Cesar Romero’s Joker. Bang! Pow! This version of Batman long remained the public face of the character.

The Swinging Super ‘60s

‘Barbarella’ (1968)

Stream it on Starz; rent it on iTunes, Amazon or YouTube

Director Roger Vadim’s adaptation of “Barbarella,” a comic by French cartoonist Jean-Claude Forest, was a very à la mode blend of liberation and leering. Starring a resplendent and charismatic Jane Fonda as a space-faring adventurer whose encounters get very close indeed, the film sealed her status as a sex symbol and remains a landmark in her career. And as an act of symbolic cinematic rebellion by the boomers against the generation of Fonda’s father, Henry, it’s right up there with “Easy Rider,” by her brother, Peter.

Today, the science-fantasy genre-bending of “Barbarella” seems positively pioneering, with echoes everywhere from the “Star Wars” franchise to Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But while superheroes are frequently sexy, rarely are they sexual. This points to a still wider road not taken following “Barbarella”: Superhero stories in which drives and desires other than redemptive violence motivate the main characters.
Happy Birthday, America?

‘Wonder Woman'/'The New Adventures of Wonder Woman’ (1975-79)

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“In your satin tights/ Fighting for your rights/ And the old Red, White and Blue.” If you’re in search of a brief encapsulation of an extremely confused moment in U.S. history, the “Wonder Woman” theme song has you covered. Post-Watergate nostalgia, bicentennial fever, women’s lib, disco glam — you can find it all in these hodgepodge small-screen adventures of the most famous female hero in comics, created by William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter.

During its run, the series changed titles, eras (from World War II to then-contemporary times), networks (to CBS after a short run on ABC) and even stars, with Lynda Carter taking over for Cathy Lee Crosby, who starred in a feature-length pilot that aired in 1974.

It’s Carter who pulls the whole thing together. Few actors have looked more at home in a superhero costume, into which the character changed by way of a spinning transformation devised by Carter. The success of this blend of “Batman"-style, lunchbox-friendly action-comedy and “Barbarella"-style live-action pinup appeal falls squarely on her shoulders.

The Dream Machine

‘Superman: The Movie’ (1978)

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The machinery of the modern-day blockbuster — kick-started by Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and thrown into high gear by George Lucas’ “Star Wars” — never operated in a more chaotic, or mercenary, fashion than it did in this big-budget work of art-by-committee. There was its small army of screenwriters, credited and uncredited (including the author of “The Godfather,” Mario Puzo); the decision to shoot the film and its sequel simultaneously to increase the return on investment; the fortune thrown at Marlon Brando for just a few minutes of screen time as Superman’s Kryptonian father; the conflicts between director Richard Donner and his producers that led to his ouster before the sequel was completed (Richard Lester stepped in): All in all, the process was as industrial as building a car.

But all that fades away the moment the movie begins. The visual effects, most notably the Zoptic front-projection system that made Superman’s flight convincing, won an Oscar. The star-studded supporting cast, with Margot Kidder as a vivacious Lois Lane, Brando as Jor-El and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, gave the thing gravitas. Finally, there’s Superman himself: Christopher Reeve, in a performance so effortlessly charming yet rooted in thoughtful physicality, it forever associated him with the role. His instantaneous change in posture and expression when he switches between Superman and Clark Kent remains a wonder to behold.

Blockbuster Begins

‘Batman’ (1989)

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Almost as soon as the TV show “Batman” went off the air, darker material began to ferment in the comic-book depictions of the Caped Crusader and his peers. “Batman” was the blockbuster that brought this grimmer vision roaring into multiplexes and the mainstream consciousness. Directed with confident neo-noir style by Tim Burton, the movie pivoted off works like the cartoonist Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” and employed an array of talent — composer Danny Elfman; production designer Anton Furst; and Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson as Batman and his psychopathic nemesis, the Joker — working at or near their career peaks.

While “Batman” remains one of the genre’s best films (the best, if you want my opinion), its industry innovations sometimes overshadow its aesthetic excellence. The movie’s PG-13 rating became standard for tent-pole movies, while its record-breaking box office enshrined opening-weekend revenue as a key measurement of a film’s success.
Superheroes Go Grunge

‘The Crow’ (1994)

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James O’Barr’s cult-favorite black-and-white comic “The Crow” centers on a beautiful young man named Eric Draven, who is killed by a gang during a vicious sexual assault on his girlfriend and then resurrected to kill them one by one, like a cross between Batman and Jason from “Friday the 13th.” For his live-action adaptation, director Alex Proyas simply imported the comic’s aesthetic and gave it a slight tweak for the post-Nirvana era. Saturated with songs from ‘90s alt-rock bands like the Cure, Nine Inch Nails and Stone Temple Pilots, it’s so unrelentingly dark that it crosses the threshold of self-parody and passes right into the sublime.

