It's a Super Time for Superheroes

July 14, 2013

Image: copyright Marvel Comics. Source: Wired

Over the past few years, superheroes of all shapes and sizes, and of all types of constitution have been making a mark at the box office. Superman is the latest. Other than the man of steel, The Avengers, Spiderman, Iron man, Hulk, X Men and actually most of the other superheroes you can think of all have one thing in common. They are owned by Marvel Comics.

I was aware of the brand growing up, but didn’t realise the extent of their stable of superheroes and villains. When my son strategically ripped a page of a book in a book shop, I was the owner of a catalogue of every Marvel character created. There are hundreds.

Superheroes (in different guises) have always had a place in different societies. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans for example lauded their gods, many whom had unique personalities/skills that were ultimately about good triumphing over evil. They probably took them more seriously than we do Spiderman!

However, Marvel, from where I sit has made one of the most remarkable come backs of the media and entertainment industry (almost as good as Birdman when he would somehow find a ray of sunshine).

Superheroes connect because the idea is simple. He or she is good. Who they fight is bad. They fight. They win. They think of others. They are physically strong and mentally agile. The modern day mythical male. They take responsibility.

We shouldn’t forget the vision and energy at Marvel for giving these characters a new lease on life. They haven’t just replicated the comics. They have changed their scenarios and story lines to make them more exciting and relevant to today.

Interestingly, they have also allowed us to see their superheroes’ flaws more than ever before. Think about Superman of the 80’s. Clark was perfect. We found a similar truth in a recent research project amongst women where the rise of a flawed reality in pop culture seemed present, and key to how we feel nowadays.  As the world feels increasingly uncertain, and scandals and mistrust plague every area of life, we are no longer accepting of the fairytale dream. We identify with people who are not perfect, but who do their best. We’re open to a grittier, harsher reality, even amongst our superheroes. It makes them more likeable, and easier to identify with. We think this thinking is partly behind the approach on say Iron Man, where as a viewer you are forced to take the good with the bad.

Cultural Influences Driving this Revival:

As well as all the work Marvel have done, we also think there are a number of cultural influences that have contributed to the theory that the age we live in is a good time for superheroes.

Unlike our Egyptian, Roman & Greek forbearers, or even for 30-40 years ago, religion is not as powerful an entity as it once was.  Superheroes (whilst we know are fictional) help us see the good in the world.

Likewise, the western world faces a new type of villain. The small and yet omnipresent threat of terrorism is very different to the mass threat posed by one big nasty state. We want to feel that we can take what ever comes our way.

Over the same time period, the western world economically has fallen into a rut. It tried to spend itself out of it, but it couldn’t. Now the bastion of the free market is perched on a cliff. And all its peers are living by the mantra of austerity and bailouts. The scenario and language it brings in the media undermines confidence, so we, quite literally, are seeking heros.

The blurring of gender roles has seen a raft of new trends in men’s behaviours as they jostle with their new roles at work and in their relationships. Trying to demonstrate that they are ‘worthwhile’ through smaller and more skilful means very physicality. What could speak to these ideals of masculinity more than a Marvel Comic Hero?

On top of that, the retro movement that has swept every category in the world has also benefited these comic book characters of yesteryear.

They may be circumstantial, and of course, execution is important, but we think the palette of our day is creating a lovely backdrop for all things super. Up, Up & Away!