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Lights, tights, action!
It's been quite the superhero summer. Films based on American comic book superheroes have dominated the global box office, and should ring out the season with a bang when the hugely anticipated final installment in the current Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, hits screens next week. Such success may also be seen as the culmination of over three decades of trying to seduce global audiences. To use the hyperbole so characteristic of the comic book world, it has worked 'phantasmagorically' well. Superhero films have raked in over $12 billion dollars worldwide - and that's not counting the possibly bigger bucks earned through merchandising, toys, DVDs and licensing.
But superhero films, like the comic stories they're based on, suffer from one big problem: they're notoriously repetitive. They're infamous for mostly ticking the same boxes on any list of plot points. They tend to tell the same stories of average American guys stumbling on hidden powers, zealously guarding a secret identity, gaining the love of a beautiful girl, trying to use their powers for the greater good, crusading against a malevolent but equally outlandish antagonist, being misunderstood by the public and finally gaining some degree of acceptance and acclaim, always after a big spectacular action-filled clash with the baddie. This is the basic plot of this summer's smash hit The Amazing Spider-Man, as it was in many ways the plot of 2002 smash hit, Spider-Man.
So just how do these masked avengers keep pulling us back into the theaters? The answer may lie in an entire genre's stoking of such repetition to tap deep into our collective unconscious.
OLD MYTHS, NEW GODS
One explanation comes from the source from which superheroes sprang - comic books. At one vital level, the comics form is only channeling very old universal traditions of highly effective storytelling using visuals strung together in a sequence. In addition, superhero comic books make use of another, more potent tradition: the power of myth. Noted comic book expert Scott McCloud points out that superheroes are in many ways new myths for a new age. They are probably great examples of how old archetypes - of mythic heroes and demigods;of good versus evil;of simple (even simplistic) moralising;of love, loss and longing - appear to instantly strike a chord with modern audiences. Indeed, in a sly nod to such source material, comic book creators have also routinely dredged up old dead gods and turned them into superheroes. Thor, the Norse god of thunder, for instance, who was recently seen on the big screen as part of The Avengers, battles Loki, his evil half-brother from Asgard. As do his swashbuckling superhero teammates in the movie, with verve "reminiscent of a Robin Hood film perhaps, " says Abhijit Jadhav, a Delhi-based comics buff.
Movie technology and spectacular computer generated special effects are also big factors, as magical worlds of battling demigods, star-crossed lovers and troubled but noble heroes are routinely made real before our eyes. In eye-popping 3D. This is what we have now come to expect, and are willing to pay for. It is also now an important part of the reinforcement process, for old fans and comics newbies alike.
"I grew up visualising such epic battles when reading comics. To see them realised in so spectacular a manner is wish fulfillment of a very high order, " avers Jadhav, and also points out that the core of the superhero trope is that "readers and viewers are always taken along on great adventures, fantastic in every way. You're prepped for the ride when you enter such a world, even if you're not a comics fan. When that happens you're always left fairly appeased. It's the oldest storytelling trick in the book. "
Alex Irvine, comic book writer and theorist, agrees: "The superhero is an expression of mythical storytelling and like all mythical storytelling, superhero stories go for big bold themes, sometimes at the expense of nuance and subtlety. In this way, they're like fairy tales, ancient oral epics, they're throwback stories given contemporary colours and a patina of contemporaneous specificity. That's very powerful. "
IT'S A BIRD, IT'S A PLANE, IT'S SUPERMEN
It was also herculean stuff when Superman, the world's first real comic book superhero, first appeared on the pages of Action Comics #1 in June 1938. His creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were young jobbing artists inspired by old myths and one interesting Jewish legend - of the Golem, an avenging superhuman protector. The DNA of the superhero came into being. Superman was also given a dual identity, one of which was secret, inventing another important part of the superhero archetype.
