Thursday, June 15, 2006

Superheroes on Screen: What's the Appeal of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends?

Midway through "X3: The Last Stand," Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) exchange tense glances in a forest outside Vancouver. Genetic mutations have granted them such superhuman power over their environment that a duel between the two would uproot every last lumbering fir tree surrounding them. Magneto, however, has a different agenda. He sees Grey's power to mentally control objects as an asset to his looming assault on the humans that hate them both. To convert her to his cause, Magneto floats an ultramodern gun before Grey’s eyes and tells her, "I can manipulate the metal in this, but you - you can do anything you think of." Seeing through his flattery, Grey telekinetically strips the gun of its metallic casing and infrastructure to reveal the ammunition - four weaponized syringes that she excitedly aims at Magneto’s face.

“X3,” released May 26, and “Superman Returns,” hitting theaters June 30, are two of 16 major films released within the last five years that plucked their heroic characters from the pages of comic books. The next five years will bring even more superheroes to cinemas. In 2007 alone, Ghost Rider will blaze his hellish trail across the silver screen, Spider-Man will web his way back into theaters and the Fantastic Four will once again clobber its weekend competitors. Since 1978 - when the late Christopher Reeves donned the familiar red, yellow and blue spandex of Superman - the comic book hero film tally has totaled 28. Most of the characters stretch back several decades but their current popularity has resulted in rich box office profits. Of the 28 films, 15 (over 50 percent) have grossed more than $100 million domestically. In any given year, less than five percent of all released films make that much money in theaters. Comic book hero films are clearly hefty cash cows, but understanding why they appeal to audiences requires a measure with greater depth than dollars.

The multilayered appeal of comic book hero films parallels the structure of the dart gun Jean Grey dissects before Magneto’s eyes. The values embodied by the heroes themselves lift our spirits with the potency of the drug filling the syringes. Gallant DC Comics characters like Batman and Superman rally readers to their causes of truth, justice and the American way. The human elements of Marvel Comics characters forge an altogether different rapport with the people who pick up their pages. When we see Peter Parker (Spider-Man) stumble over his words around his lifelong crush, Mary Jane Watson, we remember striving for our first date or first kiss. By seeking welcome in a world that hates them, The X-Men appeal to any teenager stigmatized by uniqueness. These characters encourage us to tackle our own troubles by suggesting that even superheroes struggle with the same situations.

“The heroes have super-strength and the vulnerability and sensibility of teenagers and that’s where so much of the audience comes from, which means that they’re insecure and horny,” said Jules Feiffer, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and author of “The Great Comic Book Superheroes.”

Although teenagers may constitute the weightiest portion of their fan base, comic book heroes on screen speak to a far wider audience than that of adolescents with fragile self-esteem. Adult viewers often select comic book hero films at the cinema because they thrill, reassure and inspire us - just as people take Prozac because it pulls them out of a funk. This movie-going dynamic was canonized by communication scholars Jay G. Blumler and Elihu Katz, whose Uses and Gratifications theory explains that we select comic book hero films by weighing the benefits they offer against those promised by other films. We purchase a ticket for “Spider-Man” or “Daredevil” because most of us expect the onscreen adventures of these characters to fulfill our need for escapism or, simply, a hero. That need has been heightened by historical circumstances at various points over the last half-century.

“I think people always want escapist entertainment, but the chances are that they want it (and need it) more than ever in times of crisis and turmoil,” said Stan Lee, Chairman Emeritus of Marvel Entertainment, Inc. and co-creator of Spider-Man, X-Men and countless other popular Marvel Comics characters.

The golden age of comic books collided with World War II to spawn Captain America - a genetically enhanced super soldier whose original enemy was the Axis Powers. The cover of “Captain America Comics #1” depicts the red, white and blue costumed hero walloping Adolf Hitler with a right hook while the caption reads, “Smashing thru, Captain America came face to face with Hitler!” The comic’s release in March 1941, nine months before America even entered the war, underscores Captain America’s representation of a collective American wish - to fight the evil overseas and knock it square on its ass. By reading the comic, readers got their wish.

