The industry of superhero films has ballooned over the past ten years or so, expanding into massive franchises under the leadership of longtime comic book producers Marvel and D.C. Comics and drawing larger audiences than ever. I researched the history of superhero popularity in America in order to better understand why the industry is experiencing such unprecedented success in our current moment. Specifically, I interrogated the reasons for increased popularity of superheroes during World War II, the early years of the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s and ‘70s. I analyzed these historical periods of superhero popularity, as well as the theories of scholars such as Marc DiPaolo, Laurence Maslon, and Andreas Rauscher, who attempt to explain this popularity. From this research, I will argue that the 2000s and 2010s have provided fertile ground for the expansion of the superhero industry due to a combination of social, political, technological, and marketing factors. While individual context for each superhero’s story continues to compel audiences in the same way that social and political factors have always boosted superheroes’ success, modern influences of CGI technology and increased franchising efforts have allowed superheroes to appeal to broader audiences within the United States and worldwide.
Over the past ten years, superheroes have gone from garnering a narrow audience of children and a few nostalgic adults to achieving worldwide acclaim as a wildly successful, multibillion-dollar enterprise with a level of popularity never seen before. In 2016 alone, Marvel Studios and DC Entertainment, as well as a multitude of other production companies, released six live-action films and more than ten television shows featuring superheroes. Superheroes have been depicted in comic books since Superman took flight in 1938, and they have experienced many fluctuations in popularity over the past century. In the past, the reason for superhero popularity has been fairly clear: driven by external or internal crises and social climates, the costumed protectors have emerged to save our society. Featuring entertaining storylines and boosted by contemporary relevance, superheroes have soared to notoriety as a coping mechanism during times of hardship; watching fictional heroes defeat enemies inspired by reality can provide comfort in the face of real threats. The current status of superhero fame seems to break with this mold, which held true for much of the past century. Although the United States currently faces conflicts both within our borders and overseas, superheroes have captured the attention of a much larger demographic than ever before and have become increasingly prevalent in film, television, and commercial products every year. I set out to discover whether the factors influencing superhero popularity in America have changed over the last decade and came to the conclusion that the current popularity of superheroes can be attributed to a combination of factors, including some old ones, like political and social tension, and some new ones, like computer-generated imagery (CGI) technology and franchising.
A Brief History of Superhero Popularity
In order to understand how superhero popularity has changed, we must first trace the development of superheroes and the justifications provided by scholars for their past popularity. The vast majority of the superheroes that are popular today were created in the 1940s through the 1970s, so to understand the factors that have influenced their popularity in the past and continue to do so, we must comprehend the context of their creation and rise to success. In the past, the popularity of superheroes has been primarily influenced by social and political factors including World War II, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement. The first comic book superheroes emerged in the late 1930s and early ‘40s as products of the building tension and eventual American involvement in World War II. The Nazis and the Japanese posed formidable threats, and the heroes who took them on needed to be extraordinarily powerful. The main scholarly consensus is that this need for all-encompassing powers generated heroes like Superman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel: people who could take on anything without so much as flinching.1 For example, Captain America’s origin story shows a meteoric rise to power that would have proved inspirational for American soldiers fighting the Axis. Born a scrawny, poor, second-generation Irish immigrant, Steve Rogers was transformed by “super-soldier serum” into the superpatriot Captain America. Scorned by some for his unfailing moral compass and politeness, Captain America may not be the most complex character, but he definitely appealed to his time period. In the words of the character’s creator, Jack Kirby, “We weren’t at war yet, but everyone knew it was coming, that’s why Captain America was born; America needed a superpatriot. He symbolized the American Dream” (Aiken 45).
The next time period that spurred a significant superhero boom occurred as America faced a new external threat: the Soviet Union. Many of America’s most beloved superheroes were created amidst the tension of the Cold War. This era of ideological conflict and the subsequent arms race fought between the United States and U.S.S.R. generated nationwide fear about nuclear weaponry. Since superheroes of each time period reflect the issues of the era, the Cold War generated heroes implicated in the fight for atomic power. The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, and Spider-Man all showcased America’s dualistic attitude of fear and love toward radiation.2 The Fantastic Four gained their powers after exposure to cosmic radiation on a mission in space. Returning to Earth with new abilities to stretch, disappear, self-immolate, and destroy, the members of the Fantastic Four initially experience terror and social isolation as results of their metamorphosis. After some training, however, they learn to harness their powers with the goal of protecting society. Similarly, Spider-Man gains the ability to generate sticky webs and cling to walls after being bitten by an irradiated spider, and the Hulk morphs into a destructive, green behemoth after contact with gamma rays. Like America’s mixed feelings about nuclear capability, the superheroes of the Cold War era reveal that power can be alternately frightening or benevolent depending on how one chooses to wield it.
