A superhero film, superhero movie or superhero motion picture is an action, a fantasy or a science fiction film that focuses on the actions of one or more superheroes individuals who usually possess superhuman abilities relative to a normal person and are dedicated to protecting the public.
The English word hero is derived from the Greek word for hero or warrior. It literally means protector or defender. Interestingly, though many dictionary definitions of the word ‘hero’ refer to men, such as the male lead in a play, the original ‘hero’ in Greek mythology was a woman, a priestess of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The dictionary definition of hero resonates to Greek myths which revolve around persons of great courage and strength, celebrated for their bold exploits, or prominent people known for their achievements. We have taken a somewhat intensive approach to the definition of heroes.
We do not specify the characteristics of heroes, or outline what makes a hero because our conception of heroes is not static. We think it is important to remember that heroism is in the eye of the beholder. However, when we consider an individual’s name as a hero and the way heroes are portrayed in literature, plays and movies, it becomes pretty clear what the principal dimensions are. First and foremost, heroes are people who do something that are moral. They capture the ‘nobility of purpose’ element of the dictionary definition. The 1950s television series ‘Superman’ provides a fictional example of heroes as fundamentally moral. The introduction to each episode reminded us that the man who was faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive fought for ‘truth, justice and the American way’. At that time there was no doubt that the American way was as moral as truth and justice!
In 2005, while speaking on the subject of ‘cult cinema’, the famous American film maker, actor and stand-up comedian, John Waters, expertly pointed out that such films experience heydays when ‘mainstream’ cinema becomes dominated by realism. He meant that a cult cinema or cult film becomes popular when the audience are burdened too much with the morbidity of the reality surrounding them. Cult films serve as an ‘escape’ for people which they can use to let go of their inhibitions and enjoy themselves. So in the 1970s, for example, for every ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ or ‘Rocky’ or ‘The Deer Hunter’ we would always have ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, ‘The Harder They Come’ and ‘Pink Flamingos’.
The era of the 1970s is very important because of a significant event which is very relevant to this subject: the 1977 release of George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’. ‘Star Wars’ brought about two things which have made the modern superhero films possible. First, it added supreme vitality to the modern renaissance in special effects technology which began a decade earlier with Kubrick’s ‘A Space Odyssey’ (2001).
Second and even more importantly, ‘Star Wars’ managed to thoroughly and successfully beat Hollywood over the head with the radical notion that science-fiction films could make money. The ripple effect from ‘Star Wars’ gave birth to the current age in genre films which was followed by Richard Donner’s ‘Superman’ which pulled in more than $300 million at the box office after 1 year.
However, the development of the modern superhero movie genre has not been very smooth. The ‘Superman’ series was far from being a success when it first started. Excepting a few successful series like ‘The Incredible Hulk’, all the other movies or television series struggled to find success. Frank Miller’s ‘Dark Knight Returns’ which was published in 1986 by DC Comics revitalised the ‘Batman’ comic franchise and gave it a mature look. This in turn made the whole genre very popular and invited the attention of serious literary critics. Later in 1989, Director Tim Burton also made a film based on this particular comic called ‘Batman’ which brought in over $400 million at the box office. But it required a lot more than the success of one comic book or one franchise of ‘Batman’ for the whole genre to become popular and accepted by the public. The success and the popularity also depended on the ‘Star Wars’ series to come out completely following which the other characters of DC Comics as well as Marvel Comics changed their characters, giving them a more developed look through changed costumes and crime fighting capabilities.
In actuality, the introduction of technology into films was initiated by George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’ which changed the dynamics of the superhero movie genre. As the genre films became more technologically dependent they became increasingly splendid and easier to produce. Superheroes became easier to depict. Technology became an integrated part of writing when Marvel Comics came out with ‘Spider Man’, ‘Fantastic Four’, and ‘Iron Man’ which could then compete alongside other contemporaries of DC Comics.
But along with the technological and film studio acceptance another aspect came to the forefront which made all of this possible — acceptance of the superhero films as a part of the mainstream movie industry by the general population. But people are not aware of the fact that the first series of ‘Captain America’ came out as early as in 1944. In 1940, ‘Batman’ and ‘Superman’ were introduced as radio series. The 1940s was a period of uncertainty. America went through a Great Depression and the world experienced one of the greatest wars in the history of mankind. Deep down people would be desperate to look forward to something larger than life which would move their attention away from the darkness of reality and could also serve as a symbol of hope and a focus for aspirations.
Today the world is in a period of uncertainty. World leaders are unable to provide any constructive solutions to the socio-political or economic problems that we are facing and are unable to restore peace, prosperity and stability. Today everybody rushes to the theatres to catch a glimpse of an individual wearing a bright costume and actively retaliating against the darkness that threatens to engulf us. Superhero films are still relevant and popular today because we feel a primal need for heroes. We are looking forward to thrills and excitement as well as searching for entertainment and hope. When we look at the sky we pray in our hearts that ‘it’s not a mere
plane or a bird ….’