UP, UP AND AWAY!
Comic Book Superheroes
by Felix Cheong
To paraphrase an old Tina Turner number: we dont need another superhero. Or do we?
Going by box office takings for Daredevil, currently at US$91.5 million in North America 4 weeks after its release, we certainly do.
We still need the life-affirming fantasy of a superhero despite the events of 9-11 superceding fantasy. More than ever, we need the strength and single-mindedness of a superhero to save us from ourselves.
This is perhaps why theres a queue of them in the wings, waiting to woo us with their heroics: The Bulletproof Monk (opening in the US next month), the X-Men sequel X-2 (May 2) and The Hulk (June 20).
This bumper crop is by no means a new phenomenon. If you flip through the archives, youd find an outbreak of superhero flicks every decade or so. For example, in the late 1970s and early 80s, there were the four Superman films; in the late 1980s and early 90s, there were the four Batman films.
The success of flicks is not only due to their whiz-bang special effects but also, in part, to their value as vicarious entertainment.
For the fists of the superhero are our weapons too; they whack the living daylights out of villains we are reluctant to face, impotent to combat. The superhero, in fact, is an idealised image of all we aspire to be but are not.
By springing him alive out of imagination, we become that much larger than life, that much nearer to virtue. This was indeed how two scrawny teenagers came up with the idea for Superman, the worlds first comic book superhero, in 1933.
According to Bradford Wright in his book Comic Book Nation (2001), Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster conceived the Man of Steel really as a schoolboys fantasy to compensate for the constant bullying by older, bigger boys. With his Herculean strength and angel-like flight, Superman was the kids alter ego, their better selves, daring to take on evil men they could not.
This refraction of reality, through the prism persona of the superhero, was later the guiding light for other comic book creators, especially during the Golden Age of Comics in the 1930s and 1940s.
Superheroes like Captain America and Captain Marvel took to the trenches, slugging it out with Hitlers forces on pulp and paper well before the Allied armies sealed victory in 1945.
In this respect, while the subject matter of superhero comic books is fantastical, their thematic concern is not. The same goes for superhero films. For instance, at the tail end of the 1970s, a decade that had witnessed Watergate, there was Superman (1978), the first comic book superhero to be adapted for the big screen.
While serious filmmakers like Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter) and Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now!) questioned what it meant to be a patriot in the light of the countrys involvement in Vietnam, Superman reiterated old-fashioned values of "truth, justice and the American way". The movie was a kind of escape hatch, a way to avoid eye contact with doubt and collapse.
Grossing in excess of US$134 million, its popularity led inevitably to a cartwheel of sequels. But other than Superman II (1980), which earned a respectable US$108 million, the rest were commercial and critical flops.
This was mainly because as Reaganomics worn Americans down in the 1980s, rah-rah patriotism became passé. Audiences, fed on the mantra "greed is good", needed a new superhero, one who would reflect their cynicism and dark desires. And they found it in Batman (1989), a Gothic work that opened up the underbelly of a world gone corrupt and keenly mad.
Racking up a staggering US$251 million at the box office, the film was notable for its postmodern depiction of the superhero as a brooding, psychologically complex character. In this, director Tim Burton was influenced by the revisionist approach of Frank Miller in his graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986).
Unlike Superman, whose operative word was light, the Caped Crusader was a vigilante who sought cover in night, prowling the streets to dispense his brand of cruel justice. He was a superhero who had more in common with his nemesis The Joker than with the citizens of Gotham City he had sworn to protect. He was, in other words, no different from antiheroes like Dirty Harry who would shoot from the hip first and ask questions later.
The idea of a superhero who exacts justice by his own hands and seeks revenge in his own terms, draws its moral code really from the Old Testament Bible, particularly in the famous line "vengeance is mine, says the Lord".
X-Men (2000) and Spider-man (2002), in some ways, tried to temper the extremity of this position. Post-911, the message at the heart of X-Men was tolerance, while that of Spider-man was that with power comes responsibility.
Daredevil seems to have upset the feel-good vibes, revisiting the superhero-as-vigilante theme. But the timing could not be more apt. Against the backdrop of the US playing global policeman, threatening to unleash a Gulf War sequel, the story of a blind superhero that insists justice is not blind, must cut that much closer to home.
This is the appeal of superhero films, what ultimately gives them their raison detre. More than mere escapist fare, theyre really a celluloid metaphor for the state of the world, within and without. And this is why whenever things fall apart and the centre cannot hold, Hollywood presses another superhero into service, imprints his deeds on popular imagination.