Just as Americans used comic book heroes to grapple with the international conflict of the Cold War, other superheroes emerged to address the battles happening simultaneously within the borders of the United States: namely, the civil rights movement (Trushell). The late 1960s and 1970s birthed the X-Men, whose connection to atomic radiation stemmed from their parents’ contact with nuclear technology while working on the Manhattan Project. The mutants who comprised the X-Men team were a group of people with extraordinary abilities who were constantly persecuted for their otherness, a theme borne out of the social change and civil rights efforts of the time period. In the society of the X-Men, racism has been usurped by speciesism, as the mutants are classed under the new species of Homo superior. Therefore, the mutants must constantly work toward attaining recognition and respect from Homo sapiens. Professor X, the kind, understanding leader of the X-Men, and Magneto, the damaged, violent head of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, a “militant” and “radical” mutant faction, provide parallels to the leaders of several factions of the civil rights era, who used different tactics to combat society’s perception and treatment of them (Trushell). Professor X, like Martin Luther King, Jr., uses logic and nonviolent demonstration to win peaceful relations with non-mutants. Magneto, like Malcolm X, uses more violent and angry, though definitely justified, tactics to combat the speciesism of Homo sapiens toward Homo superior. In the case of the X-Men, Marvel Comics showrunner Stan Lee intentionally attempted to bring relevance to an audience that “demanded” political contextualization. According to scholar John M. Trushell, Lee encouraged and “cultivated a literate readership,” which in turn bolstered the sales of topical comic books (Trushell). Once again, the superheroes of a given time period related directly to the pressing political issues of the contemporary society.
Modern Superhero Popularity: What Has Changed?
Within the last decade, superhero popularity has flourished once again, with the releases of blockbuster films, action-based television shows, and a multitude of other products including apparel, toys, and videogames. Critical analysis of this recent wave of popularity reveals a discrepancy of opinion regarding whether America’s current adoration of superheroes stems from different factors than it did in the past. On the one hand, scholars such as Marc DiPaolo argue that superheroes always reflect the social and political environment of their time period, which I assume means that he would attribute the current rise of superheroes to social and political factors as it always has been in the past. On the other hand, Laurence Maslon asserts that superheroes have recently experienced a surge in popularity due to the advent of movie technology such as CGI in the 2000s, which made the heroes appealing to new demographics. Andreas Rauscher strikes a compromise between these viewpoints, maintaining that superheroes have experienced so much success because of the combined factors of political relevance, marketing, and filmmaking advancements. My own view aligns with Rauscher; I believe that the recent popularity of superheroes results from the intersection of the political atmosphere that has always made superheroes relevant to their contemporary audiences and the new film effects and franchising of the twenty-first century.
In his book War, Politics, and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film, Marc DiPaolo analyzes many superheroes in social and political contexts over time. DiPaolo’s ability to show how any superhero relates to his or her social and political context reveals that he believes superheroes to be products of popular opinion, created and written to captivate the minds of their contemporary audiences. They rise in appeal, he argues, because of the way they relate to the issues of the real world. DiPaolo does not differentiate the modern rise of superheroes from past surges in their popularity, suggesting that he aligns with the view that the factors that have made superheroes popular in the past continue to influence their acclaim in today’s society. DiPaolo is of the mindset that all depictions of heroes can be interpreted as commentaries on society and politics. I assume that he would then believe the current popularity of superheroes to be tied to modern politics.
Laurence Maslon takes a different perspective with his assertion that the modern wave of superhero popularity involves a factor never seen before in comic book culture: the development of advanced movie-making technology. By bringing superheroes to the big screen with the assistance of 3D, computer-generated imagery, and other technologies, Marvel Studios (among others) has created a market for superhero movies among demographics who would not ordinarily be drawn to simple comic books (Maslon). Big-budget blockbuster movie franchises have a “transcendent appeal,” not just to children or comic-book lovers (Maslon 281). In asserting this opinion, Maslon presents a new reason for superhero popularity, one that might explain its recent significant rise.
