Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Things Look Good For Our Heroes

(Every now and then I try to come up with something that they'll link to in Meanwhile...)

It is a good time to be a fan of superheroes*.

I'm sure it hasn't escaped anybody's notice that superhero movies and TV shows are popular these days. I wanted to try to pin that trend down a little more thoroughly, though, so I spent some instructive time on Wikipedia trying to identify all the superhero movies and TV shows I could, and then arrange them by year. (I'd like to do the same thing with superhero novels sometime. Haven't done it yet, though.) And I came up with quite the little spreadsheet**. I'm sure I didn't catch everything; there are probably some that got past me, and there are certainly some that I included (or didn't include) that fall into a grey area***. But I think I got enough information to spot some patterns****.

First, I confirmed that right now we're being blitzed by superhero stuff. There have been approximately as many superhero movies released since Y2K as were released in the fifty years before that. And there hasn't been a TV season in years that featured fewer than six superhero shows.

Second, this wasn't the first such burst of superhero TV and movies. Small waves of superhero movies have been showing up since the '70s, and there have been three separate great ages of superhero TV shows (late '60s, late '70s-early '80s, and early '90s-present).

More details...

The first wave of superhero movies were mostly shorts and serials. As far as I can tell this wave started in the early '40s and continued, with gaps, until Superman and the Mole Men in 1951. Then that was it for superhero movies for a long time; the only one I could find between Superman and the Mole Men and Superman: The Movie in 1978 was the 1966 movie based on the Batman TV show. Superman and the Mole Men was also the predecessor for the first superhero TV show, The Adventures of Superman which ran from '52 through '58. The only other superhero I could find in movies or TV around this time was Mighty Mouse, whose movie shorts were put on TV by CBS in '55, and which stayed on the air for a really long time, albeit with not a whole lot of new material ever added.

But the real first wave of superhero TV shows was keyed by the Batman TV show. (Although Underdog preceded it by a season.) From 1966 through 1969, the discriminating superhero viewer could have chosen from the broadcast options of Batman, Underdog, Marvel Superheroes, The Adventures of Superboy, Birdman and the Galaxy Trio, The New Adventures of Superman, Captain Nice, Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Superman/Aquaman, The Batman/Superman Hour, and Mr. Terrific. Also, The Mighty Mouse Playhouse had a 'Mighty Heroes' segment with new superhero characters.

And then it was over. I suspect, because of what I can recall from a book of my acquaintance called Saturday Morning Fever, that this is because the networks were trying to appear more responsible and less violent, and the superhero material became a casualty of that. Anyway, for a few years in the early '70s it was Underdog or nothing. Then we got a season of Super Friends, and Hong Kong Phooey, and The Shazam/Isis Hour, but really not much until the second half of the decade.

The second wave of superhero movies was really more of a ripple. Superman, in 1978, was a great success and is still many people's favourite superhero movie, but it didn't bring a lot of movies behind it. It wasn't much of a precedent. It was followed by the comparably good Superman II in 1980, the not-quite-terrible Superman III in 1983, the wretched Supergirl in 1984 and the last dying gasp Superman IV: The Quest For Peace in 1987, but outside of the Superman franchise there just wasn't a lot else. There were a couple of superhero-comedies (Hero At Large, 1980; Condorman, 1981; Howard the Duck, 1986, if you want to count it) and a couple of grey-area superhero/monster movies (Swamp Thing, 1982; Toxic Avenger, 1985), but you couldn't really say that the superhero thing had caught on.

Not in theatres, anyway; the main impact of Superman was probably on TV. Just like Star Wars led to Battlestar Galactica, Superman gave some fuel to the second wave of superhero TV shows. Wonder Woman, Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl, Batman, the Hulk, Spider-Man and the Blue Falcon and Dynomutt all had shows before Superman's influence kicked in, but there were even more after that. I won't list them all, but Super Friends and Mighty Mouse came back, Plastic Man got his own show, the Fantastic Four had a show, The Greatest American Hero debuted in prime time... not only did Spider-Woman get her own show, but during this era (which ran from about 1976 to 1983), Spider-Man had three different TV shows.

And then it was over. Couldn't tell you why, but my personal recollection is that kids' cartoons were in really bad shape in the early-to-mid-'80s. I remember looking at the Saturday morning offerings one year and finding that the only show on there that wasn't just a half-hour-long commercial for something I didn't want was The Smurfs. (Also, apparently CBS drew back from their live-action prime-time superhero stuff because they didn’t want to be known as ‘the superhero network’. There should totally be a superhero network!) Anyway, the mid-'80s were a superhero wasteland for both TV and movies. Combining TV and movies, here's what was on offer from '83 to '87:

1983: Superman III, Automan
1984: Supergirl, Turbo Teen, Super Friends
1985: Toxic Avenger, Super Friends, Misfits of Science
1986: Howard the Duck
1987: Superman IV

Yuck. "The food was terrible, but at least the portions were small."

The TV scene actually picked up right after that; the '87-'88 season saw the debut of Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, Sable and the not-bad Canadian show My Secret Identity. We can call the '87-'92 period the overture to the third wave of superhero TV shows; in addition to the ones I just mentioned, these years also saw Captain Planet, Darkwing Duck and shows for Superboy, Superman and the Flash.

