Birds, Plaines, Supermen
My affection for comic book movies actually has little to do with the printed pages themselves. Like other youngsters, I grew up reading comics and had my favorite heroes (Silver Surfer was my guy), but I was always more of a casual fan. I never got into the collecting side of things or memorized the Marvel/DC universes inside and out, but when these larger than life characters started getting proper big-screen adaptations, then I was really sold. But little do many fans of the costumed crusader's resurgence realize this is just the next phase in the comic book's evolution, which PBS has compellingly chronicled in its latest documentary, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle.
Hosted by Liev Schreiber, Superheroes dedicates three fast-paced hours to tracing the comic book from its humble roots in the good ol' days to the multimedia juggernaut it is now. "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" begins with the debut of the game-changer: Action Comics #1, featuring the inaugural appearance of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman. With the Man of Steel's collected adventures a rousing success, a new genre was born, with companies hoping for a piece of the pie with their own crimebusting line-ups. "Great Power, Great Responsibility" picks up in the late '50s, with the industry growing accustomed to the Comics Code Authority dictating what can or can't be printed. But it wasn't long before artists and writers began instilling their work with social commentary, earning admiration from readers for relating their fantastic creations to the real world. Finally, "A Hero Can Be Anyone" lays out how the medium became what we know it as today, with blockbuster films like Tim Burton's Batman and adult-oriented books like "Watchmen" showing that comics are capable of more than simply distracting kids.
Although a truly comprehensive look at the history of comics would require a running time thrice as long, Superheroes delivers enough highlights to catch the uninitiated up to speed. This documentary touches on most of the big events, from the government's reaction to violent imagery in the '50s to the '90s speculator boom resulting in a deluge of "collector's editions" that no one really cared about. Because most of the film's attention is paid to publishing big guns DC and Marvel, a lot of these stories will be very familiar to fans who perhaps hoped for more obscure players in the business to get some screen time.
That said, Superheroes still gets a wealth of information across without feeling too dry or academic. Each of its segments are colorful, easily digestible, and filled with talking heads who have their own anecdotes to share. Among the interviewees are the usual suspects, including Marvel's Stan Lee and "Wonder Woman" star Lynda Carter, but plenty of artists and historians are onhand to imbue the proceedings with a personal touch. As much as the business today is focused on merchandising and brand management as on actually making comics, it's clear the participants still have the enthusiasm they did as children clutching onto their dog-eared issues of "Spider-Man."
Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle shows that while masked avengers as we know them have only been around a relatively short while, they've made quite an impact in that time. While the documentary could've gone into more detail and explored lesser-known facets of this world (and yes, it is weird saying a three-hour movie isn't long enough), the film tackles what it does with energy and a real sense of interest. If you're in the market to learn how the likes of Batman and Iron Man became the great cultural myths of our time, then Superheroes makes for a heck of an origin story.
(Released by PBS; not rated by MPAA.)