S.G. Browne is the author of the novels Less Than Hero, Big Egos, Lucky Bastard, Fated, and Breathers, as well as the novella I Saw Zombies Eating Santa Claus and the eBook short story collection Shooting Monkeys in a Barrel. He lives in San Francisco. You can learn more about his writing at www.sgbrowne.com.
by SG Browne
I wasn’t a big fan of books as a kid. The Phantom Tollbooth, a little Frog and Toad Together, and whatever else I had to read to fulfill my elementary school requirements was more or less the extent of my bookish side. Libraries made me break out in a rash. The cult of television was where I prayed and played. When I did flex my literary muscles, I read comic books. However, my tastes didn’t run toward Superman, Spider-Man, or The Fantastic Four. Instead, I read Casper and Hot Stuff and Richie Rich, the poor little rich boy.
And yes, in case you’re wondering, I’ve already turned in my Man Card.
So growing up I didn’t read about superheroes. Instead, I watched them on TV. The Super Friends and Spider-Man cartoons, Underdog, and The New Adventures of Batman were among my favorites. And, of course, I loved the original live-action Batman series, which I obviously watched in syndication.
But overall, superheroes weren’t a major influence in my life. I didn’t pretend to be Superman or play with Batman action figures or dress up as Spider-Man for Halloween. These caped crusaders and defenders of justice existed in the background of my world, like cousins or relatives you never see and don’t really think about but who you enjoy spending time with when they’re around.
That was then. This is now. And as fate would have it, I’ve gone and written a novel about superheroes called Less Than Hero about a group of professional human guinea pigs who test experimental drugs in Phase I clinical trials and develop unusual side effects. While the protagonists in my novel aren’t your classic comic book superheroes, they still have something in common with the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. But considering my relative indifference to superheroes when I was a kid, how did I get here from there?
Like everyone else my age, I saw Superman starring Christopher Reeve in 1978 and its early-to-mid-80s follow-ups, along with Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 and its slew of sequels that ended, painfully and mercifully, in 1997. I enjoyed the first couple of films in each series and would watch them again with pleasure, but I’ve never found them particularly inspiring or original from a storytelling perspective. While Richard Donner and Tim Burton are arguably the progenitors of the superhero genre as cinematic blockbuster, their original Superman and Batman films are fairly standard hero-saves-the-city/world-from-an-evil-mastermind/villain plots. Take away the costumes and the supernatural abilities and you pretty much have a James Bond movie.
Then, in 1999 and 2000, I saw three films that changed the way I thought about superheroes: 1) Mystery Men; 2) X-Men; and 3) Unbreakable.
Mystery Men appealed to me because of the humor and the absurdity, but also because the superheroes weren’t your classic caped crusaders. They weren’t super humans from another planet or billionaires blessed with physical prowess and technical ingenuity. They were just regular people with odd talents who wanted to make a difference.
X-Men drew me in with a cast of characters who I found to be both complex and compelling. But of even more significance, the analogy of prejudice and discrimination throughout the film lent a sense of pathos and gravitas that resonated with me and was missing from the original Superman and Batman films.
Finally, Unbreakable introduced me to a superhero who doesn’t know he’s a superhero and who has spent his entire life unaware of his abilities. The gradual discovery of who he is and what he’s capable of doing, along with the subplot of Mr. Glass, hooked me from a storytelling standpoint and made me appreciate the slow burn of the film.
Admittedly, I’ve never read the comic books or graphic novels upon which any of the superhero films are based, so I’m sure there’s a lot of complexity to the characters and storylines that are lost in translation to film. And while I appreciate the tragedies that motivated Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker to don their masks and fight criminals, Mystery Men, X-Men, and Unbreakable showed me that superhero films could be more than just action-packed thrill rides filled with explosions and special effects.
Not that there’s anything wrong with explosions and special effects. I enjoy a good popcorn superhero film as much as the next person. And lately, there have been plenty to enjoy.
Since 2002, there have been 65 superhero films released theatrically in the United States, allowing fans to get their superhero geek on an average of five times a year over that span. (I’ve seen 42 of those 65 and I have to say that Kick-Ass, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the X-Men prequels were my favorite of the bunch.) Compare that to the 23-year period from 1978 to 2000, when just 30 superhero films were released for an average of 1.3 films per year.
With another 30 superhero films slated to hit the theaters over the next six years and a dozen superhero-themed shows either currently in production or development for cable and streaming television, it’s obvious that we’re in the middle of a superhero orgy. Okay, maybe “orgy” is a little strong, although we are talking about the Man of Steel and The Fantastic Four…
But no matter your favorite superhero—whether you’re DC or Marvel, Batman or Superman, Avengers or X-Men—now is the time to be a fan. Yes, there are the inevitable clunkers (Catwoman, Daredevil, Superman Returns) and sometimes it seems as if the directors have sacrificed any meaningful character development for superfluous action sequences and CGI wizardry (Man of Steel, The Green Lantern, X-Men: The Last Stand). But then there are gems like Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and X-Men: Days of Future Past that redeem our faith in Hollywood’s ability to make a good superhero film. Or at least my faith.
I’m sure there are a lot of hard-core comic book fans who are constantly disappointed by Hollywood’s reimagining of the source material. Film is obviously more of a visual medium than print, even comics, and when you’re talking superhero films, story often gets sacrificed for action and special effects. Hey, it’s what sells overseas and Hollywood is all about making money. But sometimes, with the right actors, writers, and director, Hollywood gets it right. Or as close to right as they can.
Which brings me to my favorite superhero. Or, in this case, superheroes.
Out of all the superhero franchises that fill the movie houses each year—from Iron Man to Captain America to the Spider-Man and Superman reboots—the franchise that stands out to me as head and shoulders above the rest is X-Men (minus, of course, The Last Stand). The complexity of the characters and their relationships with one another, the history they’ve shared and created, and the social commentary on prejudice and discrimination that is woven into the narrative combine to make it the cream of the superhero crop.
Your mileage, of course, may vary.