From Superman telling children to save their scrap metal to help defeat the Nazis to Iron Man vowing to help protect the people who protect him, the superhero has become a permanent fixture of the American consciousness.
With the summer box-office success of "The Avengers" and the highly anticipated third and final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, "The Dark Knight Rises," now in theaters, superhero movies are likely to be on the marquee for quite some time.
“Most of our cultural icons are very impermanent,” says Jake Wyatt, a professional comic book writer and artist. “Aside from Mickey Mouse and certain characters from fairy tales there aren’t any lasting cultural icons.
“I would wager that not a lot of people would recognize a picture of FDR, but everyone knows the bat symbol — everyone."
With planned releases of "Iron Man 3," as well as recently announced sequels to "Thor," "Captain America," "The Avengers" and Zack Snyder’s reboot of the Superman series, "Man of Steel," one thing is for certain — not only are superhero movies popular, they are here to stay.
“It’s cool to have heroes you grew up with and that were on your underpants,” says Wyatt.
Merchandising rights aside, one of the reasons Wyatt says superhero films are doing so well is because not only are they recognizable, but they can be easily repackaged.
“Batman can be Adam West with cardboard ears and really kid friendly and campy and he can also be the dark Christopher Nolan thing,” says Wyatt. “It got popular once, and people have continued to mine that property.”
While audiences may know these characters well, familiarity is not the only way of getting people into the theater. Visuals have become a huge part of selling superhero movies. Wyatt says 50 percent of selling a superhero movie is about the visual spectacle of it all.
“Batman didn’t have any superhero powers, but they packed 'The Dark Knight' full of as many stunts, and car chases and flying scenes as they possibly could,” says Wyatt. “They do their best to compensate for Batman not being super.”
Visual spectacle has prompted an escalating race between movie franchises to see who can do awesome better.
“It’s getting harder and harder for these guys to stay on top of their game and be unique, so they end up pushing the visuals farther and farther,” says Wyatt.
But Wyatt says the race to see who can push visual boundaries has had some terrific results. He cites the recent Iron Man films, which he says are better choreographed and executed than some of the films that kicked off the superhero craze.
“If you go back and watch the first X-Men movie, the money shot was Wolverine sticking his claws in this guy ... and doing a 360 degree flip and landing on a seat after getting knocked off,” says Wyatt. “That is so hokey and just a bad idea. Things are a lot more smoothly run now because they have to be to impress."
Impressive visuals can help a film, but more and more, studios are learning visuals alone don’t always guarantee huge box office returns.
“Most people will tell you, ‘Well, I thought the effects were really cool’ or ‘Ya, the movie looked really good, but I didn’t like it,’ ” says Anthony Holden, a storyboard artist for LAIKA. “ ‘I didn’t like it’ is usually a result of ‘I didn’t care about the characters.’ ”
Name recognition and stunning visual effects may get people into theater seats, but the story is what keeps them there, Holden says. When people say they "did or didn’t like the movie," usually what they are getting at is they "did or didn’t connect with the movie," he says.
“There’s a guy named Wolverine, he has metal claws, they come out of his hands and he gets really angry and fights people. That’s not very interesting,” says Holden. “It’s up to the writers to come up with a concept and a conflict to put that guy in to make me want to watch his story for more than the two seconds where I’m like, ‘Oh cool, claws come out of his fingers!’ ”
With franchises like Nolan’s Batman and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man series, one could argue that superhero movies lend themselves to being written better.
“It’s like a soup starter,” says Holden. “You open up the can and pull Iron Man out and you pull everything you like from it and you sprinkle in some of the new stuff.”
“These characters have flaws and we can relate to them,” says Ryan Woodward, who storyboarded for the last Spider-Man series. “They could have done that with 'Fantastic Four' or even 'Electra,' but they didn’t, and those were horrible movies.”
Perhaps what makes superheroes so “super” in the eyes of their followers is how incredibly ordinary they are.
“People like to watch these comic book movies because people who are ordinary do extraordinary things,” says Bryce Randle, an editor for Nickelodeon’s "Yo Gabba Gabba!"Comment on this story
“Most people tend to have something like a 'Batman moment' at some point in their lives,” says Wyatt. “We’ve all been wronged and the world has been unfair to all of us and we’d all like to set it right and we can sympathize with that notion. So even though the things Batman does are misguided — we get them."
He says that not only do we sympathize and relate to these superheroes, we get behind them, we project ourselves onto them because even though they are unrealistic, vamped up versions of anything we’ll ever be in this lifetime, they are still us.
“Everyone has felt like an outsider, so we fight for freedom with the X-Men,” says Wyatt. “We all need heroes we can get behind and hold onto.
“The superhero is an American invention. We grew up with them, they’re home grown. They’re American — we love them. I don’t think the rest of the world gets to have superheroes the way we do. Our biggest and best fantasy is saving the world and the rest of the world sees themselves as the rest of the world. And that’s the deal. They’re ours, they’re Americans.”