Summer of the Superantihero

Why Our Superheroes Keep Getting Edgier

Once upon a time, superheroes were simple.

Superman was virtually invulnerable; he fought for “Truth, justice, and the American way.” Batman was a handsome billionaire playboy, dishing out punishment to a deserving criminal underworld. Wonder Woman, Captain America, and Captain Marvel fought evil robots, mind-controlling worms, and scurrilous Nazis. All provided straightforward, idealized role models for an anxious populace facing the Depression, Fascism, World War and the Nuclear Age.

But this summer’s profitable crop of big screen superheroes is different. We’ve got Hancock’s title character, a self-loathing homeless alcoholic; Iron Man’s Tony Stark, a vain, womanizing alcoholic-in-training; The Hulk’s Bruce Banner, whose rampaging, id-fueled alter ego often does more harm than good; the titular Hellboy, a demon superhero whose red skin, lengthy tail, and sawed-off horns evoke Satan (“Believe it or not,” trumpets the ad campaign, “this is the good guy”); and the second film in Christopher Nolan’s reimagining of the Batman mythos, in which Bruce Wayne is almost—if not equally—as deranged as those he brings to justice.

This new crop of movies speaks of cynicism, disillusionment, and sour self-examination. But while it obviously has a lot to do with our current situation as a nation—including an ongoing war in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist—its roots go farther back, to that original period of American disillusionment: the 60’s.

For What It’s Worth

There’s something happening here, as Buffalo Springfield said in November of 1966. At the time, U.S. troop strength in Vietnam had passed 400,000, the Cold War was getting worse, and the term ‘Black Power’ entered the common lexicon. The stark good guy/bad guy morality of Superman comics no longer fit a world now painted in shades of gray.

Along came Marvel Comics, and a young writer named Stan Lee. His new characters (the ones now ruling the multiplex) included Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Iron Man, and the Hulk. Lee wrote from a new angle: the younger side of the generation gap. His characters suffered money problems, family problems,girlfriend problems. They were sometimes selfish, often proud, inevitably flawed.

“This new crop of movies speaks of cynicism, disillusionment, and sour self-examination.”

Marvel’s antiheroic superheroes were enormously popular, but it took more than 30 years for Hollywood to catch up. 1978’s Superman: The Movie a universe of charming nostalgia: Sassy lady reporters, intrepid cub photographers, and a chaste first date between Lois Lane and Superman. In Superman II (1980), Lois and Superman slept together, but regretted it. 1989 gave us Tim Burton’s Batman, in which audiences saw a hint of the neuroses underlying Bruce Wayne’s nighttime activities—but just a hint.

In 1998, the first Marvel character reached the screen. Blade starred Wesley Snipes as the half-man, half-vampire protagonist and offered a more complex superhero than we’d previously seen (except, perhaps, for 1994’s cult hit The Crow, based on an underground comic). Blade served notice: Marvel’s antiheroes, with a moral complexity informed by the turbulence of the 1960s, spoke to contemporary American audiences in a way that Superman couldn’t.

Morally Complex Marvel

In 2002, Columbia Pictures released Spiderman, featuring a hero whose concerns and values are nearly the opposite of Superman’s. Young Peter Parker worries about girls and money, about grades and cars; his own selfish act causes his uncle’s death. The movie clicked with the zeitgeist, and grossed $822 million worldwide. The sequel, released in 2004, grossed $784 million; the third movie, released last summer, scored $891 million.

This summer’s surprise hit, Iron Man, the moral envelope even farther. In the original Marvel comic book, published in 1963, Tony Stark supplied arms for the war against the Viet Cong. Now he manufactures weapons for the fight against Taliban-like terrorists in Afghanistan. Witty and vain and proud, Tony (Robert Downey, Jr.) is hardly seen without a drink in hand, and his callous treatment of women opens the film. It works because we see him change over the course of the story, renouncing the arms trade and learning about trust and intimacy in his personal life as (of course) he blows things up while battling evil.

With two endless wars stretching both behind and before us, American viewers can apparently empathize with a cynical hero who swigs whiskey and sleeps around indiscriminately, another who rightly fears hurting the ones he loves most, a third whose obsessive thirst for revenge borders on psychosis. This summer theaters are owned by Iron Man, Hulk, and Batman (a DC franchise reinvigorated only when Frank Miller, an artist previously employed by Marvel, took a whack at it). They are the mirrors of our own imperfection, our fear of our limitations and our yearning to be better than we are.