Have we reached peak superhero yet? Statisticians have been working on the problem for several years, although the question presupposes that superheroes are a finite resource, like coal or gold. Recent evidence suggests powers of reproduction and multiplication, like Tribbles or cancer cells. “All we get are superheroes,” sang Jack Black at the Oscars, where the laurels went to “Birdman”, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s black comedy about superhero fixation. The evening felt like a tipping point in Hollywood, wherein opinion that had previously been confined to infra-dig bitching sessions with publicists and agents was invited out into the open. A mood of sedition seemed to sweep the auditorium: what would it feel like, exactly, to diss superheroes publicly?
“Honestly, the whole thing is just showing the beginning signs of fraying around the edges,” ventured Robert Downey Jr. “It’s a little bit old.” Meanwhile, the ink had not yet dried on his deal for two Avengers sequels, “Avengers: Infinity War” Parts 1 and 2, for release in summer 2018 and 2019. Indeed, there were few pockets in the Kodak theatre that night that had not been filled at some point with superhero dollars, lending the sedition the self-conscious air of schoolkids getting carried away on the last day of term. The movie business is the superhero business, these days, and the Oscars chiefly an exercise in denial. Their one night celebrating mavericks, risk-taking and art over, the studios duly returned to the task of prepping “The Fantastic Four”, “The Avengers 2”, “Antman”, and other such lyrical chamberpieces for their summer release.
Before anyone can round up the usual suspects and blame them for killing the movies—Steven Spielberg! George Lucas! Marvel studios! Ewoks!—guilt propels me to step forward and shoulder my portion of the blame. It was me. I killed the movies. Me and the millions of kids like me who went and saw “Superman” eight times in 1979, and then when the merchandise proved a little slow getting to our local Woolworths, fashioned our own capes with loving needle and thread, thus summoning a vast, billion-dollar entertainment complex into existence designed to eliminate any such wait period, or downtime, from the lives of pop-culture princelings everywhere.
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, being a pop-culture delinquent required a certain amount of commitment. The weekly output of America’s comic-book publishing industry wasn’t enough: I was soon boning up on the comic books of the Sixties, Fifties and Forties, until I hit the original Depression-era strips, when Superman saved trains and repaired dams, bridges and other icons of Thirties modernism, as if singlehandedly tasked with implementing Roosevelt’s New Deal infrastructure programme.
It’s hard not to fall for the Superman of the Thirties, but then what’s not to love about Depression-era America? The Depression itself, I suppose; but balance it against Tin Pan Alley and screwball comedy, Cole Porter and Cary Grant, and all the other pop culture born of that era’s unbeatable mix of pluck, grift and wish fulfilment. As Gerard Jones shows in his zippy history, “Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book”, superhero comics were largely the creation of Jewish kids from the Lower East Side—scrawny, near-sighted, sci-fi-loving nebbishes who could sketch but not speak to the beauties they saw at school, and who lapped up the deeds of Tarzan, Charles Atlas and Douglas Fairbanks, before fashioning their own amalgams of rippling musculature and idealism to “smack down the bullies of the world”, as one of Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel, put it.
Today I look at the abundance of merchandise and movies aimed at kids like me with wonder and confusion, like Hiep Thi Le registering the vastness of an American supermarket in Oliver Stone’s “Heaven and Earth”. A form tilted towards underdogs has become the plaything of bullies—soft-power workouts for the couch-potato dauphins of the world’s last remaining military colossus. Today’s comic-book movies are dreams of power with their roots in weakling wish fulfilment all but eliminated: the civilian alter-egos of the Avengers and the X-Men barely get a look-in, while the mortals with whom they once enjoyed romantic dalliances are similarly banished from the summer’s high-impact smasheroos and demolition derbies. The form has entered its decadent phase of superhero-on-superhero violence and synergistic mash-up. These guys mix only with other superheroes, like A-list celebrities, or royals.
Next year will see the release of seven titles, including “Captain America 3”, “X-Men: Apocalypse”, and Zack Snyder’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, which shoves our two most famous lone-wolf superheroes into an enforced bonding session, and then throws Wonder Woman and Aquaman into the mix just in case the conversation dries up. Whatever happened to the existentialist credo of the lone, caped crusader? Superman’s Arctic bolt-hole, where he used to go to ponder his position as planet Earth’s sole Green Card holder, used to be called The Fortress of Solitude. These days, it’s party central for every last B-list vigilante, caped hanger-on and masked wannabe who can nab himself a film franchise and Happy Meal tie-in. It’s hard not to sympathise with Dash from “The Incredibles”, who, upon being told by his mother, “Everyone’s special, Dash,” responds, sulkily but undeniably, “Which is another way of saying no one is.”