I expected to see Tim Burton's Batman movie in '89 kick off a much larger third wave of superhero movies, but really it was kind of a sickly wave; it only looks good if you compare it to Superman's second wave. Like the second wave, the third wave featured sequels of decreasing quality (Batman Returns, 1992; Batman Forever, 1995; Batman and Robin, 1997), superhero/monster movies (sequels to the Swamp Thing and Toxic Avenger movies in '89 and 2001, Darkman in '90) and superhero parodies (Meteor Man in '93, Blankman in '94, Mystery Men in '99, The Specials in 2000). You could see attempts to kick off something larger with The Rocketeer in '91, with Blade in '98, with Unbreakable in '00 and especially with X-Men the same year, but it just wasn't happening yet.

The way I figure it, the key shows to start into the third wave of superhero TV shows were Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men, both in the '92-'93 season. Once they caught on, the deluge started, and it hasn't ended yet. The Adventures of Lois and Clark came on in '93-'94, and since '95-'96 there have been between 6 and 10 superhero shows on every year. Let's pick a sample year or two just to see what we had to choose from:

1996-'97: The Tick, The Adventures of Lois and Clark, X-Men, Superman: The Animated Series, Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Mask: The Animated Series, Freakazoid

2002-03: Birds of Prey, Powerpuff Girls, Mutant X, Smallville, X-Men: Evolution, Justice League, Static Shock, Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law, Spider-Man: The New Animated Series, Teamo Supremo

And I don't see any signs that the superhero shows are going away. In fact, with the success of Heroes last year, we may get more.

Meanwhile. The movie that finally pounded down the door for the fourth wave of superhero movies was 2002's Spider-Man. Now this was a real wave; it produced a lot of movies, and there are (to the extent that anything to do with the movie business can be predicted) more to come. Since Spider-Man, Marvel has inundated us with movies: two more for Spidey, one for the Hulk, two for Daredevil and Elektra, two more for the X-Men, two more for Blade, two for the Fantastic Four, one for the Punisher and even one for Ghost Rider. DC has been slower off the mark with Batman Begins and Superman Returns (and, I suppose, Catwoman and Constantine), and Dark Horse has scored with Hellboy. But note also The Incredibles, Sky High, Zoom, My Super Ex-Girlfriend and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D, which feature straight-ahead superhero characters not taken from comic books. It's just a lot of movies.

And it's happening at the same time as a lot of TV shows.

My advice: enjoy it while you can. Because if it lasts forever, it'll be one of the few things that ever has.


* In particular, it's a good time to be a fan of the Legion. DC is publishing two quite decent Legion comics every month, the TV show is entering its second season, there are obviously big plans for the Legion in titles like Supergirl and Countdown and Action Comics, it's the 50th anniversary of Adventure Comics #247 next year, and just recently I was able to walk into McDonald's and buy a Mano toy (the significance of which defies analogy). But I'm talking about superheroes in general.

** I'm sure that there are people, perhaps people reading this, who know much more about this stuff than I do. I'm not trying to set myself up as an authority here; I just looked at the information I could find easily to see what I could learn from it. Anyone who can clarify or correct anything I say here is welcome to do so.

*** And I didn't count TV-movies, which means I ignored some good material. And when I was counting TV shows, I tried to only count the seasons for which there were new episodes; reruns and repackagings kind of blur the issue a bit.

**** I won't have a whole lot to say about quality in this article. A lot of the stuff listed is, frankly, not very good. Some is terrible. If I mention that such-and-such show was on in a given year, I don't claim it was any good, just that it was there.

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Blogger Greybird said...

In the '66-to-'69 TV wave, you forgot the absurdity-filled delights of ... Super President.

(Actually, my brother and I have been trying to forget that one for about 40 years now. {g})

Useful cataloguing, though it suggested to me little more than the eternally recurrent cycles of Hollywood imitation, which mask a deep and enduring creative cowardice.

Superheroic tales' crowding of the screens will last until the current cycle of slicing and dicing blockbusters plays out, and no longer.

Unlike perennial lower-cost genres of drama, romance, high comedy, low comedy, and even Westerns, the CGI-laden fantasy and superhero tales will only bring together those armies of technicians as long as the mass audience is used to them - and that's always fickle. It's only us geeks who actually, enduringly want them.

I see only one potent, fertile area of crossover: The animation field has moved, after a 20-year transition period, to a permanent reliance on CGI. That creative arena, especially (though never exclusively) aiming its product at kids, is a perennial moneymaker that will keep said technical armies employed after the current superheroic cycle inevitably ends.

The infrastructure, in other words, won't go away fully after this go-round. It'll be kept up with SF franchises that will never die (such as Trek) and will be there when, say, Spidey 5 brings the spandex heroes back in, say, 2017. When it does, you'll be able to thank Shrek 6 for that.

3:50 AM  
Blogger Blue Tyson said...

Captain America and Punisher movies (the first one)?


12:20 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Greybird: Hadn't heard of that one.

I think I noticed more than you did, though; there were a couple of times when the movie- and TV-makers turned away from superheroes for reasons other than creative ones. And if the mass audience didn't always go for superheroes, let's face it: the quality has not always been there. Other than that I think you're quite right.

Blue Tyson: Those were TV-movies or direct-to-video, though, right? I wasn't keeping track of those.

11:38 PM  
Blogger Blue Tyson said...

The first Punisher movie was in cinemas, I doubt it for Captain America though.

9:42 AM  

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