I was 8 years old when Christopher Reeves first donned Superman's cape on the silver screen. Not having seen a mainstream comic book superhero in a full blown movie before, I remember being giddy with excitement. Equally rare in those days, were live action superhero TV shows. When characters such as The Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, and Wonder Woman did make the air waves, they were almost always pitted against non-super "realistic" criminals.
Fast forward to today; audiences can watch a variety of super-based shows. From DC Comics we have The Flash, Arrow (Green Arrow), Legends of Tomorrow (featuring a Justice League-like team), Supergirl, Gotham (a Batman prequel), IZombie, and Lucifer. Meanwhile, Marvel Comics produces Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, Dare Devil, and Jessica Jones with Luke Cage (Power Man) coming in the fall.
In addition to these televised offerings, in 2016, movie goers can see Deadpool, Batman Vs. Superman, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Suicide Squad, and Doctor Strange. Then in 2017 fans have Wolverine: Old Man Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spiderman: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Justice League: Part 1 to look forward to.
Given their dominant media presence, one has to wonder what's fueled these heroes' increase in popularity. I can think of three possible explanations.
- Those with the purse strings fund the arts. During the Renaissance the Catholic Church was arguably the wealthiest organizations in the world. As such, they funded the works of artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Pachelbel, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Verdi. Today, thanks to toy and comic book sales, DC & Marvel are multi-billion dollar companies who can afford to fund block buster projects.
- The audience has changed. From the 30s through the 70s, comic books and super heroes were primarily for kids. In the 80s the kids of the 70s kept reading their favorite titles, and comics began to evolve to adapt to the older audience. These days comic shops have a large general section and a small section of child friendly comic books. Since adults are driving the market, movies & TV shows are being mass produced for those adults.
- We need a simplistic escape. Typically, it's rare to see a morally complex super villain. These baddies usually want to steal a valuable object (a diamond, secret plans, etc...), kill someone, or enslave a population. In response to this threat, a noble hero rises to protect us from evil. Given this moral simplicity, it may not be a coincidence that Superman became popular just as Hitler was coming to power. Perhaps dark times make us long for symbols of hope, fictional or not. If that's the case, it's not surprising that a country which continues to squabble over marital rights, and has been at war for 14 years, has latched on to superheroes.