Unmasking the superhero phenomenon


The Avengers, The Amazing Spiderman, The Dark Knight Rises, the list of superhero films being produced by Hollywood grows exponentially year on year, winning both critical and audience acclaim alike. But how has something so nerdy, a genre once only consumed only by the archetypical “comic book guy” from The Simpsons, won over mainstream audiences?


I’m Batman! Image by Nur Hussein

The contrast between the 1960s television series of Batman and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is striking. One is silly and childish, providing cheap laughs on YouTube, while the other is a serious work of art. It would have been unthinkable in the 1960s to give comic book characters the same kind of gravity Nolan gives to Batman today. But something happened between the 1960s and the 2000s – the computer revolution. In the 1980s, computers were used by socially awkward young men in thick glasses and in the 1990s by children playing Super Mario and Pokémon. However, by the 2000s those child gamers had grown into adult gamers and the socially awkward men who had made the computers were now the richest men in the world. Wearing thick-rimmed glasses had become cool, playing their video games was cool, and their whole nerdy sub-culture went mainstream.

Is that the answer? The popularity of superhero films is down to the general success of nerd culture over the past decade? Perhaps there is a little more to it; after all, not all aspects of nerd culture have broken into the mainstream. The clue is in the word itself – superhero. Superhero films might resonate with modern audiences because they reflect a desire for heroes in what we feel are dangerous times. Terrorist attacks such as 9/11, 7/7 and the Utoya attacks profoundly shook Western society. It is disturbing how much death and destruction can be caused by one individual alone. When we feel threatened, we need heroes – but the awkward fact is that those “heroes” who really stop these villains are nameless, anonymous and perhaps Jack Bauer-like MI6, CIA and special forces operatives. Could the recent popularity of superhero films reflect a subconscious desire in audiences for there to be real-life, visible and morally unambiguous heroes who stop the terrorist villains? If that is the case, it is ironic that the superheroes on the silver screen are themselves masked to hide their true identity while the “heroes” of the real world are masked by layers of government secrecy.

A final factor to consider is that perhaps superhero comics are uniquely well adapted for cinema. Comics are a visual art style and translate easily into motion pictures, perhaps more easily than books as it is easier to visually portray action and story as the original artist intended. But more imporantly, the world of comics is deep, complex, and flexible. Unlike books, which have been translated into film such as Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, there is no fixed plot-line that the film director has to follow – just guidelines. This means that the script writers have the creative freedom to craft a plot which is suitable for 120 minutes at the cinema, without the problem of condensing several hours of literature into the space of two hours.

It is hard not to be surprised by the success of superhero comics in cinema. Superhero comics in their native form are perhaps one of the least accessible aspects of nerd culture, and you would not expect mainstream audiences to take over the top, costumed characters with names such as Batman or The Joker seriously. At least, in this case, it is enjoyable to be proven wrong.

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