Superheroes were always fascinating, they captivated people’s attention from the very beginning and that fascination didn’t stop until now. There are many different reasons why do people love them, and some of the most common are that they like to draw inspiration from the idealistic figures which are cool and do various awesome things. But, the most important reason we love to watch costumed heroes is that they give us hope.
In a world where we are bombarded by bad news and sadness, it is good to find an escape and a level of security with these characters. Sure, superheroes aren’t real, but one can dream. And yes, we’re aware superheroes don’t exist, but heroes do, and by watching supernatural feats on screen we’re reminded that there are people risking their lives every day, looking out for each one of us. So, how is possible to turn something overwhelmingly positive into a bad thing? The answer is oversaturation. In the recent years, we’ve been exposed to bazillions of superhero movies, TV shows, video games, comic books, cartoons and every possible type of merch, so it became kind of everyday affair. That is probably the least likable option, superheroes became the only thing they weren’t meant to be- common. To dwell on the reasons for that, we’d have to go back for a century.
The word “superhero” dates from a century ago, but the archetypes of the hero in distinctive clothing are much older. The tales of heroes with superhuman abilities are as old as civilization. From Gilgamesh, Samson, Hercules, Achilles, to King Arthur and Jeanne D’Arc, the classical heroes were people with courage, honor, dignity, courtesy, and nobleness. Those characters are usually noble by heritage, children of kings or even gods, and they are all leaders or inspiring figures. But, with the start of a new age, heroes changed from leader to the vigilantes, which protect the poor from the injustice and oppression. The best example of that kind of hero is Robin Hood. The earliest display of the masked hero with a secret identity was the 1903 theater play The Scarlet Pimpernel (no he doesn’t have a pimp slap as the superpower) and its numerous sequels and spinoffs.
Not soon after, the masked heroes with alter egos were introduced in the pulp literature and comic books. The most prominent examples were Zorro, The Shadow and Phantom, which all had feature movies during 90’s. Also, during the 1930s, non-costumed characters with super strength started to appear, like Popeye and Hugo Danner. Soon after, these two trends started to come together, making the first superhero era, so called The Golden Age of superheroes.
The first comic book superhero wasn’t featured in Marvel or DC comics, but in a Japanese paper theater called kamishibai. The name of the hero was Ogon Bat, and he’s the ancient being from Atlantis sent in the future to battle contemporary evil forces. He even had a live action movie adaptation, starred by legendary Sonny Chiba. But, aside from being the first masked supehero, Ogon Bat is not very famous outside of native Japan.
The first universally recognizable superhero is the one which name actually means superhuman. Of course, that’s the Superman, still the most famous and the most influential superhero of all time. Interesting enough, the second superhero was Captain Marvel (not Carol Danvers, but Shazam!), followed soon by Batman. Superman made huge success and basically singlehandedly made a new genre featuring heroes with secret identities and superpowers. Following the Superman’s lead, there was an outbreak of colorful superheroes like The Flash, Green Lantern, and Blue Beetle. The first known female superhero was Fantomah, the ageless Egyptian (blonde!) woman who could turn into female Ghost Rider with a blonde wig. A few months later, we got The Invisible Scarlett O’Neil. You might as well try to guess her superpower. She fought crime and wartime saboteurs using the superpower of invisibility. There was a surge of female masked heroines who fought crime or Nazis during the war, but without any superpowers, like Woman in Red, Lady Luck, Phantom Lady and many others. This period gave us the first version of Black Widow, which was superpowered antiheroine, a true rarity for that age (or this age, to be honest). The most iconic comic book superheroine, who debuted during the Golden Age, is Wonder Woman. She was modeled by the image of Amazons from the Greek mythology and in time she became the symbol of women’s liberation and power, which was especially apparent after the latest movie adaptation.
1950’s saw the Silver Age, in which most of the superheroes got their female counterparts, but also the Comic Code, which hindered creative freedom of comic books, reducing it to the children’s entertainment. Comic books took a hard shot and couldn’t recover until 1980’s. On the other hand, we got the first comic book adaptations, in the form of film serials aimed at children. The first of them was Mandrake The Magician and Adventures of Captain Marvel, Batman, The Phantom, Captain America, and Superman soon followed. But, the aforementioned Comic Code put most of these adaptations to an end, excluding only the Superman played by George Reeves and Batman by Adam West. By the way, if you ever wanted to find out who’d won in a fight between Bruce Lee and Batman, you could actually watch and see it.
The first global success with comic book movies was Richard Donner’s Superman with Christopher Reeve (not related to George Reeves), following the success of Star Wars and the general increase of public interest in a fantasy and science fiction. The Supermen movie spawned one great sequel and two more that we’ll write about in the article about cinematic disasters. From 1980 to 1997 dozens of various comic book movies were made, ranging from excellent Tim Burton’s Batman, The Crow, Conan the Barbarian, to the cinematic equivalents of Fukushima disaster like Captain America, Toxic Avenger, Supergirl, Judge Dredd, and finishing that period with the worst year in comic book cinema history, when we saw Batman and Robin, Steel and Spawn, three of the worst comic book adaptations ever.
Luckily the next year we’ve got Blade, which was the first Marvel movie starting a franchise, along with Men in Black. But, they were quickly overshadowed by first two huge Marvel hits, X-Men and Spiderman. Bryan Singer’s X-Men established the world in the close future, in which two groups of mutants secretly fought for the destiny of humankind. Director Bryan Singer successfully presented the feeling of rejection his mutant characters were feeling throughout the franchise. Sam Raimi’s Spiderman told the classical zero to hero story, which was something people really wanted to see in the social climate after the 9/11.
Those two films reignited the interest of Hollywood for superhero movies, which still burns. Naturally, not all of those dozens of produced movies were brilliant. There was a fair share of box office bombs and critical failures. Let’s just mention Daredevil, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Ang Lee’s Hulk, Catwoman, and Ghost Rider. Not to mention some underwhelming sequels, like third instances in Spiderman, X-Men and Blade, which hindered the continuity of sequels and made franchises to reboot or stop. The best movies from that period were probably Nolan’s Batman Trilogy (especially The Dark Knight), Iron Man and Watchmen. Some media commentators have attributed the increased popularity of superhero franchises in the new millennium to the social and political climate in Western society since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, although others have argued advances in special effects technology have played a more significant role.
The current era of superhero movies began with the establishment of Marvel Cinematic Universe. The movie which did that was the first Iron Man movie, in 2008. In the next ten years, 19 movies were produced and hit the cinemas, and the vast majority of them were huge hits, concluding with Black Panther and Infinity War, which together almost made as much money as Avatar. DC Extended universe tried to do a similar thing, but their line of movies was so clumsy made and inconsistent that it wouldn’t look good even without comparison with Marvel’s superior cinematic timeline. Fox was consistent with their inconsistent X-Men timelines, and they actually managed to make R-rated hit movies with Logan and Deadpool. As the result, Disney, which owns Marvel (and Star Wars) decided to buy Fox and all their movie assets, so in a reasonable future, we might see all Marvel heroes in Avengers 5 or 6. And that leads us to the main problem.
We all agree that superheroes are awesome. They are just, able, they always do the right thing, they look cool, and on top of that, they have superpowers. What is there to dislike? To answer that, we’ll use the kitchen analogy again. No matter how much your favorite meal is tasty and well made, if you eat it for every meal every day very soon you’ll realize it lost the most of its initial appeal. In the last three years we got more superhero movies than in the previous ten, with that number going even higher in the upcoming years. The thing is, when superhero movies make the most of the market, they lose that exclusive feeling they had when there were two or three movies yearly. The audience simply doesn’t have time to hype these movies to their deserved level, and studios realize they’ll make enough money even if they slack off a little. We are literally getting flooded in superheroes from all sides, and that kind of oversaturation will probably soon leave some serious repercussions to the superhero industry.