From the first Superman story, where he fights to save an innocent man from execution
As a lifelong nerd, there is perhaps no more surprising development in our culture than the domination of the movie box office by superheroes. I'm old enough to remember a time when Marvel films in the early 1990s were straight to video or not even released at all.
Some of the films have been great, some have been awful, and many, many of them have been merely forgettable. (The infamous 1990s Roger Corman take on The Fantastic Four is still more entertaining than the recent big budget treatments.) Be that as it may, they remain popular. And the big knock on superhero movies, which I am sure I have repeated at some point, is that they are shallow and escapist and politically problematic.
As we approach peak superhero in an era of political upheaval, I think it's time that superheroes be interpreted in the light of the first superhero comic, 1938's Action Comics #1. This of course was the debut of Superman, and it you read this issue, you might be surprised at Superman's behavior and adversaries. While we often think of him as the establishment superhero, in this book he seems more like a vigilante. He also doesn't just sock it to criminals, he also intervenes to prevent an innocent man from being executed, to protect a woman against a domestic abuser, and to punish a corrupt, war-mongering politician. Slumlords and corrupt politicos also appear in other early Superman stories. Superman was a New Deal superhero in his earliest incarnation, not merely a crime fighter. World War II changed all of that and turned the Man of Tomorrow into a patriotic mascot.
World War II made Superman an Establishment superhero
Of course, plenty of superheroes created in those heady early days lacked any socially conscious component. Just think of Batman, a billionaire playboy who busts the heads of criminals trying to steal jewels from rich people. But also take a look at Wonder Woman, created under explicitly feminist auspices by William Moulton Marston. Her revolutionary and socially critical nature would also be undermined after her more subversive early years. The process started by World War II was completed by the anti-comics scare of the 1950s, which forced comics to be drained of political content.
Flash forward to the so-called Bronze Age of the 1970s, and socially conscious superheroes returned. Silver Surfer was a kind of space hippie critical of war and oppression. In 1975, after the Fall of Saigon, Iron Man questioned his involvement in Vietnam, and remembered witnessing the deaths of civilians at the hands of the American military. After Watergate Captain America threw off his uniform in disgust, working as Nomad. In the early 70s Neal Adams and Denny O'Neil wrote a set of team up stories with Green Lantern and Green Arrow where the former was forced to see issues like poverty and racism, and to question all the work he had done on behalf of the authorities, who now appeared to be the real villains. While those books were a little heavy handed, they still make for good reading today. They feel like they actually mean something deeper than the spectacle of people in tights throwing punches.
So Hollywood, I ask you to take this strand of superhero comics into account with your new movies. The superhero bubble is bound to burst, if you want to keep that cash rolling in, you'll have to do something more meaningful to keep the audience coming. I would love to see the Green Lantern-Green Arrow series adapted for the screen or a socially-conscious Silver Surfer flick. Why not a period-piece superhero movie starring the New Deal Superman? Or how about a plot where Bruce Wayne loses everything in a stock market crash, and is forced to confront the social and economic forces that breed crime?
It would also be worthwhile to see currently existing franchises take these values to heart. Take Wonder Woman, for example. As my friend Chauncey DeVega pointed out in a recent podcast, she is a hero who is new to the world of humans, and in the film thus critical of war and gender inequality. However, when she learns of the racism faced by Sameer and Chief, members of her combat team, her response is muted, rather than enraged. Knowing Wonder Woman's background and her values, would she not be a fiery anti-racist? For that matter, if Batman is a true vigilante, why not have him crusade against corrupt and murderous cops? As a hero who is adamant about not using guns and not killing people, police killings of innocent suspects would surely enrage Batman and cause him to make war on killer cops and those who protect them.
Superhero entertainment can easily devolve into spectacle and empty escapism, but it does not have to. As Grant Morrison, one of the most interesting comics writers has argued, superheroes are modern day mythological figures, and as such their stories can carry great meaning. It's time to remember that again.