Stuck on superheroes

'Spider-Man' opens today. why do fantastic heroes from comic books remain so popular?

For decades, comic-book superheroes have survived bullets and bombs, Kryptonite, and gamma rays. They've thwarted the evil machinations and worldwide-domination schemes of arch villains. They've even weathered the near-total disappearance of their changing rooms of choice – the public phone booth.

But now they've come face to face with, perhaps, their ultimate foe: A young generation indifferent to comic books.

These days, video-game-savvy kids would rather spend time with the XBox than the X-Men. And instead of catching waves with the Silver Surfer, the only surfing they're interested in is of the Internet kind.

But, starting with today's release of "Spider-Man," a whole league of superheroes is fighting back. The Sub-Mariner, Hulk, and Daredevil, among others, are migrating en masse to the movies – the most popular of all entertainment mediums – where they hope to recapture fans. Audiences may not always care for comic books themselves, but the fantasy of superheroes remains popular because viewers like to see parts of themselves reflected in caped crusaders.

"I think they do represent the best of ourselves and the people we'd like to be," says Al Gough, who, along with writing partner Miles Millar, is penning the script for a sequel to "Spider-Man," following the duo's success as writers and executive producers of TV's Superman series, "Smallville." "Then also, I think there is the wish fulfillment that you can sometimes feel powerless in the world and, if you had these abilities, you could fight back."

Comics are perfect for screen adaptations, Mr. Miller says, noting that "they're full of spectacle [and] adventure with an emotional arc for the hero. That's what movies have always been about."

Of course, Spider-Man is hardly the first superhero to take his fight for truth, justice, and the American way from the comic strip to the film strip. Though the big-screen versions of Superman and Batman are currently hibernating in the Fortress of Solitude and Bat Cave respectively, their celluloid debuts were colossal successes. More recently, the triumphs of comic-book characters "Spawn," "The X-Men," and "Blade I & II" at the box office has not gone unnoticed in Hollywood.

Movie adaptations of comic books are suddenly lucrative propositions for a number of reasons. In particular, special effects have come a long way since 1978 when the tagline of the first "Superman" movie boasted: "You'll believe a man can fly!"

Now, Spider-Man can traverse skyscrapers in leaps and bounds more believably because computer-generated effects have made leaps and bounds of their own. Filmmakers are suddenly able to replicate the look of comic books on film more faithfully and inexpensively.

Another attractive economic aspect of superhero films is the promise of revenue from spinoff merchandise, toys, and cross-promotional tie-ins.

Plus, superheroes appeal to studios because they come with built-in name recognition and the potential for a franchise that isn't dependent upon the same lead actor (witness the passing of Batman's cowl from Michael Keaton to Val Kilmer to George Clooney).

"These concepts can be 'owned' by studios or a production company in ways that an actor can't be owned," says Kevin Hagopian, a lecturer in media studies at Penn State University.

"They don't age ... the way that a particular character might age, and the expensive acting talent is always subordinate to the concept."

What's surprising is that the very concept of superhumans – after all, these are grownups who wear their underwear over their tights – hasn't lost its luster in a postmodern era that extols irony.

Superheroes haven't lost their cool despite deconstructions of the genre by recent movies such as "Mystery Men," "Unbreakable," and TV's short-lived superhero sitcom "The Tick."

"We are really living in an age of irony, when young people especially are reluctant to commit to anything and are wary of absolute ideals," says Bradford Wright, author of "Comic Book Nation" (Johns Hopkins University Press). "Young people want to believe in something, but they're afraid of being disappointed, so they stay detached."

One of the ways comics have countered that cynicism, Mr. Wright says, has been to incorporate a sense of self-deprecating irony into their oeuvre – something that the new "Spider-Man" movie (see "Spider-Man makes a dazzling leap to screen," page 15) certainly emulates.

"On the one hand, you know it's a joke. On the other hand, for the moment, you're taking it seriously," observes Richard Slotkin, professor of English and American studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

"It is that tongue-in-cheek quality that is one of the devices by which you obtain the suspension of disbelief. You're laughing at yourself while you're enjoying it."

Movies like "The X-Men," "Batman," and "Spider-Man" have picked up on another comic book trend of recent decades, namely, focusing on the psychology and human traits of costumed warriors.

