The Modern Reputation of Superhero Fiction

I realised recently that it has been about a decade since I fell into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ten years and I haven’t looked back. In April 2012 I saw Marvel’s Avengers Assemble for the first time in the cinema (and a following two more times before it left theatres). This pulled me into the never-ending wormhole of Marvel content, absorbing all the movies and tv shows I could find, and a few comic books along the way. So it feels pretty appropriate to be writing this blog post on such a momentous anniversary.

The first superhero fiction, at least as we know it today, was a newspaper comic strip published 17th February 1936 starring vigilante The Phantom. The following five years introduced many of the names we know today, including Superman, Batman, The Flash, and Captain America. It was during the Second World War that the proliferation of comic books really flourished, with mainly an audience of young boys.

As a result, many comics during this period were heavy with war propaganda, utilising racist portrayals of foreigners and often rooting the villains in the Axis Powers countries. In the post-war years, comics were hit hard with censorship, in a “protect kids’ innocence” movement – interestingly partly because characters like Wonder Woman and Batman and Robin promoted ‘homosexual ideals’. Eventually, around the 1970s, superheroes had a renaissance, and actually began to feature people of colour as heroes, like Black Panther and Storm. This was also when many comics became grittier and more “adult”, an influence we’ve seen carry into modern film adaptations, particularly of Batman. Comics and superheroes certainly have a rich and interesting history, something far too broad to cover in a single blog post. However, it’s evident that the reputation of superheroes originates in, ultimately, being “made for kids” and, as a result, comic companies have been attempting to widen their audience for decades. But does this make them low-brow?

Over the years I’ve felt the Marvel obsession ebb and flow within me, depending on whether or not a new movie would be coming out soon. And, while I’m sure there are plenty of die-hard fans out there who disagree with me, I feel that that is part of the experience of consuming most superhero fiction in the twenty-first century – except, of course, for the comics. There’s also the (honestly, completely valid) opinion that over the past few years in particular, the demand for quantity of mainstream superhero movies has led to a decline in the inventiveness with their plots. Many superhero movies – particularly made by the big bads themselves, Marvel and DC – follow, at the bare bones of it, similar and repetitive plotlines. I’ve certainly felt that way, and the brief inventive movies we get (like Taika Waititi’s Thor Ragnarok, for example) are only the exception that proves the rule. One particular film critic put it best, as he questioned ‘If fairy tales can be re-imagined, why not comic book characters?’.

The Disney+ Marvel shows seemed to be some such positive reimagining, utilising the beloved characters they’d already introduced to open up the world for future stories to be told. In particular, Wandavision, the first of the shows to be released, felt like a breath of fresh air. An inventive premise, time spent developing characters and, best of all, is one of the few Marvel projects with a woman at the helm. And the following Disney+ shows seem to have aimed to be suitably different from their cinematic predecessors.

However, there is the obvious stance that, when it comes to mainstream superhero movies, the MCU and DCEU stay mostly apolitical. They sometimes brave the waters of making political statements – such as the commentary on race and refugees in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. However, many were disappointed in both Falcon and Loki, for essentially sanitising comic book representations in order to appeal to wider markets. While Falcon certainly made headway in the discussion around, particularly, race, it felt slightly afraid to delve too deep into certain storylines (for example, Isaiah) that could risk seeming too critical of the US military (let’s say it felt like it had the magic of Disney sanitisation over it). When it came to Loki, many comic fans, MCU fans, as well as the queer community felt let down by the portrayal of Loki – in their ignorance of comic versions of Loki being both genderfluid and pansexual.

The lack of political or social statements within the MCU and DCEU don’t preclude the way other superhero fiction is dealing with such themes. Notably, two shows which come to mind are Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen (2019) and Eric Kripke’s The Boys (2019-present) – both of which are originally DC Comics.

Watchmen, the graphic novel, made great steps in and of itself, being the only graphic novel to have won the Hugo Award. Interestingly, Jeff Clock suggests that ‘it is Watchmen […] which marks the point at which the superhero narrative becomes literature’. This legacy certainly continues with the television adaptation, which is set in a world 34 years after the original graphic novel series and recentres the themes around racism and white supremacy in the United States. Lindelof was inspired to adapt the Watchmen graphic novels with this recentring following the Charlottesville Race Riot in 2017, where multiple alt-right groups took part in a white-supremacist rally and ultimately resulted in a white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr driving his car into a group of peaceful counter-protestors, killing one and injuring thirty-five. As one critic points out, the Watchmen series ‘emphasizes a subtle point in the original comics, that the history of masked vigilantes in the US begins not with costumed crusaders like the […] Watchmen but with the KKK’. By centring his Watchmen series around a real-world event that has been suppressed by white voices in power for decades – the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre – and highlighting the violence towards and outright destruction of the black community, Lindelof uses superhero fiction in order to make a commentary on the real life experience of black people in the US.

The Boys, while extremely violent and visceral, uses superheroes and their commodification as allegory through which to explore the corrupted state of politics, as well as social and cultural divides, in the US. Through its large cast of characters – both “supes” (the show’s nickname for their superheroes) and human – The Boys isn’t afraid to portray and reflect a wide variety of real-world issues, including: racism and xenophobia; sexual assault and victim-blaming; homophobia; the dangerous nature of right-wing and cult-like organised Christianity; and the downfalls of capitalism. Now, all of this may seem like an awful lot to cram into (currently) only two seasons. But the writing is so effortlessly clean and concise that all of these social issues are explored alongside a just genuinely interesting and captivating plotline.

Ultimately, while the endless outpour of big-budget superhero flicks might suggest watered down quality and a low-brow experience, it is evident that the superhero genre has the potential to be used in inventive and innovative ways. After all, with great power comes great responsibility.

About the Author

Georgia Read is currently studying an MA in English Literature at the University of Surrey and she has a particular passion for Gothic Horror. Her undergraduate dissertation focused on the writings of Stephen King, and her plans for MA dissertation are to look at Native American Gothic. When not spooking herself with the latest horror media, Georgia will be spending time playing with her Whippet puppy, Zemo.

One thought on “The Modern Reputation of Superhero Fiction

  1. How did I miss this blog!

    Great read – really interesting to hear that Loki was that way in the comics (I’ve only ever seen the films) and a shame they skated over that. It certainly would have felt closer to his real Norse influence.

    The Boys was amazing, probably the most fun I’ve had with a superhero thing in ages. And quite chilling too…

    Liked by 1 person

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