But the lasting story of this film is the one about its star, Brandon Lee, son of the martial-arts legend Bruce Lee. The younger Lee, 28, seemed poised for stardom given his incandescent work here, then was killed on-set by an accident with a prop gun. Death haunted the film both inside and out — an echo of the superhero comics of the period, which in short order killed Superman (he recovered) and broke Batman’s back (he recovered, too).

Superheroes Come Out

‘X-Men’ (2000)

Stream it on Starz or DirecTV Now; rent it on iTunes, Amazon or YouTube

With all apologies to Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” franchise, which followed it, this is the movie that kicked off the Marvel era. Based on characters and concepts created by a small army of writers and artists, “X-Men” truly established the template that so many superhero movies subsequently followed. Its battles rely on bombast and spectacle rather than careful choreography — an attempt to convey the raw power of its mutant heroes and villains. The costumes carry a heavy-duty uniform vibe.

“X-Men” also established the necessity of buoying the often incomprehensible goings-on with a white-hot charismatic lead — in this case the then-unknown Australian actor Hugh Jackman. In this film and its sequel, director Bryan Singer played up the comics’ theme of oppression and rebellion, using it as an allegory for coming out as an LGBTQ person. Sexual assault accusations against the director (which he has denied) complicate the message considerably, but at the time that message resonated — enough to convince critics and audiences that superhero movies can have something to say.

Family Values

‘The Incredibles’ (2004)

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After live-action superheroes began dominating the box office, an alliance between the genre and the foremost purveyors of children’s entertainment was probably inevitable. Enter “The Incredibles,” director Brad Bird’s Disney-Pixar extravaganza.

The film is a story of two retired superheroes turned suburban parents, forced back into action by a berserk fan turned supervillain. The idea of a family unit as a superhero team resonated with parents and children alike, while conservatives embraced the movie’s theme about extraordinary individuals who are forced to the sidelines by an everyone-gets-a-trophy culture. Perhaps most important, the unmatched craft of Pixar’s animators proved that big-screen superheroes could work just as well as cartoons as they did in flesh and blood, starting a new genre offshoot best represented by the “Despicable Me” franchise and its ubiquitous Minions.

Saviors and Universes

‘Iron Man’ and ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)

Stream “Iron Man” on Epix; rent it on iTunes, Amazon or YouTube. Rent “The Dark Knight” on iTunes, Amazon or YouTube.

Superhero cinema as we know it today began 10 years ago. The legacy of director Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man,” the first film in the official Marvel Cinematic Universe, can be seen in theaters three times a year like clockwork, as Marvel cranks out a serialized story, one gigantic hit at a time. As Hugh Jackman was to “X-Men,” the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark (originally created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby and Don Heck) was integral to the movie’s success and influence.

That same year, Christopher Nolan directed and helped write what many consider to be the genre’s greatest film: “The Dark Knight,” the centerpiece of his Dark Knight trilogy. Staged in slick, cavernous urban spaces that are frequently shattered by the film’s chaotic, destructive action sequences, “The Dark Knight” seared itself into the collective consciousness with nods to the contemporary debates over liberty versus security. The film is perhaps best known for Heath Ledger’s incandescent performance as the Joker, portrayed here as a scarred and squeaky-voiced agent of chaos. Ledger’s death at 28 before the film’s release cemented its legend.

Truth, Justice, etc., Redux

‘Wonder Woman’ (2017) and ‘Black Panther’ (2018)

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Since 2008, the superhero genre has achieved near-total cultural hegemony, and it did so by settling into rigorous house styles for the two major players — Disney/Marvel’s movies have the workmanlike playfulness of a good syndicated TV action series, while Warner Bros./DC’s efforts are best described in the words of the Joker: “Why so serious?” The superhero movies of the Obama years offer little in the way of long-lasting creative accomplishments. Draw whatever parallels from that you will.

Then the president changed, and superhero movies appeared to follow suit. Set in the fictional African superpower of Wakanda, this year’s “Black Panther,” directed by Ryan Coogler, is the highest-grossing movie in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Released the year before, “Wonder Woman,” directed by Patty Jenkins, outdid “Justice League,” the blockbuster for which Jenkins’ film was supposed to serve as a tease. Previously the near-exclusive domain of white men, blockbuster cinema got a serious shake-up when these movies outshone their peers.

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