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Superheroes and the Hero Monomyth: Part II

Old school to new school, it's the "pop" in culture that validates and affirms.

Move over Starsky and Hutch—the Ford Gran Torino is out and the Batmobile is in....that is, The Tumbler or, most recently, the Justice League version. Television crime dramas of the era once ruled the roost while entertaining a general audience for decades. We had them all—Crockett and Tubbs, Magnum and Rockford, Barney Miller and Columbo. From roll call at 8:03 a.m. in the Hill Street Precinct to Sgt. Esterhaus’ parting remarks of, “Let’s be careful out there,” pop culture crime drama always fit nicely into a 60 minute package with commercials. Even Ponch and John from "CHiPs" could crack the case and be back in time to hit the disco dance floor!

Crime drama was a significant outlet for ushering in cultural and heroic iconographies of the time such as flashy cars, theme songs, lunch boxes, catch phrases, and pearly-white smiles. At some point, however, the sideburns were shaved off, lunch boxes made their way to a trash can, and muscle cars of the 60s and 70s are now seen restored in a garage with its owner wiping it down with a cloth diaper. Like any fad, these shows and their nostalgic counterparts didn’t last forever—they couldn’t.

With every TV pilot there was always a last episode. The last arrest, the last car chase, and the last lollipop. Whether four seasons or twelve, crime drama characters have entered and exited our lives, providing fifty minutes of security each week while we’ve grown up and grown old in an increasingly tumultuous society. Over the years, I’ve heard many cry out for a return to the “simpler” days of Columbo, Kojak, or Adam-12—a return to some sanity amidst the sound bites and visual distractions of today’s television and social media. Is it any wonder why reunion shows have been so popular over the years? Audiences can’t let go. Read Part I of my two-part series of this article to enjoy the analytical framework of the hero monomyth which serves as a socio-cultural underpinning of our historical account.

The superhero genre, by contrast, does not go away. It’s pierced our social fabric and pop culture energies far longer than any gold Firebird, red Ferrari or Torino ever could. Superheroes have existed for over 80 years from the Lone Ranger’s “fiery horse with the speed of light” to high speed pursuits in the depths of our universe. Protection and being saved quickly became more than just a cliché.

In the 21st century, we have seen a significant and pervasive influence of superheroes in the media. According to different reports by researchers, comic books are known to be regularly read by nearly 2 million people. It is also estimated that 62,780,000 comic books are sold in the world each year, with the average comic collector owning an average of 3,312 comic books!

In Greg Oropeza’s edited work, The Gospel According to Superheroes, it was offered that, in the 1940s, as many as 95% of all children between the ages of 8-11 read comic books on a regular basis, while 25 million comics were being sold every month. In the 1960s, Marvel Comics reached 30 million copies per year; and in the 1990s Spider-Man and X-Men commanded more than half a million readers.

From the first comic book, Funnies on Parade, in 1934, through the Golden and Silver Ages, comic books have been long-adored by fans, long-maligned by parents, and most recently studied for their humanistic value by comic book scholars. Interestingly, well over one hundred books, research papers, and columns now exist that purposefully address the behavioral value of comic books and their larger, mythological representations of humanity.

For more than 70 years, we have been inundated with television shows, cartoons, action figures, lunch boxes, trading cards, and clothes that carry the names and logos of endless superhero characters. Most significantly, the once-reviled comic book culture now sets the trend in Hollywood. Comics have always been a good jumping off point for cinema because those frames on the page tell a story that works well on the silver screen. Moving in and out of those theaters, adults and general audiences from all walks of life find themselves immersed, comfortable, and satisfied with comic book-themed films.

In the 2008 documentary, Comic Books Unbound, film producer Michael Uslan explained that the 2005 blockbuster, Batman Begins, did so well with mass audiences because it wasn’t just a good comic book movie; it was simply a good movie! Fans aside, when people sat in a theater and watched the tortured Bruce Wayne/Batman, they unexpectedly indulged in a treatise on life. They quickly related to a character who experienced all of the emotions they did; all of their celebrations and disappointments. The comic book point of origin becomes secondary. In awe and celebration of the human condition, they just don’t care.

Comic books were firmly established by the 1930s when movie serials picked them up as viable sources to entertain kids on Saturday afternoons. Called “shorts,” they usually preceded the feature film and were designed as chapters or episodes that would typically run for a week with a cliffhanger ending. It would require readmission to the theatre the following week to “see what happens next!” Such features as Spy Smasher, Superman, Batman, and Captain America steamrolled into the 1940s and 50s. Detective Comics (known eventually as DC Comics) was the first major development of the comic book/superhero genre and provided us, perhaps, the most popular superheroes of all time—Superman and Batman. Together, these characters were to form the backbone of what was to become comic book pop culture.

During the 1950s and 1960s, comics took a beating from the government and special interest groups who chastised them as violent, homosexual, and delinquent-producing outlets. Despite the opposition, themes of drugs, sex, war and politics became experiments reflected in comic books and strongly revived their popularity and presence as pop culture icons. Hollywood, however, was more interested in portraying superheroes in a favorable light. As such, we enjoyed the adventures of Superman for more than thirty years.

