The phenomenon continues. The newest Spider-Man movie (Spider-Man: Homecoming) is not only attracting huge crowds, the critics love it. Superheroes are a full-blown, worldwide, movie-and-TV genre, like Westerns were for 70 years. It was not always so.
There were always genres: gangster movies, musicals, war movies, TV detective shows. From the early 1900s to the early 1970s, thousands of Western stories flooded our movie theaters and then our living rooms. Little kids wore cowboy hats and flashed plastic six-shooters (I did). Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy had better name recognition than NFL quarterbacks or our president. Then Westerns “died.” The stories are still told, but infrequently: three stories a year, not three stories a day.
As an article in this month’s Film Comment points out, there had been smaller-scale attempts at bits of superhero storytelling, in newspaper comic strips, early fantastical films, in cheezy 1940s movie serials, and of course in mainstream comic books since the 1930s. But the superhero TV/movie genre didn’t truly start until the 1990s. Before that there were once-a-decade TV series (’50s Superman, ’60s Batman, Hulk, etc.), none really starting a firestorm of imitators. There were a handful of successful superhero movies per decade (a Superman, then a Batman, etc.). But they weren’t central to pop culture the way the movies are now. Think about it: There were more successful superhero TV shows this year than in the 50 years of television from 1940 to 1990.
Then Fox Kids Network, under the leadership of Margaret Loesch and Sidney Iwanter, changed popular culture. I know, because I was there. While writing the book about the making of X-MEN:TAS (out this fall!) I was struck at the before-and-after of audio-visual superhero storytelling. Before Fox greenlighted Batman:TAS and X-MEN:TAS and Spider-Man:TAS and The Tick, Hollywood never thought seriously about superhero stories. The sporadic Saturday morning efforts were throwaways that most comics fans hated. Then there was 1990s Fox Kids TV.
Suddenly adults were watching cartoons on Saturday mornings. Kids were dressing as Wolverine on Halloween. But most importantly, Hollywood could see how superheroes could be the focus of ambitious adult movies and television series. The floodgates opened, and the popular culture of a new millennium was forever changed. For those, like the Film Comment writer, who are ambivalent or unsure about this development, I say that heroism is heroism, however costumed. And, if you look back at Westerns, almost all of the great ones came out during the last 30 years of their genre’s run after 40 years of practice. Which may mean that the best superhero movies and TV are yet to come. Exciting thought.
Fox Kids Network cartoons change popular culture: Just ask these guys.