The early 1960s ushered in the silver age of comic books, whose heroes - specifically Lee’s string of co-creations at Marvel Comics, such as Spider-Man, Hulk, and Daredevil - reflected another historical concern: nuclear energy. These iconic heroes were empowered by a radioactive spider bite, gamma ray bombardment, and a splash of toxic waste in the face, respectively. The widespread fear of nuclear proliferation was subconsciously woven into the tales of the heroes’ origins - especially Hulk, whose mutation made him more of a monster than a superhero. Their adventures, however, reassured readers that regular people like Parker, Bruce Banner (Hulk) and Matt Murdock (Daredevil) can harness the unwanted effects of nuclear power for the good of mankind. This humanistic message provided comic book readers with a refreshing antidote to the deterministic doom of nuclear annihilation.

With Jean Grey at his side, Magneto and his “brotherhood of mutants” target Alcatraz island, where geneticists have engineered the gene-suppressing mutant “cure” that fills the dart gun. The Golden Gate Bridge provides the mutant legion with transportation. After halting every vehicle traveling on the bridge, Magneto and his hordes march down the middle of the road. The elderly mutant uses his vast magnetic powers to rip away a half-mile long section of the bridge and lift it into the air. As onlookers stare in terror and disbelief at the awesome show of mutant force, Magneto directs the bridge section over the bay and towards the island. He lowers it to connect Alcatraz with the San Francisco mainland. Preparing to attack, Magneto levitates to the front of the bridge and makes eye contact with a woman in the passenger seat of a stopped car. Calmly but warily, she locks her door.

A subtle terror underscores the image of Magneto using a landmark like the Golden Gate Bridge as his own personal Lego piece. The humor in the commuter’s futile door-locking relieves the terror at a time when the destruction of American landmarks still occupies the movie screens in our minds’ eyes. The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon provide the historical milieu from which today’s comic book hero films offer psychological shelter. The astronomical popularity of “Spider-Man,” released nine months after the attacks, suggests that the film assuaged traumatic wounds inflicted upon the collective American psyche. As producers pulled the trailer depicting Spider-Man catching a helicopter full of criminals in a web net tethered between the two towers, writer David Koepp added the scene featuring New Yorkers rallying on the bridge to toss debris at the Green Goblin, screaming “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” While these alterations to the film reflected superficial shifts following September 11, seeing the web-slinger purging New York City of crime and terror was medication for the deep-seated vulnerability and despair still reverberating from that day.

“You see superhero figures climbing buildings and flying out of them, and on 9/11, one of the most horrific and lasting images was of people jumping out of the buildings to their deaths. In that respect superhero movies provide a source of wish fulfillment to save oneself from his historical circumstances,” said Susan Willis, author of “Portents of the Real: A Primer for Post-9/11 America.”

Willis believes that the events of September 11 amplified cultural changes set in motion by the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union’s collapse - concurrent with the rise of terrorism and ethnic cleansing campaigns in Europe and Africa - resulted in the loss of the “us vs. them” mentality to which Americans had grown accustomed over the previous 50 years. The small spate of comic book hero films released in the 1990s - including “The Crow,” (1994) “Spawn” (1997) and “Blade” (1998) - contrasted the pure “good vs. evil” narratives that saturated the “Superman” franchise. The heroes of these films were fueled by dark sources of power - primal vengeance, the Devil himself, and vampirism, respectively.

“The portrayal of the enemy in films after 9/11 just got a little murkier,” said Willis.

The success of the “X-Men” films, beginning in 2000, can also be attributed to the way its narratives eschew black-and-white struggles between good guys and bad guys. Seeing the eventual villain, Magneto, as a young Jewish boy in a German concentration camp at the beginning of “X-Men” plants seeds of sympathy for his cause. As soldiers escort him away, his magnetic rage literally rips apart the large metal gate separating him from his parents. The films also remove the “evil” from the comic book title of Magneto’s backing alliance, “The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants,” to further blur the moral line between his mutant faction and the X-Men.

The philosophical divide between Professor X and Magneto in the “X-Men” trilogy has often been compared to that which separated Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The former mutant believes there can be peace with humans and the latter wholly disagrees. Meanwhile, humanity plays an equally culpable role in this three-pronged conflict - especially in “X2: X-Men United” (2003), where Colonel Stryker’s (Bryan Cox) plan to extinguish the mutant race resembles nothing less than a modern-day Final Solution.

