One of Roger Ebert’s “Far Flung Correspondents,” Michael Mirasol, recently wrote an article entitled The rise and decline of the superhero. It’s a very interesting and well-written piece, and even includes a video essay to accompany the text. However, I cannot say that my views totally gel with Mr. Mirasol’s assessments.
I think it’s always important to remember that when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman, the first real icon of superhero comics, they did not necessarily have in mind the deep, moralistic messages that Superman and Superman II sported some forty or so years later. Sure, some basic principles were instilled in the character that made Superman such a likable symbol of goodness – virtuosity, sticking up for the little guy, et cetera. Regardless, the much more intricate symbolism that comprises the modern iterations of Superman is something was added later once the potential for, well, more was realized.
And of course, there’s the distinct possibility that a lot of that came from the fact that Shuster and Siegel were channeling their Eastern European Jewish heritage in creating such a character. It would make sense to create an honest, brave, and noble savior of the “little guy” (the Jews) to fight the bullies of the world, and maybe that’s exactly who Superman (Supermensch?) was supposed to be. However, I think it is a mistake to say that superhero films should always have some ulterior motives or subtexts which convey a sociopolitical message as Mr. Mirasol suggest Guillermo Del Torro did in Hellboy or Jon Favreau unintentionally did in Iron Man.
The universe of the superhero has always been fascinating because while they were ultimately just created to help people escape the sameness of their day-to-day lives, over time, they have become such 3-dimensional constructs that fans and authors have been able to elaborate on those simple foundational concepts. This has provided us with some serious food for thought amidst all of the whiz-bang fantasy action endemic to the medium. But with this in mind, it is critical that we remain cognoscente of the idea that while it is possible that such icons as the X-Men, Superman, and Batman were always meant to represent all of the subtleties that we recognize in them today, I think that those meanings were likely derived from the nuances that the auteurs writing and drawing the comics passed on subconsciously and not from the creators’ original outright intentions.
As an example of this, we can look at Magneto, arch-villain of the X-Men. A little known fact, Magneto was never explicitly stated to be a Jew until very recently (3-4 years ago). However, it was strongly implied for many years, particularly once his past as a Holocaust survivor had been revealed in the 80s. I believe it was only in 2008, with the release of X-Men: Magneto Testament, that Magneto was outright said to be a Jewish Holocaust survivor. This presumption that he had a particular religious background is a great example of fans reading into the comics and trying to attribute real-world ideas and concepts to their characters, regardless of the actual motives of the artists.
And indeed, the desires of the authors in the 80s and 90s may well have been to make Magneto Jewish, and perhaps they were in fact stymied by a need for the still anti-semitic social climate to change sufficiently before an overt declaration of heritage could be made. Nevertheless, the history of Magneto’s past since his inception is also an example of how, Jewish Holocaust victim or not, Magneto made for a formidable X-Men foil for almost five decades since the 1960s – the fact that he’s Jewish now is just the proverbial icing on the cake, a backdrop that gives his actions and his rhetoric some renewed context.
At its heart, the comic book universe is an escapist fantasy which can be just as easily extrapolated on as not. A film like The Avengers, while far from perfect, certainly captures exactly what it is that has attracted readers since the advent of the superhero at the beginning of the twentieth century – fun. Therefore, in conclusion, I must respectfully disagree that the era of the superhero is in decline, but has rather maintained or even expounded upon the fabric of that particular film genre from its earlier incarnations in the 80s and 90s. I do agree that these movies have room to evolve, but not every superhero film needs to have a “deeper” meaning to accurately represent the comics from which they draw inspiration – they just need to remember what that unique element is that has made superheroes such a magnetic force for the past century.
Before I sign off, let me leave you with a a wonderful little adaptation of an old Batman panel that has become quite famous around these here interwebs: