What the World Needs Now: Society’s Desperate Need for Superheroes

Over the past several years, the comic-book-movie genre has been steadily gaining momentum, increasingly becoming the mainstream film goers’ choice for cinematic entertainment. With the success of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002, Hollywood had found a formula for making a truly successful superhero film. In the years to follow, many more comic book heroes have made their way to the silver screen, many of them sequels. This summer proved to be an especially superhero-rich summer, with Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Hancock, Hellboy II, and The Dark Knight all hitting the screen.

With the success of Iron Man, the newly-formed Marvel Studios’ first endeavor into film-making, the comic-book-movie genre once again presented the now-standard origin formula, but did so slickly, with witty dialogue, true-to-source storytelling, A-List veteran actors and gorgeous CGI. It seemed like this was to be the superhero event of the summer. Then came The Dark Knight.

Hollywood, along with the rest of mainstream popular culture, has finally discovered what comic book fans have known all along: superheroes serve as brightly-colored, two-dimensional extensions of ourselves.

In his brave new sequel to his 2005 Batman reboot, Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan has skyrocketed the potential for superhero films, by presenting a creatively-written, intellectually-challenging action epic that breaks the mold of the simple popcorn movie of summer, creating a movie that is a reflection of our times. Instead of poking fun at these tights-wearing, cape-flapping superheroes by giving them bat-nipples, outrageous costumes or clichéd one-liners, Nolan creates a serious exploration of many of the Batman character’s themes, particularly the nature of heroism. The result is a comic book movie that not only works as entertainment, but also adds an element of philosophy to the fight scenes and the explosions expected from such a film. It’s a film that ups the ante beyond movies such as Spider-Man and X-Men, asking its audience to really think about what they want and need in today’s world.

The superhero has taken on many forms over the years. In the WWII era, heroes like Superman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman led the charge into real world conflicts. They boosted morale, while simplifying the war into a two-dimensional, black-and-white skirmish that could easily be solved with a few punches.

In the 1960s most comic book heroes still told simple stories of good versus evil. Yet, with the rapid advancement of technology — especially television – the world we lived in was becoming smaller. The television nightly news, offering us actual footage to the realities of war and political scandals, caused a shift in how society presented and received its news, fading once seemingly black-and-white matters into gray.

From the 1970s to today, heroes such as Iron Man, Batman, and Captain America have become more sensitive to the society around them. They have become layered with more emotional complexity, and instead of always providing simple solutions like brute force to complicated problems such as war, economic instability, and political corruption, they question the world around them, their government, their friends, and themselves.

Captain America, perhaps the most obvious example, was once a symbol of unfaltering patriotism, willing to fight anyone who opposed the United States government. To him and many of the fans who read his comics, any German was a Nazi. Over the years, however, Captain America had become a much more layered hero. Instead of a two-dimensional propaganda cutout like his former Golden Age self, by 2007 Cap felt his duty was to defend the civil liberties of all Americans, even if that meant rebelling against his own government. He was eventually assassinated for such opposition.

Over the comic book industry’s 70-year-history, its heroes, villains and storylines have, at times, resonated with current events and have often predicted the future. Now, more than ever, comic books mimic reality and so do the superhero films of Hollywood.

In his book Comic Book Nation, Bradford Wright pronounces:

They [comic book writers] long ago anticipated the multi-billion dollar fantasy industry now dominated by video games, motion pictures and television. And, unfortunately, that is not all that they predicted. Countless buildings have been bombed and destroyed in comic books, especially in New York. Villains from Lex Luthor to Dr. Doom have attacked America’s commercial and political centers to foment chaos and fear. International terrorist organizations like Hydra, A.I.M, and the Sons of the Serpents have conspired to destroy democratic governments and paralyze free societies.

Though there have been threats of catastrophe before, they seem to pale in comparison to the danger the entire planet is facing currently, notably worldwide terrorism, nuclear armament and global warming. There is little filter in how we receive our news, with constant images of violence, death and chaos.

It’s not that the world was a better place back during the Golden Age of comics or that its leaders were any less corrupt. Those in charge simply did a better job in hiding it from the public. With the Internet and an endless slew of television news channels, the world is exposed to a constant stream of media coverage, and at times, the world seems a more cynical place than ever.

Instead of the focus in comic books on heroes using their brawn to fight clear-cut enemies who plan on world domination, today’s superheroes fight many battles within themselves. Darker and more introspective, characters like The Watchmen, Hulk, and Daredevil often battle their own inner demons – fear, insecurities, loss of identity and fear of the unknown — while other heroes with no superpowers such as Batman and Iron Man face more human problems such as alcoholism and mental instability.

Perhaps the hero with whom people most readily identify is Spider-Man. Spider-Man’s constant fight to balance his two separate identities makes people think about their own lives and the never-ending battle to find stability and balance as they try to have it all – career, family, hobbies, and happiness.

Today’s heroes are flawed. That is why moviegoers have embraced them. With all the superhero movies currently in theaters, and the promise of many more on the way, perhaps they can help us find the hero we as a society are so desperately looking for and, perhaps, find the heroes within ourselves.