The creation of the mutant cure in “X3” prompts Halle Berry’s Storm to ask, “Since when did we become a disease?” Meanwhile, militant mutants like Magneto invite the audience to sympathize with the humans who fear and yearn to tame their genetic superiors. The absence of a conveniently delineated enemy in the “X-Men” film franchise mirrors the reality faced by the American audience, for whom world affairs are underscored less by self-righteousness than self-doubt.

In addition to the morally ambiguous climate resulting from the Cold War, 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror, comic book hero films have tapped into the rising popularity of Christian entertainment. Although they are typically devoid of overtly religious content, films like “Spider-Man” and “Batman Begins” (2005) tell stories and depict characters friendly to the droves of Christian audiences that made box office successes of films ranging in religiosity from “The Passion of the Christ” to “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “March of the Penguins.”

“Superheroes are about saving the world and about inspiring others, which is the essence of the gospel message,” said Greg Garrett, who authored the book “Holy Superheroes! Exploring Faith and Spirituality in Comic Books.”

The market for religious content in media has been steadily growing over the past 20 years, as illustrated by the vast popularity of books like Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ “Left Behind” series and music from artists like Amy Grant, P.O.D. and DC Talk. In 2004, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” provided convincing proof of the power of the Christian moviegoer by taking in $370 million at the domestic box office.

The submersion of their Christian-friendly themes enables comic book hero films to appeal equally to secular audiences. Jean Grey’s sacrifice to save her teammates from a frigid deluge in Alkali Lake at the conclusion of “X2” invites Christian interpretation but doesn’t demand it. The image of her splitting the flood of icy water resembles Moses parting the Red Sea, while Grey’s hinted resurrection in “X3” parallels the path of Christ. Both Christian and secular audiences will also extract meaningful value from “Superman Returns,” which features archived footage of the deceased Marlon Brando as Jor-El, sending his only son to Earth to rid it of evil. As suggested by Uses and Gratifications theory, Christian viewers can decipher these films to meet their own spiritual needs - just as they interpreted the Antarctica-based documentary “March of the Penguins” as a triumph of family values and the concept of intelligent design.

Despite the near-universal appeal of comic book heroes, throughout most of the 20th Century they have lacked the technology - Magneto’s advanced gun - to reach mass media audiences in a convincing manner. Refined modern movie-making practices, from CGI (computer generated images) and wire work to costume design and advanced fight choreography, have granted filmmakers the means to realize superheroes on screen as vividly as on the page. Without that technology, the appeal of comic book heroes on TV and film was only as powerful as the arm throwing the darts.

Popular superheroes like Batman and Superman have received the big and small screen treatment since the 1940s, but crude special effects and production values hamstringed the possibilities for action. The first “Superman” serials (1948), with Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel, featured animated shots of Superman in flight. “The Batman” (1942) outfitted Lewis Wilton with Caped Crusader attire as hokey as a homemade Halloween costume. The film’s spot in history was further compromised by Robin (Douglas Croft) yelling “You’re as yellow as the color of your skin!” at the Dynamic Duo’s Japanese arch-enemy, Dr. Daka (played by the very Anglo J. Carroll Naish).

“The Adventures of Superman” TV series, (1952-58) starring George Reeves, the self-parodying “Batman” series (1966-68), starring Adam West, and “The Incredible Hulk” (1978-82) series with Bill Bixby provided many of the thrills of the comic books but still failed to convincingly realize the superheroes as believable fixtures of their worlds. Other superheroes took animated form on television in shows such as “Superfriends” (1973-85), “Fantastic Four” (1967, 1978), and “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends” (1981-83), which enabled their characters to perform the same unbelievable feats on the TV screen that captured readers’ imaginations on the page.