In his essay “The Marvel Universe on Screen: A New Wave of Superhero Movies?," Andreas Rauscher posits a theory for current superhero popularity that combines the views of DiPaolo and Maslon. Superheroes have become so popular, Rauscher argues, due to a combination of old and new factors. The political and social climate has not ceased to matter in generating an audience for superheroes, but it alone cannot be the sole reason for comic-book adaptation movies’ wild successes at the box office or the subsequent boost in comic book popularity. To account for this success, Rauscher cites the advancements in movie technology that have made the superheroes fit for broad consumption by an American audience. Rauscher’s viewpoint resides at the intersection between DiPaolo’s and Maslon’s individual arguments. In short, while superhero comics almost always rely on political and social context, there are additional qualities of our current moment in terms of technology and materialism that have made superheroes accessible to a larger demographic than ever before.
Special Effects and Franchising
To evaluate the validity of new factors for superhero popularity, such as special effects and franchising, it is crucial to understand the intricacies of these factors and evaluate critics’ defense of them. Critics cite the introduction of CGI technology and other advanced special effects as a reason for the recent increase in superhero popularity. Maslon calls the new computer-generated imagery that helped launch Spider-Man’s and other superheroes’ forays onto the big-screen a “little magic genie” (Maslon 281). Since Spider-Man’s powers include shooting webs from his wrists and swinging from building to building in New York City, he primarily appeared in comic books and cartoons before the early 2000s, as his powers were difficult to portray in a live-action format.
In the 2002 release of Spider-Man by Sony Pictures, the movie studio “could finally render...the vertigo-inducing, sky-scraping-swinging world of Spider-Man” (Maslon 281). In other words, the new technology allowed Hollywood to make the more fantastic elements of superhero stories actually look realistic and believable. Sony’s CGI Spider-Man performed incredibly well at the box office, “bringing in audiences that would not traditionally be lured into a summer action blockbuster featuring a man in tights” (Maslon 281). Maslon claims that by reinventing the genre with special effects that made superhero films visually appealing in addition to classically fun or socially relevant, Spider-Man launched a new era of superhero popularity. Among the huge superhero population, Spider-Man has a particularly strong tie to New York City, and the 2002 film was influenced by the sober post-9/11 national mood, providing an “embrace of the tragic and emotional as a catharsis” (Sommers 189). The influence of this context “didn’t hurt” the film’s success, but it may not have been entirely necessary, as the appeal of the “fantastic” special effects created a huge draw for audiences (Maslon 281).
Another potential reason for superheroes’ perpetually increasing popularity is the increase of franchising.3 Sony’s first Spider-Man movie spawned two sequels, as well as a two-film reboot ten years later. Additionally, the success of Spider-Man and the X-Men movies of the early 2000s allowed Marvel to take chances on developing movies based on relatively unknown characters. Iron Man, released in 2008, marked the first release within the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” in which more than a dozen superheroes interact with one another across the platforms of thirteen films and counting. Marvel created a formidable franchise, one that draws moviegoers based on name recognition alone. Movie studios of all genres increasingly produce franchise films because they “have built-in awareness with audiences,” which essentially guarantees profits (Garrahan). Whereas box office products of first films only include new viewers, sequels can often accumulate larger audiences that encompass those who viewed the first film after its DVD release.
Additionally, sequel films carry a greater potential to succeed in international markets, which annually comprise a greater percentage of the market for new movies. For example, about 75 percent of the audience for the most recent Transformers film was international (Garrahan). This shift lessens the importance of contemporary relevance for American society, because Americans are no longer the primary audience for blockbuster films by default. In the past, Americans expected their films to reflect their culture and current events, and the films’ success in this regard could distinguish a hit from a failure. Now that the audience of many blockbuster movies resides abroad, the content of those films must be transcendent enough to engage an audience that does not necessarily understand American culture or politics.
Superheroes on a Spectrum: Case Studies
What do these changes signify about the reasons for superhero popularity? Has political relevance ceased to matter entirely? I believe that the factors involved in generating popularity fall on a spectrum and differ widely between movies. To showcase this variety, I will be presenting two case studies of recent superhero films with varying levels of political context to determine the extent to which factors of political relevance, special effects, and franchising influence particular movies.
