Hollywood Goes Geek as Super Heroes Soar on the Silver Screen


Robert Downey, Jr. stars in Marvel Entertainment’s summer smash, “Iron Man” as engineering genius-turned-super hero Tony Stark. (Paramount Pictures/MCT)

Published: August 28, 2008

Kapow! Wham! Bonk! Holy box office returns, Batman!

Luckily for us, the age of Adam West’s campy Batman is over. Today, the comic book genre of film is being revitalized by more mature movies like “The Dark Knight” and “Iron Man.”

“Iron Man” was the first movie of the year to break the $300 million domestic mark at the box office. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” followed soon after; “The Dark Knight” soared past the mark after little more than a week in theaters. “Hancock” and even “Wall-E” have made more than $200 million, and “The Incredible Hulk” made just over $100 million.

There’s something compelling about these heroes, and anti-heroes, that the American public just cannot resist. Not all of these films got positive reviews from the critics—but box office numbers don’t lie.

Kids love the vibrant visuals and simple “good guy always beats the bad guy” morality. But adults, too, enjoy the increasing complexity of the characters starring in these flicks and the reality of the moral dilemmas they must face.

The grittiness of Christian Bale’s Batman and the swaggering, borderline-alcoholic Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr. brings to life did not develop overnight. Super hero comics have been around for about 70 years now (Superman made his first appearance in 1938). Since then, comic books have evolved into a serious creative medium. As the decades have passed, the strictly G-rated funny books have gotten serious, forcing librarians worldwide to enter the term “graphic novel” into their card catalogs.

In the 1980s, comics creators like Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman transformed the genre into a significant literary and artistic presence in American pop culture. Now, we are seeing yet another revolution in the history of comic books. Just how “Watchmen” made the mainstream media take notice of super heroes, so are movies like “Iron Man,” “The Dark Knight” and “Hancock” bringing super heroes into the public awareness as more than just two-dimensional childhood memories.

Comics fans are noticing this evolution, too. Christine Morano, FCLC ’09 and Literary Editor, an avid comics fan, says, “I definitely think that the media has been steadily maturing—‘Watchmen’ in the 1980s was a turning point for comics as a medium. I think more geeky [TV] shows like ‘Heroes,’ ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and even ‘Lost’ have such a large following because for the first time we’re seeing a mature blending of genre fiction with the ungenre.”

It goes beyond what the fans want and need, though—the talent, too, is eager to jumpstart the genre into high gear. “There’s a whole slew of young directors…[and] actors who have been weaned on comics like [Frank Miller’s] ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ and [Neil Gaiman’s] ‘Sandman’ who [now] want to make comic book movies,” said Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada when contacted by The Observer. Indeed, Zack Snyder, director of “300,” has expressed his passion for the source material of his upcoming “Watchmen” in many interviews. Robert Downey, Jr. loved the Iron Man character so much that he would not give up hope about landing the role, even after having been turned down by Marvel Studios several times, as he recalls in an interview from the Aug. 21 issue of Rolling Stone.

“Nerd culture has become sexy,” observes Quesada. Perhaps this is “reaction to the macho remarks (e.g. ‘Bring it on,’ etc.) of our current President, disillusionment with athletes on steroids, embarrassment about our military failures around the world, and other hyper-masculine failures in our current culture,” suggests Michael Tueth, S.J., a communications and media studies professor at FCLC. If these observations are true, then it seems likely that the geeks of the world will play an influential role in American culture in the years to come.

Will this popularization of geekdom continue into the future, or will the general public lose interest with the realm of comics as our pop culture becomes more saturated with super heroes and their comics counterparts?

One way or the other, this writer thinks American moviegoers are in for quite a shock come next March, when “Watchmen” will hit theaters across the globe. Just as the graphic novel changed the world’s perspective on comics more than 20 years ago, so, hopefully, will the movie version keep Americans craving more from the world of spandex and superpowers.