The tagline of Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman” film - “You’ll believe a man can fly” - directly addressed the unrealistic quality of past live action Superman incarnations. At the time of “Superman’s” premiere (one year after “Star Wars”), cinematic technology had finally evolved to a point where superheroes could be fully realized on the screen. Although Christopher Reeves’ Kryptonian presence indeed felt more realistic than that of Alyn or George Reeves, in retrospect the film’s production values still limited the dynamism of the hero’s feats. We believed Superman could fly, but the stationary shots weren’t nearly as exciting as the hyperkinetic CGI tracking shots of this summer’s “Superman Returns.” Nevertheless, audiences turned out for “Superman” in large enough numbers to encourage producers to release an additional three movies (in 1980, ‘83, and ‘87) featuring the Man of Steel. Notwithstanding the limitations of the effects, suspending disbelief proved easy with a good-looking guy like Christopher Reeves wearing the famed red and yellow ‘S’ on his chest.

Though the “Batman” series spanning from 1989 to 1997 coincided with great leaps in special effects technology, the films hardly required their magic touch. Physical effects and costume design, which had developed a great deal since Adam West’s heyday, provided more crucial assets. Michael Keaton’s thick rubber costumes in “Batman” and “Batman Returns” (1993) put to shame the grey spandex numbers donned by Lewis Wilton and Adam West. The believability of the films benefited from Batman’s more mundane mythos - depicting the Caped Crusader using grappling hooks and batarangs didn’t require the degree of CGI needed to convincingly portray Spider-Man shooting gobs of webbing or Mr. Fantastic stretching his neck ten city blocks. Gun-toting super-vigilante The Punisher, subject of the eponymous 1989 film starring Dolph Lundgren, was also brought to the big screen at this time because his story resembles an urban gangster film more than a comic book hero tale. He returned to theaters in 2004 anyways, amidst the flock of fellow Marvel superheroes coming to film.

During a training session in the Danger Room, their holographic combat simulator, the X-Men of “X3” - Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Iceman and Shadowcat - square off against a Sentinel, the towering robotic menace of the comic book series. Fire-scarred buildings and toasted cars dress the post-apocalyptic landscape of the battle. The Sentinel draws closer to the mutants and Wolverine coolly tells Colossus, “Throw me.” As his metal membrane pours over his skin like sterling silver paint, Colossus grabs Wolverine by the back of his leather jacket and heaves him 200 feet into the air - in the direction of the Sentinel. Dense smoke momentarily obscures the clawed mutant’s battle with the robot until we see its ten-foot-tall head crash to the ground like a toppled statue.

Attempting to depict this scene from “X3” with the effects technology of the late ‘70s would have severely hindered both the film’s realism and the quality of the action. The audience reaction would mix laughter with boredom and disbelief. To immerse audiences in the fables of characters somewhat less popular and more otherworldly than Batman or Superman - like the X-Men and especially Blade or Spawn - a heightened level of realism is needed and special effects technology at the turn of the century weaves even more seamless illusions than those of “Superman” 20 years earlier.

“Twenty years ago Spider-Man couldn’t have web-swung the same way he does now,” Lee said.

The realistic aesthetic offered by modern special effects has spread to other characteristics of recent comic book hero films. The X-Men received a leather makeover, replacing their comics’ psychedelic collage of costumes that Cyclops mocks when he asks Wolverine, “What did you expect - yellow spandex?” in “X-Men.” The re-telling of Batman’s origin in “Batman Begins” grounded the hero’s arsenal in state-of-the-art military technology. Actually building the revised Batmobile to take sharp turns at 60 miles an hour - and reach that speed in six seconds - bolstered the film’s believability.

A massive irony surrounds the necessity of special effects and realistic production values to fully pull audiences into the worlds of the superheroes on screen. The most financially successful and critically well-received of the recent comic book hero films - namely “Spider-Man,” “Spider-Man 2,” and “Batman Begins” - actually focus more on the human alter-egos than the heroes themselves. The day-to-day lives of Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne receive far more screen time than the web-slinger and the Caped Crusader.

“(‘Spider-Man 2’) demonstrates what's wrong with a lot of other superhero epics: They focus on the superpowers, and short-change the humans behind them,” wrote film critic Roger Ebert in his four-star June 30, 2004 review of the film.

The filmmakers behind those “other superhero epics” run afoul of faulty storytelling by forgetting that special effects are a means to an end - the souls of the stories reside in the heroes themselves. Their human personalities stick to audiences’ hearts.