First, it is valuable to examine Thor, which Marvel Studios released in 2011. This Norse god has never had a major contemporary political connotation within the Marvel Universe, instead becoming popular based on his family’s mythology, his mystical power, and his sex appeal. Early Thor stories featured a conflict in which Thor fought briefly for the Germans in World War II before quickly realizing the evil of the Axis and switching sides. Since then, however, there has been no clear link between Thor’s popularity and his political relevance. Instead, Thor’s story arcs center on his personal journey to learn humility and respect for his culture. Despite the titular character’s general lack of connection to politics, Thor was a relatively successful movie that Marvel followed up with a sequel, Thor: The Dark World, in 2013. I argue that this success depended on advanced moviemaking technology, which rendered the fictional world of Asgard beautifully and made Thor’s powers appear more realistic. According to Entertainment Weekly’s review, the film “restores the innocence to big-budget superhero mythmaking” (Gleiberman, “Thor”). By removing political context and opting for “a very funny god-out-of-water origin comedy,” Marvel created a film that can provide escape from grim reality: it may “not [be] art, but it’s mighty fun” (Gleiberman, “Thor”). Additionally, Marvel Studios released Thor as part of its Marvel Cinematic Universe, setting it up as a partial origin story for 2012’s The Avengers, which brought six heroes together in a crossover cinematic event. Personally, I saw The Avengers before I saw Thor, returning to the earlier film to gain an understanding of one of its central characters. In this way, Marvel utilized the power of franchising, giving its audience a reason to watch not just one but all of the studio’s films.
If the factors motivating modern superhero popularity exist on a spectrum, and Thor falls on the side of minimized politics and maximized special effects, his foil is a hero who carries a political connotation on the basis of his name alone. Steve Rogers, codename Captain America, has evolved with the issues and can be recontextualized to make a modern political statement, though his original context of World War II no longer applies. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, released in 2014, pits America’s favorite fictional patriot against his own government as he grapples with establishing a balance between freedom and security. Since 9/11, this concern has become increasingly relevant within American politics with the passing of the Patriot Act and other measures that decreased privacy in order to make the American people feel safe. In this movie, the superheroes’ homeland defense organization director, Nick Fury, tells Steve about his plan to use composite data to determine people who will pose threats to society and eliminate them before they can wreak havoc. Steve responds, “This isn’t freedom; this is fear.” Captain America, whom the film ridicules for being a “man out of time,” actually aligns perfectly with contemporary issues, which involve the delicate balance of privacy and safety. This analysis is not to say that the powers of CGI and franchising do not also work in the favor of this film. On the contrary, action scenes in which characters knock giant “helicarriers” from the sky could not have been possible without advanced special effects, and this film’s status as a sequel undoubtedly led devotees to the box office. In addition to these new factors, though, Captain America: The Winter Soldier also carries a significant political connotation that influenced its popularity. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly describes the film as “ominously timely,” with “a sky-high climax,” situating it as both a political statement and a blockbusting visual wonder (Gleiberman, “Captain America”).
The factors generating superhero popularity have clearly shifted in recent years, becoming increasingly tied to special effects and franchising rather than political and social relevance. With new technology available, movie studios can create realistic fantasy worlds, which audiences appreciate without necessarily requiring the films to be socially and politically relevant. Political and social context still infiltrate many superhero films, but relevance is no longer demanded by the majority of audience members, as evidenced by many superhero movies’ lack of contextualization. In fact, some audiences, especially those that reside internationally, may prefer a decreased amount of American political contextualization, which would make the films irrelevant in the context of foreign societies. How far can movie studios push special effects-laden films before they become monotonous and dull? Will audiences continue to spend their money to see sequel after sequel? The answers to these questions will be revealed with time and further research. In 2017, however, it is safe to say that the star of superheroes is still on the rise because of combined political, aesthetic, and franchising-based factors.
1 See Aiken, Dittmer, Lang.
2 See Szasz, Trushell.
3 It is important to note that franchising did not begin in the last decade, but rather underwent a significant increase. In fact, Marvel and DC Comics experienced the promotional effect of franchising in the 1960s, when each company began to create a "universe" in which their characters could interact outside of their individual series.
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