Every time I look around, it seems like there’s a new massively funded, special-effects-loaded movie about some super hero or another, most of which I’ve never heard of , except as comic-book versions of Norse gods – even though I did read a few comics in my youth, but they ended with Superman or the Fantastic Four. I never bought comics because I could read them quickly off the racks, and then I discovered that F&SF books were so much better – and lasted a lot longer.

So why is it boom time for comic superheroes?

Because viewers want complex problems power-solved? Or because they feel powerless and want to experience power vicariously? Or because they want to escape a cheerlessly complex world? Or is it that fewer and fewer can actually read well and quickly? Or that they have trouble concentrating on non-video/cinematic entertainment?

I don’t have an answer, nor do I see any answers out there, most likely because no one else seems to see it as a particularly vexing societal problem. After all, superhero movies are “just” entertainment. But some forms of entertainment are indicative of culture, or lack thereof. The Romans packed the Colosseum to be entertained by some definitely bloody and often fatal gladiatorial contests, and public hangings or guillotining always drew crowds [and in some cases, hawkers even provided refreshments]. So, by comparison, aren’t superhero movies just cotton candy or gilded escapism?

Possibly… but I still have my doubts.

11 thoughts on “Superheroes”

  1. Sam says:

    When I was a child the allure of superheroes was pretty much the same as a lot of the sci-fi and fantasy I read – power.

    The fantasy of a character who has special powers or abilities that grant them a level of freedom from the usual constraints imposed on us by reality.

    I mean who wouldn’t want to be able to fly? Or to Image things into existence simply by visualising them?

    When I was young I only really cared about the powers and the fantasy of having them. As I’ve gotten older I’ve found that viscerally the power fantasy still appeals to me but I prefer more sophisticated stories that deal with the ethics and ramifications of having great power.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    For what it’s worth, even if most of their super-powers are without evident cost (aside from whatever cost there is of being different), there has been for some years a tendency to explore the consequences of using them, and the difficulty of using them honorably, even under extreme provocation.

    Superheroes make mistakes these days, and sometimes worse than mistakes.

    Still, I rather agree that they’re usually rather light fare. Superheroes and others with unusual powers (magic, paranormal, etc) have gotten a lot of play, and few have the level of consequences and limitations that your characters encounter. One might wonder if, lacking some originality (esp. within the bounds of continuity and/or fan service to the comic followers), the market for superhero movies will peak and eventually decline to more reasonable levels.

    1. Gabe says:

      “…the market for superhero movies will peak and eventually decline to more reasonable levels.”

      Hope not.

  3. Grey says:

    There may be a simpler reason. There was a big comics boom at the start of the 1990s. The teenagers that feasted on those stories are now the ones running the show…

  4. RRCRea says:

    Seems sad that a group of people who like a particular thing can never ever stop themselves from othering people who like a different thing…

    As a long time reader of comics (40+ years) AND your books, the do different things. A LOT of comics deal with issues of disenfranchisement and overcoming it. As has been said, even more deal with consequences of having a great deal of power and what to do with it and (hopefully) how to wield it wisely. Also, confronting those who choose to use their powers to victimize others. Also, the standard fantasy trope/Hero’s Journey of growth and development through through adversity. And so on. If people are watching superhero movies and getting those messages along with some power-fantasy fulfillment that seems like a GOOD thing to me. Definitely something an author who tackles those issues through their writing might want to investigate and possibly even support instead of giving a rather typical over-generalization mixed with distaste for “simpler fare”. (Which it isn’t. At all.)

    As for, Why now? Maybe the fa-persons of the 90s are now primary consumers. Maybe it’s the fact that the tech makes depiction possible without being ludicrous. (Something that would be needed if, say, ANY Recluce novel was turned into a movie…) Maybe it has something to do with the issues I mention above. Maybe it has something to do with the issues you mention. Maybe it IS a sign of the time, as much as the MUCH more prolific Westerns of the mid-20th Century were a sign of theirs, or of forensic TV shows from the past 20 years, or the popularity of soap operas (BTW, there is a large overlap of story elements between soap operas and comics, perhaps do the fact that the medium requires ongoing sub-plots to facilitate a “never-ending” format unlike most novels… or because these groups of othered powered people struggling with their abilities form teams that are dysfunctional little surrogate families).

    Most likely, it’s all of the above to one degree or another. And more.

  5. Derek says:

    I’ve started to think that our superhero movies are just the modern equivalent of the Greek/Roman mythology. Simple stories with a simple morality that are designed for mass consumption.

    I’m not sure that Hercules is any more complex or well-developed of a character than Captain America. When both characters were originally created, I think the creators probably had the same demographic in mind.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    Troubled/ beaten down/ orphan/ misunderstood/ minority-in-some-way person with a secret (power/ knowledge/ relationship/ idea) who endures hardships related and unrelated to the secret power…. who learns how to harness the power and use it to control the surrounding environment and ‘do good.’

    Yes, sounds familiar. It’s every single SF/F/Fiction book ever under one guise or another, generally coming-of-age, hero’s quest, etc.

    Whether we want to admit it or not, sometimes ‘Hulk Smash’ does create an ending to a issue. It might not be the one we want, exepct, or need, but it is a solution of sorts – nevermind that the problems THAT solution creates are generally larger than the original problem.

  7. Stephen Heath says:

    You know, I think it’s a thirst for movies beyond the “trilogy then reboot” Hollywood gives us now… Marvel is making a killing not by rehashing the super hero trope (after all, look at Thor… meh first movie, dark but meh second movie, third movie a 70’s salute with tons of humor, then by the end of avengers racked with guilt at failing to stop the bad guy he’s become the new comic book guy) but by importing the “universe” from the comics… the fact that all these super heros (or sorcerers, or vampires, or masters of the martial arts, and secret agents, senators, space aliens, gods etc) are all part of the same universe, and you can watch a movie about one and see how the other is affected… it’s big, like Asimov’s universe (from the robot short stories to the end of time Foundation series), and like yours… where individual stories of various times combine to give a depth to your novels you can’t find in a normal trilogy… It’s something bigger in scale. Plus have you seen the next phase of the MCU? They’re going weird and dark… they just needed super heros to be a friendly light palate cleanser to prepare people for the universe to come…

  8. Gabe says:

    “So why is it boom time for comic superheroes?

    Because viewers want complex problems power-solved? Or because they feel POWERLESS and want to experience power VICARIOUSLY? Or because they want to escape a CHEERLESSLY complex world?”

    Nails it. God knows we’ve tried.

    1. Gerald Fnord says:

      People don’t want complex problems power-solved: they want simple problems power- (and cleverness-) (and ‘heart’-) solved.

  9. Gerald Fnord says:

    It doesn’t have to be ‘power-solved’: they also want solutions based on cleverness and on ‘heart’.

    I think a big part of it is the ‘cheerlessly complex’ part. I’ve often said that part of the appeal of the Zombie Apocalypse movie is that while fighting hordes of the undead in order to avoid a painful death and then undying hunger and grossness, at least you don’t have to get up Monday morning to go to a damn office. (…or ‘[…] it’s not alienated labour.’)

    Similarly, I can’t think of a superhero movie where the premise problem were subtle.

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