Once upon a time – well, from 1978 to 1987 – Christopher Reeve’s incarnation of Superman took a fairly lonely flight through America’s cineplexes.
Now the Man of Steel must navigate some incredibly congested airspace.
Within the next five years, at least 32 comic book superhero movies will come to theaters near you – and only one, next year’s “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” bears Clark Kent’s alter-ego in the title.
Comic book characters returning to, or debuting on, the big screen include Captain America, Dr. Strange, Spider-Man, Thor, the Avengers, Wonder Woman, Wolverine, the Fantastic Four, Ant-Man, Black Panther, the X-Men, Captain Marvel, Green Lantern, Aquaman and the Guardians of the Galaxy.
That’s not to mention Deadpool, the Suicide Squad, the Justice League, Venom, the Flash, the Inhumans, Cyborg, a female Spider-Man and, of course, several more appearances of Robert Downey Jr. as Iron-Man.
Meanwhile, attention holiday shoppers: “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” which has banked $746 million since May 23, and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which has earned $714 million since April 4, were released this fall on DVD.
They rank fourth and fifth, respectively, on the list of the highest-grossing movies in 2014. No. 2? “Guardians of the Galaxy,” also from Marvel Studios and hitting store shelves Tuesday, Dec. 9. No. 6? “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” available for repeat home-viewing since August.
“I asked my students in Narrative Scriptwriting about this a couple weeks ago, and what I was hoping they would say that it’s a reaction to something going on in the culture,” says Randy Caspersen, an assistant professor of media studies in the NIU Department of Communication.
“But they said that a lot of the stigma about superhero movies has kind of gone away. With shows like ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ being a nerd at this point in time is kind of cool,” he adds. “I was hoping for some other theories, like that we’ve become such a reality-obsessed culture that wanting something so unreal and fantastical is sort of the reaction to that.”
Since Caspersen first posed the question, however, he’s heard some darker ideas that tie the 2001 “superhero explosion” at the box office with the events of Sept. 11.
“This generation has been raised with terrorism,” he says, “and superheroes are almost a subconscious reaction to, ‘We need to fight this big horrible monster.’ Superheroes do that.”
Lynne M. Thomas, curator of Rare Books and Special Collections in the University Libraries and co-editor of the Hugo Award-nominated “Chicks Dig Comics: A Celebration of Comic Books by the Women Who Love Them,” sees it two ways.
“This is intellectual property that they’re trying to leverage. These characters and movies build and build and build upon each other, making them buckets of money. Of course they’re going to try to keep going back to that well,” Thomas says.
But she also confirms Caspersen’s notion about “nerd” culture: “The geeks have inherited the earth,” she says.
“People are more open about liking things like superheroes. It’s not a weird thing to go to a superhero movie anymore. It’s mainstream. Comic book conventions are drawing hundreds of thousands of people,” Thomas says. “People just connect with these characters.”
During the 1940s and ’50s, she says, reading comic books was a common practice for “about 90 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls – it was ridiculously widespread.”
By the 1990s, notions that “adults weren’t supposed to enjoy comic books because they’re for kids” were dispelled. Comic books sales shifted from newsstands to specialty shops. Publishers launched new products targeted toward adults that featured “more complex stories and more ambiguous characters.”
Then came the Internet, allowing fans of specific but perhaps lesser-known comic book heroes – for example, Black Canary, from the D.C. universe – to form online communities.
“The way that we consume culture has changed,” Thomas says. “The way that we view people who consumer culture has changed.”
As a librarian, Thomas also has noticed undergraduate researchers on the NIU campus turning to comics as source material for their scholarly projects.
“Arguably, comic books are the narratives of our time as we view the world. They’re created by people who aren’t getting a lot of oversight (by corporate executives) and reflect the views of the world. How the Vietnam War was treated by comics was very different in ‘Captain America’ than in ‘Iron-Man,’ ” she says.
“Comics provide a just-as-valid, if not more valid, reading of how a culture responds than waiting for someone to write the Great American Novel,” she adds. “They’re contemporary. They’re fresh. They’re of the culture in addition to commenting on the culture.”
Psychology and sociology aside, however, Thomas says that most superhero movies simply offer pure entertainment for the whole family.
Screenwriters rely on “clean narratives” to weave “big epic stories” and a “sense of wonder.” So-called “origin stories” of superheroes, meanwhile, are good at making personal impacts. “You, too, can be special,” she says, “if the right spider bites you.”
Cast some “rather-attractive people” as the main stars, whip up a few whiz-bang action sequences and Shazam! An exciting film perfect for popcorn!
Best of all, reading comic books is not a prerequisite.
“I wasn’t familiar with Guardians of the Galaxy. Didn’t matter. Didn’t care,” she says. “I went to see ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ because I thought it would be a lot of fun – and it was.”