“Hellboy is a guy who would like to hang out with his cats and have a beer and a pizza and go visit his girlfriend, but unfortunately he has the baggage he carries along that he’s red and has a tail and comes from Hell and is the only person that can save the world, so that’s a little bit of baggage for a guy who just wants to be a normal Joe,” said Mike Richardson, President of Dark Horse comics.

Once we connect with the heroes’ human sides, they inspire us by transcending the limits of their human potential and embodying the noble values of superheroes. Watching Spider-Man battle Dr. Octopus provides compelling action. Watching Peter Parker - burdened by his adjustment to adult life, romantic woes with Mary Jane and tensions with his best friend Harry Osborn - under the mask of Spider-Man in the same battle provides compelling action while fastening our hearts to the outcome.

“When he was doing ‘The Crow,’ [producer] Ed Pressman told me that one thing comic book movies have that most other movies don’t is name recognition,” said David Sterritt, Chair of the National Society of Film Critics.

Because most comic book heroes are recognizable names, they appeal to filmgoers with a familiarity that most other movies cannot match. The current crop of comic book hero movies could therefore be considered an outgrowth of the same adaptation craze that has led producers to bring big-screen versions of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” to cinemas. Comic book heroes provide even more natural candidates for films than the fantasy warriors with which they’ve shared screen time over the past five years.

“The form of comics themselves are borrowed from screenplay form. And so the writers and illustrators try to make the movies on paper,” Feiffer said.

The recognition provided by popular names like Batman or Superman ensures an ample audience, which in turn ensures money and therefore makes comic book movies wise business investments for Hollywood studios. The more recognizable the name, the bigger the bank.

“A certain amount of money is guaranteed if they just have the thing in focus,” said Sterritt.

Comic book fans will almost assuredly purchase tickets to fulfill their basic urge to see a living, breathing version of their beloved hero onscreen. Although today’s comic book readership pales next to that of the books’ golden and silver ages, anyone who has ever picked up an issue of “The Uncanny X-Men” or “Fantastic Four” can ride the wave of nostalgia straight into a movie seat.

But the popular appeal of a comic book hero movie stems from a far wider range of factors than mere name recognition. After all, not everyone could tell you the colors of Spider-Man’s costume - let alone that of Hellboy’s ember-red skin. To truly cross over to the mainstream, comic book hero movies must succeed at providing more than just a living, breathing version of the hero. Critical success in particular hinges upon possessing the same merits as any other successful action film. In addition to a steady string of explosions and flawless fight scenes, many successful comic book adaptations delight audiences with an x-factor that heightens its appeal.

“The ones that interest me as a grown-up moviegoer are the ones that bring something extra. The quirky, strange dark humor of ‘Hellboy,’ (2004) the surrealistic visual touches of Tim Burton’s first two ‘Batman’ movies (1989, 1993), or the romantic subplot especially of the first ‘Superman’ movie,” said Sterritt.

Comic book hero movies provide not only the escapist fare of any other action movie but also a genuine glimpse of a world where the most humanistic values ultimately rule the land. Unlike many of the villains they battle, superheroes don’t become enslaved or corrupted by their powers. They provide rousing testaments to the strength of free will and the depth of human potential for good. American audiences crave these reminders of their capacity for virtue when historical circumstances demand them. Only recently - coinciding with perhaps the greatest crisis of America’s self-confidence following 9/11 and the War on Terror - has technology enabled comic book heroes to reach mass audiences with the same inspiring messages they have been delivering to readers for decades.

These films have become such prevalent and predictable fixtures of movie theaters that the makers of “Scary Movie 4” recently announced plans to release their own send-up of the comic book hero movie in 2007 - “Superhero!” The recurrent formula of these films indeed provide a basis for comedy. Almost all focus on a hero born from a bizarre accident involving technology gone awry, who awkwardly chases a girl yet rejects her with a stoic devotion to his cause, before vanquishing a villain in an overwrought battle that results in the destruction of large buildings and landmarks. The film will lampoon the superhero genre and its tried-and-true conventions, but for all its humor, “Superhero!” will not explain the vast appeal of comic book hero movies or their colorful subjects.

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