Audiences relate to superheroes through weaknesses. In Superman's case, that goes beyond an aversion to Kryptonite. In the "Superman" movies and in television's "Smallville," the story of Superman as a teenager, prototype-nerd Clark Kent deals with emotional vulnerabilities, such as not getting the girl.

Similarly, Spider-Man's teenage alter-ego, Peter Parker, is a particularly easy character to empathize with because he has to deal with regular teen concerns.

"He really could feel what it's like when your body's changing, your self-image is up and down, and you're worried about how you come across to the opposite sex – all this kind of confusion that's thrown on top of him after getting bitten by a radioactive spider," says Rebecca Sutherland Borah, assistant professor of English at the University of Cincinnati.

Audiences also identify with another element of superheroes: They're the embodiment of the American myth of the lone, rugged individual who comes into a society and cleans it up, says George Slosser, curator of the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy at the University of California, Riverside. "We all want to do it, but we don't know how to do it," Professor Slosser says. "We live our everyday lives that don't allow for this kind of simplistic vision. So we cheer for it."

And therein lies the rub. An event like Sept. 11 starkly illustrates the difference between fantasy and the real world. No Superman swooped in to prop up the collapsing twin towers. No Batman scoured the caves of Tora Bora for terrorists.

"For the few months after [Sept. 11] ... we didn't need or want to fantasize about these superhuman people because we had regular citizens doing these extraordinary things," says Kelley Hall, a sociologist who teaches a course on "Comic Books and American Society" at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. "You don't need a red cape to be a hero in terms of 9/11."

And yet, little more than six months after Sept. 11, comic books sales have risen for the first time in years – driven partly, perhaps, by a public that has been climbing the walls in anticipation of the first "Spider-Man" movie. Evidently, audiences are willing to forgive the shortcomings of this fantasy world with its Sept. 10 Manhattan skyline.

Professor Slotkin has a theory about why we continue to embrace heroes so far removed from reality.

"Heroes symbolize the possibility of successful action in the world ... whether it's the world of politics or business or whatever," he says.

"Even if we're completely helpless, you want at least to imagine the possibility of effective action. And the hero story is the symbolic way of imagining that. That's why we try to find common ground between ourselves and heroes."

Coming soon...

For decades, superheroes have been made into more TV series and Saturday morning cartoon shows than they have movies. But the caped capers of TV's Batman (Adam West), Wonder Woman (Linda Carter), and The Incredible Hulk (Lou Ferrigno) will soon be overshadowed by big-budget, big-screen adaptations of comic book characters.

• X-2, the sequel to 2000's phenomenally popular "X-Men" movie, will reunite original cast members Patrick Stewart, Halle Berry (top), and Hugh Jackman to do battle with Ian McKellen's Magneto in the summer of 2003.

• Daredevil, coming in January 2003, stars Ben Affleck (left) and Jennifer Garner (star of TV's "Alias"). Affleck will play the title character, a blind lawyer by day and a crusading superhero by night. He'll take on his archenemy, the Kingpin, as well as his ex-girlfriend, Elektra (Garner).

• The Hulk, the green superhuman with an anger-management problem, will attempt to smash box-office records in June. Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "The Ice Storm," and "Sense and Sensibility") will direct Eric Bana ("Black Hawk Down") as Bruce Banner, aka The Hulk. Recent Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly also stars.

• Other superhero movies are in various stages of pre-production. Writer/producer J.J. Abrams (TV's "Alias") and director McG ("Charlie's Angels") are reportedly at work on a Superman script. Batman, too, may return, as soon as legendary comic-book writer Frank Miller and director Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream") finish the screenplay. More immediately, Ashley Judd might star as Catwoman, a spinoff character from the Batman comics. Also on the woman-superbeing front, the star-spangled costume of Wonder Woman may be worn by Sandra Bullock. Nicolas Cage (right), meanwhile, is set to rev up the motorcycle of Ghost Rider.

• Also in development: Iron Man, The Fantastic Four, The Sub-Mariner, and The Punisher. And even movie animation studios are looking to superheroes for inspiration. In 2004, Pixar ("Toy Story") will release The Incredibles, a comedy about a family of superheroes.

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