Batman appeared a year later, a darker figure with no powers, but one really compelling Freudian hangover. Others followed in quick succession. But all with one big difference from the myths of yore - science substituted for magic in these new myths. In fact, science fiction became "the primary engine that drove these fantasies forward, especially in the crucial '60s, when many of these superheroes were created, " says Kenneth Kaartik, a Mumbai-based engineer and Hollywood buff. "That's one reason why so many superheroes are either science geeks or scientists themselves. "
Other strains that would ensure future success were also encoded into comics' gene pool in the early days of comic books. Much about those early heroes was a product of some manner of estrangement and a search for identity in a strange but wonderful new world rife with possibility - something teenagers understand only too well.
This was a revolution wrought in the 1960s. It was led by the writer Stan Lee and a team of talented artists, including Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who came together at Marvel Comics and ended up creating hundreds of new superheroes. Almost all of these creations were rooted in the real world, usually New York City, unlike older superheroes like Superman.
More importantly, Lee and his collaborators made many superheroes everyday 'schmucks' who suffered the same slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes that readers of comic books did. This was to prove a huge advantage over its rivals for Marvel when its superheroes (Spider-Man, The Avengers, Iron Man, The X-Men ) finally moved to the big screen.
As Avi Arad, Hollywood mogul and a former CEO of Marvel emphasises, "there is no one in the world who cannot relate to the essential themes found in comic books, of loneliness and isolation, of asking - am I the only one? Look at Spider-Man, he is an average teenager who suffers the same problems as everyone;or the X-Men, in whose creation Stan Lee was influenced by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Many superhero movies work because of these issues of identity. "
Irvine adds, "The question of individual difference, of the masks we wear in our everyday lives measured against our own perceptions of ourselves, goes all the way back to Odysseus, if not before;but the 20th-century superhero gave it a new expression. " To generations of young boys grappling with the vagaries of adolescence across the world, and holding on to those memories for a lifetime after, such a subtext has proven altogether irresistible. As film industry observers have pointed out, they've been the core demographic that's powered the superhero movie to the top of the Hollywood food chain.
PAGE TO SCREEN
Oddly enough, at least in hindsight, it wasn't easy going for many trying to get Hollywood to make superhero movies even two decades ago. Arad, who was hugely instrumental in bringing dozens of superheroes to the big screen, speaks of the frustration in the early days, of how he went around trying to convince several sceptical Hollywood honchos in the '90s that "comics are the most fantastical storyboards out there".
As Arad tells it, the success of a small film, Blade (1998), was a turning point. A big screen adaptation of X-Men followed and, finally, the "crown jewel of the Marvel universe, " Spider-Man, made it to the big screen in 2002. Critics swooned, audiences lapped up the Sam Raimi-helmed film and it clocked over $800 million at the box office. The floodgates had opened and the suits moved in to take control of a newly revitalised global entertainment and marketing phenomenon.
This is also why comic industry events like San Diego Comic-Con have become hugely important for studios and TV companies. "Comic-Con offers a real chance for the studios and networks to interact with the fan. Or the person who will pay to see their productions. We began with 300 people three decades ago. Over 130, 000 attended last year, " says David Glanzer, the event's marketing head.
Even in India, superhero films have been huge earners. Spider-Man 3 (2007) became the highest grossing Hollywood film in India with a Rs 68 crore gross, while unconfirmed reports indicate that The Avengers may have outdone that. Superhero comics are also flying off the shelves here. Online retailer Flipkart's Ankit Nagori says they sell around 8, 000-to-10, 000 comics and graphic novels in a month. "This category is growing at about 20 per cent month-on-month. It is one of the fastest growing book categories. "
It's no surprise then that Hollywood Studios have chalked out elaborate plans for future superhero movies and expect huge returns on very large investments. Which begs the question, will audiences switch off again?
Not necesarily, says Irvine, and echoes Umberto Eco's famous theory that comics are, put simply, an art form designed to implicitly reinforce many of our most basic assumptions. We enter their brightly coloured world looking for some manner of clear psychological reinforcement, even if that comes in the form of capes and spandex tights.
"Superheroes provide us with an extraordinarily heightened version of common anxieties, " says Irvine, "and at its core the superhero archetype is about the belief that within us is something better than we know. " Great creeds have been built on much less.
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