Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Super in the U.S.A.

America has a weird relationship with fictional superheroes. If a superhero movie is really good - like the original Christopher Reeve Superman, about half of the total Burton/Nolan Batman movies, the first two Spiderman movies, X-Men, etc. - Americans will embrace them. But comic books and graphic novels are still largely for geeks, and superhero media in general is pretty hit-or-miss, both in terms of quality and in terms of America's response.

Heroes, for instance, had an absolutely amazing first season, then it tanked and never ever got its mojo back. No Ordinary Family is doing pretty well, but will people stick with it and will it keep up the quality? The Cape is doing okay out of the gate, but hasn't exactly been a huge hit.

All of this made me wonder: why? Why are Americans luke-warm toward superheroes in general, and why is it so hard to make a great superhero story that captures peoples' attention?

Certainly the costumes can be a bit of a turn-off, if there are any. It's just hard to look cool in spandex, no matter what color it is or what you're doing.This is probably a big part of the reason that shows like Heroes, No Ordinary Family and even Smallville have tended to tone-down or avoid super-suits altogether.

Of course, eschewing the superhero outfit has its own down-side in terms of story. Without a mask, you're potentially recognizable, which puts your family in jeopardy. Also, in just ordinary clothes, it may be hard for the police to tell the hero from the villain, again putting you at risk. At the same time, these issues can create dramatic tension for the stories, so they're not entirely bad.

The powers themselves can be an issue, too. If the hero is unbelievably powerful, it's hard to create believable challenges for them that keep the story interesting. If the hero is too weak, it's potentially boring and offers too little material to keep a story going.

Moreover, the whole concept of superheroes existing in our daily lives is a tough nut to crack. How WOULD society react to these people? It seems likely that it would lead to all sorts of upheaval - hero supporters, vigilante protesters, and imitators, all looking to get involved. Then you've got the media, politicians, businesses and hucksters all looking to capitalize on the heroes and villains for their own nefarious purposes. It's a big mess, and the more "super" people you've got running around, the more the story has to account for peoples' reactions.

All of these issues aren't always handled well. There were no anti-spidey protesters in Spider-Man, but the anti-vigilante movement was a key aspect of the (far less successful) Watchmen film. When Tony Stark revealed his Iron Man identity in the Iron Man films, he got called before congress, but nobody except the police seem to have an opinion about Batman's antics.

Special effects and TV writing have come a long way since the arguable heyday of superhero television back in the 1970s, when you had the Six-Million-Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man all on network television. But modern shows are as challenged as ever to find their audience.

I suspect that someday "genre" fiction, whether Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Hero or whatever will become completely mainstream and commonly-accepted at last, but it's not there yet. For instance, a running gag in No Ordinary Family is the lab-assistant who regularly references the X-Men and has a signed picture of Battlestar Galactica's Laura Roslyn. It's a gag because being interested in those things - especially if you're an attractive, intelligent woman - is comical in our society, even still. You don't hear the football players in the locker room arguing about whether the Justice League could beat The Avengers (they totally could), or at least I assume they probably don't. After all, I'm a comics geek - when have I ever been in a football team's locker room?

No comments:

Post a Comment