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What Impact have Superheroes had on American Popular Culture?
Look at any young child's shirt or lunchbox, and there is a good chance it is the face of some sort of superhero. Look at the movie theaters and there is a good chance that a movie about a superhero has been released recently. These superheroes are everywhere in American society, so what impact do they have on popular culture, television, cinema, and the youth of America? The answer to this question can be found through a study of the histories of Batman and Superman, two of the most successful superheroes of all time. Looking at the multiple major motion pictures and television series, I will analyze what kind of an impact they have made on the American culture, looking at the mass marketing for the films, the merchandise marketed to children and young adults, and how the characters have evolved with American culture.
I chose to do an analysis of Batman and Superman's effect on American culture, because they have both had an enormous impact on me through their major films, comic books, cartoon series and action figures. Even though the characters are fictional, they have become real to me, and I look up to them as the heroes they are in the comic books and movies.
In conclusion to the research I did, I found that Batman and Superman have infiltrated every major form of entertainment in America, except for the music industry. Each superhero has developed some sort of cult following at conventions around the world.
Probably every person that has ever seen or read about a superhero has imagined himself or herself in that role. People have pretended to possess incredible and amazing super powers, and with these powers they see themselves soaring across the city skyline, swooping down to stop a robbery or save a kitten stuck in a tree. Using that tremendous power, they would be able to avert natural disasters and save the innocent bystanders from certain destruction. But even if nobody has any of these supernatural abilities, there could still be superheroes because most of what it takes to be a superhero is the will to step up and do the right thing when no one else is willing to. With this fascination of Superheroes in mind, what way have superheroes had an impact on popular culture, television, cinema, and the youth of America? People look up to superheroes to the extent that the public idolizes these heroes.
Superheroes have had a great impact on American culture. Over the many decades since their creation, billions of dollars have been spent on the superhero industry of comic books, movies, and television (Box Office Mojo). Americans spend millions of dollars on movies, comics, and costumes of their favorite heroes because they love those superheroes. Perhaps no two superheroes prove this point as much as Superman and Batman. They are among the oldest and most successful, longest running superheroes. People look to these heroes for inspiration, protection, and hope. Superman, for example is the extreme of what normal humans wish they could do, to have superpowers and do the extraordinary. Also known as The Man of Steel, The Last Son of Krypton, and The Man of Tomorrow, Superman is the last survivor of Krypton, a doomed planet on the verge of destruction. His father wanted a chance for the child to have a life and placed the infant into a spaceship and sent him to Earth to live among humans. He crash landed on Earth and was found by an older, childless couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent, and they adopted him and raised him as their son, Clark. To the Kents' surprise they soon discovered that the boy was not like any normal child, performing great feats of strength, speed, and power. The Kents, along with messages left from Superman's real father, taught him to be responsible with the abilities he possessed, and once he had grown up, the boy from a distant galaxy donned some blue tights and a red cape and became the Man of Steel America knows and loves today. The Superman character is appealing because he is constantly portrayed as the savior of mankind. Superman's alter ego Clark Kent lives and works in the fictional Metropolis, a representation of the real world's New York City, holding a job as a reporter for The Daily Planet newspaper (Daniels 21).
Batman on the other hand has a different background and is somewhat more realistic than Superman, because the Batman persona is attainable by anyone who has ever wanted to exact justice on a wrong committed against him or her. He is also sometimes referred to as the Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader, and sometimes just "the Bat" for short. Batman is, in reality, just an ordinary man, a billionaire named Bruce Wayne, who, as a seven year old boy, saw his parents brutally murdered right in front of him in cold blood and felt that his their deaths were somehow his fault. He pursued justice by "[vowing] over their graves to fight a war on crime," and in his adult years dedicated the rest of his life to fighting crime as what would become possibly the most famous vigilante ever (Greenberger 26). Batman's goal is to "show the people of Gotham that their city does not belong to the criminals and the corrupt"(Batman Begins). To do this he used his immense wealth and resources to fashion costumes, vehicles, and gadgets to complete his transformation into a symbol to be feared by the criminal underworld, and uses this fear as an asset. Bruce Wayne is "a man…flesh and blood that can be ignored, that can be destroyed, "but Batman is a symbol, a symbol that is "incorruptible…indestructible…something terrifying, something elemental" (Batman Begins). While Batman does not possess any extra human physical abilities, he makes up for this by complementing his natural abilities with his use of highly developed detective, physical, and technological skills. Batman is extremely skilled in hand to hand combat, having trained in various martial arts to the peak of human physical abilities. In addition to his own physical abilities, Batman is a master of combining stealth, surprise, force and his gadgets to overcome his opponents, often taking on several at a time (Greenberger, 31). These qualities of make Batman easier to relate to for people because while he is the bane of the criminal underworld, underneath the mask, he is just an ordinary man, just like anyone else.
These superheroes have impacted our society increasingly over the last seventy years. Starting off in comic books, Superman and Batman have proceeded to conquer all of the realms of popularity: radio, television, cartoons, and major motion pictures. In 1938 Superman was introduced to the world by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster in Action Comics #1. Superman' s success lead to his appearance in the Sunday morning paper, and he eventually leapt out from the pages of comic books onto the air waves, starting with short stories aimed towards young audiences titled The Superman Radio Adventures (Daniels 66). While the radio stories allowed fans to listen to Superman in action, the writers looked to expand the Superman franchise further and the visuals the comics added to the radio and in 1941 Superman came to life with the Superman cartoon series, once again directed mainly towards children (Daniels 57). In the 1950s Superman came to television in the form of The Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves. The show was a commercial success, airing for six seasons and entertaining children and adults for years after its cancellation with its' syndication. In 1966 Superman tried to make an appearance on Broadway in the short-lived musical, It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman, but the musical was not well received by the public, who believed it to be a good idea, but were disappointed in its poorly executed manner. The Man of Steel went on to land his biggest role yet, in the 1978 major motion picture Superman, starring Christopher Reeves, who went on to star in three sequels and renewed the character's appeal to that generation and grow Superman's fan base. In 2006 Superman returned to the major motion picture scene with the release of Superman Returns. Superman Returns went on to gross almost $400 million worldwide in the box office (Box Office Mojo).
Several television series have been introduced over the years, each one giving a deeper connection to Superman. Lois and Clark: the Adventures of Superman ran on ABC from 1993 to 1998 and focused more on Clark Kent and his life's relationships with Lois Lane, his main love interest than with his alter ego. The show gained its popularity because it gave a more focused look into Clark's life which was more relatable to viewers, rather than into Superman's. Superman appeared on television again in Superman: The Animated Series (later called The New Superman Adventures) ran on the WB Network from 1996 until its finish in 2000. This animated cartoon series was aimed towards children, as it was aired in the children's portion of programming for the WB network, Kids WB as one of the Saturday morning cartoons. The most modern take of Superman on television came with Smallville, taking a new spin on Superman's history, and focuses on Clark's life before becoming Superman. This series began in 2001 and began its final season in the fall of 2010. In some author's views, this point in Superman's life is when he took on the role of Superboy, a younger version of the Man of Steel. The show ignores that storyline and takes its inspiration from the 1986 version of Superman created by artist John Byrne wherein Clark discovers his powers in the onset of puberty while he is in high school, rather than as a child and is forced to face the reality of his powers as well as problems that most current high school students deal with and can relate to (Daniels 57, 66, 146, 147, 174, 175, 236, 237, 262, 263).
Batman also has a similar publication history in comparison with Superman. Batman made his first appearance in 1939 in issue number 27 of Detective Comics. Batman's popularity led to his appearance in short film serials showing on Saturdays for kids in the early 1940s. These shows were very low budget and were somewhat of a joke by today's standards but nevertheless these episodes featuring poor costumes and redundant plot lines with the caped crusader satisfied the wants of the people of the 1940s. Batman made his way onto television in 1966 in the iconic Batman series starring Adam West in the title role. The series was more of a spoof of the Dark Knight, but the show's popularity with the public rapidly grew, but was cancelled in 1968, falling as fast as it had risen. The only thing that had kept this series on air for three seasons was the fact that it was loved by children. Batman reappeared on television with Batman: The Animated Series, a successful shot at portraying the Dark Knight in a more kid-friendly version. This show introduced Batman to a new generation of children, who would be the ones to go see the future films as teenagers and young adults.
Batman's biggest breakthrough came in 1989 when Tim Burton's blockbuster film Batman took the nation by storm, exploding Batman's popularity, and introducing him to a new generation and redefining Batman in the film media. This take on Batman was darker than any of his previous incarnations, especially Adam West's comical version, and it brought about a new side of the hero that gave Batman a dark and more mysterious edge. The 1992 sequel, Batman Returns, continued with the dark, ominous overtones of Batman and Gotham City portrayed in the first film, but took them to a deeper and darker level. Two more films followed in the series, Batman Forever in 1995 and Batman and Robin in 1997, both less successful than the first two. The major shift in the third and fourth films was the departure of the prominent serious, darker themes in favor of creating more of a family film, replacing the dark with comical overtones, "trying to find the humor in every situation," director Joel Schumacher commented. These last two movies were not well received by the public, leading to Batman's disappearance from the theatres until 2005 in the blockbuster Batman Begins. This movie marked the revamping of the Batman film franchise, giving the public the Dark Knight's origins in full for the first time. This movie continued with the darker themes of Batman and Batman Returns but takes them to a more realistic level with Gotham City under the control of crime lords and drug monopolies. This new version of Gotham City reflects all of the darkest parts of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago and other major cities in the United States all rolled into one massive, trouble ridden city (Daniels 140, 250, 251). Overall these six Batman films grossed over $2.6 billion worldwide in the box office; with over one billion coming from The Dark Knight alone (Box Office Mojo). This figure does not factor in all of the other merchandise produced for these films, including promotional materials, toys, and apparel.
Batman and Superman have had their faces put onto everything imaginable to market their characters. From lunchboxes, backpacks, action figures, Halloween costumes, merchandise bearing the two heroes is everywhere. Most of The statue in Metropolis. this merchandise is directed towards children and younger adults. During the build up to the premiere of The Dark Knight, T-shirts featuring the Joker's famous line in the movie: "Why so serious?" began to flood department stores and become a staple in youth fashion, if only for a few months. The town of Metropolis IL is an example of how much Superman has had an impact on society. Metropolis has a giant statue of Superman on Main Street and has been named by DC Comics the official "Hometown of Superman." Metropolis also commemorates its fictional counterpart by holding the annual Superman convention in June, where people gather from all across the United States to celebrate the Man of Steel.
Perhaps nowhere is the public obsession with superheroes more evident than in the many conventions held each year. At these conventions, people pour in by the thousands, many in full dress to represent their favorite superhero. As an example one convention, New York Comic Con, recorded over 77,000 comic book fans in attendance at the 2009 convention (New York Comic Con). These fans spend thousands of dollars on various memorabilia, from movie props and costumes to the original editions of comic books. They devote a good part of their lives to support the industry that gave the public their superheroes. People believe in the superheroes because they are the saviors of the world, the ones the people trust to catch us when they are falling, and save their lives. Ordinary people can relate to superheroes because "they're like us, but with something extra. We ponder what it would be like to be them" (Rosenberg). There is a sense about superheroes where people look at them and say, "That could be me" because the heroes are going through the same problems that many people face.
Our society has been infected in every way with the superhero craze. This obsession with fictional people has infected the population, and we have looked to the Superheroes to feed our addiction. We love them because they are better than ourselves and they can make the choices we aren't able to. Superman chooses to save people because he knows he can and should because of his superhuman abilities, while Batman punished criminals because he has a need for justice and is willing to take the extra step to get things done because he knows it is the right thing to do. Superheroes give us the opportunity to jump out of our own lives and fantasize about being someone else, someone with power, someone that can make a difference. Superheroes might not be logical in their super abilities, but they embody the moral desire to do the right thing, and they symbolize the good in all of us. People have taken Superman and Batman and accepted them into society as one of their own, and given them a special respect and honor that comes with the power of good. Few real people, if any have had their life displayed in so many movies, television shows, cartoons, and comic books. This is how superheroes have impacted American society, by giving people something more that themselves to believe in.
Batman Begins. Dir. Christopher Nolan. By Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer. Prod. Larry J. Franco. Perf. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, and Katie Holmes. Warner Brothers, 2005. DVD.
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The Complete History. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998. Fingeroth, Danny.
Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society. New York: Continuum, 2004.
Greenberger, Robert. The Essential Batman Encyclopedia. New York: Del Rey Books, 2008.
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