Television’s Batman was released in 1966 as the breakout comic book character that could succeed alongside Superman and still be viable to audiences despite its largely reviled comic book beginnings. The film and its follow-up television series are both renowned as campy productions. Even more, hard-core fans of the time were upset with how the character was portrayed as compared to its comic book counterpart.

The show departed significantly from the darker themes, crime, and vigilante-style justice that fans were used to. Instead, audiences received a hearty dose, each week, of Pow! Zap! and Bif! Moreover, we will never forget Batman’s desperate attempt to fend off a rubber shark while dangling from the rope ladder of his Bat-Copter. Holy Hollywood Cancellation!

The success of comic-to-television sequences came in the 1970s. Many shows like The Six Million Dollar Man, Bionic Woman, Shazam!/The Secrets of Isis, Wonder Woman, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Battlestar Galactica, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk were instant hits with everyone.

For the silver screen, however, it was a 1978 Hollywood blockbuster that propelled the genre further than any television show could. Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve, revived the longest-running and most well-known superhero icon of all time. Movie producers, Alexander and Illya Salkind tapped award-winning writer, Mario Puzo, (The Godfather) to capture a serious and lasting picture.

After the success of the 1980 sequel Superman II, the studio was unable to keep the franchise alive and well. Both Superman III and IV in the 1980s proved to be major embarrassments. An artist was once quoted as saying, “Kryptonite didn’t kill Superman—Richard Pryor did!”

Almost a decade after the original Superman, Hollywood again found another keeper in the surprisingly successful reboot of Batman starring Michael Keaton. Based on the 1986 graphic novel by Frank Miller, “The Dark Knight Returns,” Batman was an overnight success. It ushered in the dark, macabre villains and shadowy side of Gotham City that the 1966 version purposely omitted.

Filmmaker Tim Burton (Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas), had been known for darker, brooding tones in his films and purposefully made Miller’s novel and its script a convincing revival of the character.

Introducing audiences to Batman’s tormented alter ego, the deconstruction of the character was attributed to the comic book and graphic novel. Batman grossed 100 million dollars in its first 10 days and was the top grossing film of 1989.

Marvel and DC had the monopoly on comic books, but Marvel lagged behind in terms of television and film adaptations. DC had Shazam!, Wonder Woman, and Superman I and II. With the success of Tim Burton’s Batman, there appeared to be no sign of DC’s comic-to-screen adaptations slowing down. Comparatively, Marvel comics had not fared well on the small screen. The failed Spider-Man series with Nicholas Hammond, the poorly-adapted Incredible Hulk made-for-TV movies, and Reb Brown’s Captain America and Captain America II (yes, the guy with the spangly motorcycle and helmet), made it difficult to sell Marvel-produced comic book movies.

Marvel argued that the characters in their comic book universe were vast and renowned for unique abilities that could not be transferred and translated to the screen very well. Most of them originated as freak accidents in the “vat of science fiction”—radioactive spiders (Spider-Man), super-soldier serum (Captain America), gamma radiation (Incredible Hulk), cosmic radiation (Fantastic Four), and mutants (X-Men). It was difficult to produce visually stimulating movies and television shows that could jump from the frames of a comic book and capture the same images created by the minds and imaginations of its readers. Even more, depicting the origins and plights of these conflicted heroes required a blend of good acting and serious and relevant story lines.

In 1998, Marvel blasted through with their first test-flight. The vampire movie Blade, starring Wesley Snipes, adhered to the principle of blending strong character development with stimulating visual effects. The film was released the same year as another breakout movie, The Matrix. The use of computer generated images (CGI) soon became the benchmark for believability-in-fantasy. The race between DC and Marvel was on.

Following a series of X-Men and Spider-Man blockbusters, all of today’s filmmakers are dedicated to giving the source material proper respect. The Spider-Man, Batman, and Superman franchises now rank among the highest box office draws of their time. Interestingly, a whole new breed of thirty and forty-something writers and filmmakers who grew up on comics and cinema superheroes are now deeply involved and committed to the genre.

Copyright © by Brian A. Kinnaird. All rights reserved.

Dr. Brian A. Kinnaird is a criminologist and social psychologist. He is an author, professor, speaker, and consultant and enjoys researching and exploring superheroes and the hero monomyth. He can be contacted at brian.kinnaird@gmail.com. For more articles, view his column The Hero in You.

References and Recommended Reading:

Hughes, (2003). “Superman: The Movie”. Comic Book Movies, Virgin Books, pp. 5-23.

Morris, T. & Matt Morris (2005). Superheroes and philosophy: Truth, justice, and the socratic way. Open Court: Chicago, IL.

Oropeza, B. J. (2005). Superhero myth and the restoration of paradise. In B.J. Oropeza’s “The gospel according to superheroes: Religion and popular culture”. Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.: New York, NY.

Parnham, T. (2005). Superheroes in film and pop culture: Silhouettes of redemption on the screen. In B.J. Oropeza’s “The gospel according to superheroes: Religion and popular culture”. Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.: New York, NY.

Reynolds, R. (1992). Superheroes: A modern mythology. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson, MI.

Zimmerman, D. (2004). Comic book character: Unleashing the hero in us all. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL.

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