If you ask a comic book fanboy where Superman was born, he’ll dutifully lecture you about Krypton, Superman’s father Jor-El and the years Superman (then Kal-El) spent hurtling across space in his protective spacecraft.
If you pose the same question to a sociologist, he’ll calmly explain that Superman was born out of American fear, desperation and uncertainty, and is less a man of steel than a reassuring figurehead. He was born between the two world wars, when our country most needed a hero.
Perhaps it is unsurprising, given this origin, that 20th century comic book sales were highest during the drastic Nixonomic stagflation of the 1970s and lowest in the 1950s. Then, the American populace derived its confidence from manufacturing booms, our country’s growing global power and technological achievement, instead of from caped crusaders. We liked Ike more than Batman, and we put superheroes on the back burner. They never left us though, crouching silhouetted against metropolitan skylines waiting, ever vigilant, for the time we would call upon them again.
We see the same trend in movie adaptations of superhero stories, the peaks and valleys of box office grosses coinciding with the ebbs and flows of American strife. Only six major superhero movies came out in the 90s, as opposed to 38 released between 9/11 and the close of 2010. Stan Lee, creator of Marvel comics, has 75 producer credits on his film resume. That’s more than Peter Jackson and Martin Scorsese.
With seven superhero flicks slated for release in the coming year and the three summer blockbuster installments of Spiderman, Batman and the Avengers collectively grossing more than $3 billion this year, one has to wonder if we are currently in the throes of a great American tragedy. I posit that the number of people flocking to the theaters to see men in spandex fly and beat up baddies is, in this era of skewed reporting and misleading polls, one of the truest barometers of American turmoil we have.
Peter Parker’s Aunt May said it best in “Spider-Man 2,”: “Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer.” This is what Americans are drawn to time after time in periods of great struggle. Hope. Hope that only a masked savior can provide.
The superhero era is no cinematic fad; it is enduring. It is more powerful than a locomotive, to borrow a phrase. I don’t expect these adrenaline-pumping marvels of modern movie magic to slow down until a time comes when America once again realizes its true power lies in its people, and therefore it won’t need our super friends anymore. Once our country is experiencing success and prosperity domestically and abroad we’ll put them on the shelf with our Legos and G.I Joes until we have to call upon them again. If the 30s and 40s were the golden age for comic books, then we are living through the golden age of comic book movies.
I’m going to be able to vote in the 2016 election, and I think I’ll be able to gauge the quality of leadership in this next term by the number of comic book movies released. Maybe the 15 (and counting) hero movies set to be released by 2015 are Hollywood’s predictions that things aren’t turning around just yet. Alternately, perhaps the extreme glut of films in the genre is an indication that the numbers will soon subside, because as Batman says, “the night is darkest just before the dawn.” I’m conflicted, because as a fan of comic books, I’d love to see the trend continue, but as a fan of truth, justice and the American way, I long for a time when we no longer need masked heros to feel optimistic about our future.