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Modern Marvels


The superhero genre, now almost 75 years old, has not only fended off attacks from spaceships, boy wizards and shiny vampires but has actually grown better, smarter and sharper with age.

Since nothing film-related garners more respect in India than box-office numbers, let's start with those: The Avengers has grossed $1. 4 billion worldwide, and The Amazing Spider-Man, the reboot starring The Social Network's Andrew Garfield, has made $341. 2 million at the time of writing, two weeks after it opened. One can only guess how much money The Dark Knight Rises, the closing act of Christopher Nolan's brilliant Batman trilogy, will make. Quite a few of all these dollars have come out of India, where Spiderman 2, starring Tobey Maguire, did phenomenally well too in 2004.

Not that the amount of money a film makes has anything to do with how good it is or whether it'll stand the test of time: in India, we know this only too well. But the superhero genre, now almost 75 years old, has not only withstood the ravages of the years, fending off attacks from spaceships, boy wizards and shiny vampires (and soon, violently amorous business tycoons), but has actually grown better, smarter and sharper with age - one of the very few genres to achieve this. This is because superhero culture is, at its core, a commentary on the world around us as it evolves, myth-making so current it's practically live. And if there's one thing people have in common across the world, it's this: they love to see stories about themselves.

Superheroes, driven primarily by the medium they were born in - comics - have always provided a running, hyper-real commentary on the world around them. Drawn and written under crushing deadlines by hundreds of talented, driven and possibly insane creators, they've woven their fantastical plots around the key anxieties and obsessions of every age;the second World War pretty much ended for some when Captain America punched Hitler, comics like the XMen talked about minority communities and the challenges they faced during civil rights movements, the battle against homophobia was given a boost by Northstar coming out. Superheroes wept bitterly after 9/11. Superman fought Mohammed Ali. Spider-Man met Obama. In comics now, heroes have Facebook accounts, participate in reality shows, and live the lives of real-world celebrities.

Superheroes grew up in the '80s, with books like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Writers like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Mike Carey started creating work that found - and deserved - space in the best of bookstores, and everything changed in superhero-world. The stories got deeper, the writing got better, the genre's own history got revised, heavier, more complex, revisionist work became both possible and popular, and the genre grew, diversified, evolved - I'd say the best superhero stories are now comparable with the best of literature in any form. It's safe to say now that the superhero story for grownups is here to stay, and the omnipresence of the superhero in present-day entertainment, in every possible medium, is proof of that. The medium in which these stories are most popular may change;the stories themselves will never die.

It has to be said, though, that no one's taking huge risks with globally beloved superheroes like Spider-Man, Batman or the Avengers;the only reason studios splurge millions of dollars on bringing these muscular demi-gods to life is the rabid fan-base that's evolved over roughly half a century. Edgier, more recent tales like Kick-Ass might be well loved by the core fan-base, but will take years to really become a part of essential superhero mythology.

Which is not to suggest at all that superheroes have stopped evolving - on the contrary, they're getting more interesting. And with the dawn of the new millennium, superheroes are not only everywhere but in all media - one of the most interesting superhero projects in recent years was Avengers director Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, a phenomenally successful episodic Internet musical starring Neil Patrick Harris. Besides, there's film, comics, TV and even books - I can say with complete honesty that publishers in the UK and US were only confident enough to sign up my own superhero novel, Turbulence, not just because they liked the story, but also because they know there's now a large number of people all over the world who want more. People who are now willing to look beyond the traditional DC/Marvel fare and find newer, more international, more current heroes for our iPad-Facebook-Higgs-Boson age. TV shows like Heroes, Alphas and Misfits are examples of this evolution;superheroes have been stripped of the genre's traditional staples. There are no costumes, fewer outlandish origin stories, and an overall emphasis on current concerns and on making the super-people completely relatable, even average.

It's unlikely that Bollywood will be a part of this international superhero festival, though - not because Bollywood lacks the capacity to make a really good superhero movie, but because it doesn't particularly feel the need to. As long as our biggest hits remain star-driven, all-entertainment spectaculars with no particular emphasis on story or character (remember, none of the biggest Hollywood superhero franchises start off with a major A-list star;they were all driven by stories and fan followings, and stardom for the actors followed), we will make the occasional superhero movie, but like other desi fantasy/scifi movies, chances are it will either be a child-oriented ego project or an absolute so-bad-it'sbrilliant disaster.

Who needs the Hulk's science-laden, Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde origins when Salman Khan does everything the Hulk does every week without breaking a sweat or even needing to turn green? India has always had its own superheroes, but Bollywood is light years away from making The Dark Knight, and there's no reason it should even aspire to. Rajikanth's Endhiran, Indian cinema's greatest endeavour in that field, stands unchallenged in its own space, a surreal, technicolour universe that Dada or Dali would have stared at in wonder, and that's a reality we can all live with.

Basu's superhero novel, Turbulence, was an Indian bestseller and is now out in the UK. He can be found on the web at samitbasu. com and @samitbasu. com

Reader's opinion (1)

Sonam MahajanAug 17th, 2012 at 12:56 PM

I loved the ending of write up and liked the whole of it.

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