Our superheroes, flaws and all
From comic book to the screen, our love affair with superheroes reflects our fascination with the universal struggle for redemption, writes Mathew Scott
The world never really started to take the superhero genre seriously until Christopher Reeve donned a pair of blue tights and fronted up as Superman in 1978.
The waters, and the audience, had previously been tested with the likes of Hollywood's first big-screen adaptation of the Batman story in 1966 and, out here in Asia, filmmakers had looked to tap into local comic crazes through such success as Japan's Ultraman TV series, which also had its first airing in the late 1960s.
There were comic-inspired franchises that never travelled beyond their own borders, such as the Darna series from the Philippines in the 1970s - she was an intergalactic warrior disguised as an earthling - and which helped actress Vilma Santos turn the fame she achieved into a political career that still sees her serving as governor of Batangas province.
These days, though, such efforts are revered only as camp cult classics and it was Reeve's breakthrough role - directed by Richard Donner, backed by Warner Bros and a hit with more than US$300 million in takings - that is now seen as the beginning of the modern age of the cinematic superhero, with their occasional frailties and trips into the darker side of the (super) human psyche.
Warner Bros struck box office gold again when revisiting the genre in the late 1980s and the 1990s, but the studio veered between productions that stuck close to the source material, such as Batman (1989) which saw funnyman Michael Keaton turn serious in the lead, and those that hammed things up in a desperate search for a wider audience (such as 1997's lamentable Batman & Robin).
In recent years, superheroes have been produced as though from a factory line and there is no end in sight, with Amazing Spider-Man 2 rolling out around the world this week. Disney, now owner of most of the Marvel Comics character catalogue, reportedly has projects lined up until 2028, including more from The Avengers expected next year along with the debut of Ant-Man.
As a collective audience, we just can't seem to get enough of them. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the latest addition to the multi-platform that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has stretched its worldwide takings now to nearly US$500 million, not that far behind its most recent rival in Thor: The Dark World, which has about US$650 million - and they are both still in cinemas.
This year has also witnessed the first major re-imagining of a biblical character, as art-house darling Darren Aronofsky spent an estimated US$125 million on turning Noah into what to all intents and purposes is a superhero, minus cape and fancy boots.
Expect to see more of the same when new takes on the biblical tales of Moses, and David and Goliath roll out over the next few years.
Meanwhile, still topping the global charts in terms of superheroes is Marvel's The Avengers, released in 2012 and, with takings of just over US$1.5 billion, the culmination of every studio head's wildest fantasies, not to mention those of the spotty masses who grew up dreaming of seeing a lycra-clad Black Widow on screen and larger than life.
"The demographic for superhero films in general has changed dramatically since the 1990s or even early 2000s. There was a time when liking comics was not cool at all. Now, everyone from full-grown adults to children have the luxury of being able to wear T-shirts showing their favourite comics, movies,TV shows."
The Avengers provided the perfect example of why the genre has struck such a chord with global audiences. We know these characters - either via the comics from which they have been plucked or from previous film incarnations - and we know their back stories, which chart the origins of their pain and plight. It makes them immediately sympathetic and accessible to the audience.
That's a theory fleshed out by superhero fan and sometime clinical psychologist Robin Rosenberg, writing for the Smithsonian Magazine last year in her essay, "The Psychology Behind Superhero Origin Stories".
"Origin stories show us not how to become super but how to be heroes, choosing altruism over the pursuit of wealth and power," Rosenberg wrote.
"I've learnt this through hundreds of conversations at comic book conventions, where fans have been remarkably candid about their lives and the inspiration they draw from superhero stories."
The argument goes that we as an audience share a common history - or at least we try to convince ourselves that aspects of it are common.
"But those writers were keen observers of human nature. And they were able to translate those observations into captivating stories reflecting aspects of psychology that were confirmed by researchers decades later. In doing so, they tap into our capacity for empathy, one of the greatest powers of all."
While success can never be assured, filmmakers seem to have learnt lessons from the past, when for a while during the early 2000s patched-up pastiches threatened to become all the rage, fashioning everyone from Ben Affleck ( Daredevil) to Jennifer Garner ( Elektra) into a hero.
We should also be thankful that productions such as our own Silver Hawk (2004), Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng's valiant but ultimately doomed attempt at joining the genre, seem to have made way for visions that are more fully realised.
The Asian superhero, however, remains an almost mythical creature - for international audiences at least - despite the best efforts of Japan's anime and manga magicians who, over the decades, have created characters in the guise of everything from the motor-cycling students of the Kamen Rider series to Super Sentai's squadrons of anti-espionage agents.
China's own Monkey King (created - let's not forget - sometime in the 16th century) provides arguably the ultimate superhero prototype, mixing comic flashes, abundant often unexplained powers, and moments of very real human emotion. Stephen Chow Sing-chi's US$200 million hit Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013) dipped into the story's darker side and that film's success - along with the more than one billion yuan collected this year on the mainland by director Soi Cheang Pou-soi's The Monkey King - has ensured that rumours of sequels are spreading.
Meanwhile, Stan Lee, the man behind many of Marvel Comics' heroes, has reportedly turned his attentions towards Asia, with his Pow! Entertainment company working on a character named The Annihilator, and on a film it claims will be shot in China sometime in the next 12 months starring Taiwanese-American pop singer Wang Lee-hom.
"I decided to do what I could to have better relations between China and the US, because obviously you know the power I wield," a smiling Lee told the Fan Expo Canada event in Toronto last year.
"I met with some big producers and we decided that we would do a movie together, so I made up a superhero called The Annihilator. I love that name. You better watch out for him because he annihilates. I thought of a new superpower for The Annihilator, which I can't tell you, I'm sorry. I want to make sure you all go see the movie," Wang says.
One thing we can be sure of, however, is that the character will be built according to type, if Williams' theories are to be believed. "It seems that it's those flawed and broken heroes that we as consumers love the most, the Batmans of the comic book or movie world," he says.
"It's the heroes who have a tragedy thrust upon them, but instead of turning to the 'dark side', as it were, they use that pain and inner turmoil to punish the evil and the corrupt. That's something that appeals to us with our own problems. We don't want the goodie-goodie 'boy scout' versus the bad guy."
And it helps if theirs is a story of redemption, Williams says. "They show us that anyone can come from the brink of disaster and despair and triumph. No matter what has happened to us in our past, we can win - just like our heroes.
"We always know that the good guy will beat the bad guy. But it's the journey that we take with the hero that in the end makes us feel good about ourselves."