The 20th century needed a new group of heroes that reflected then-modern sensibilities. During the Golden Age of comic books, superheroes belonging to DC Comics (then named National Periodical Publications) such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman fulfilled this need with their wild superhuman exploits that captured the imagination. By the post-war era in America, DC’s superheroes were pretty much the standard: the Establishment.
By attempting to have the most likeable characters, DC’s superheroes had no character or emotional flaws, and the stories gravitated towards plot-driven, farcical adventures rather than character-driven stories.
In the wake of DC’s success, other comic book companies were founded and tried to emulate DC. Out of the many companies, only Timely Comics had staying power and here we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of that company that will later become Marvel Comics.
The Flawed, Science Heroes: Comics changed forever with the start of the so-called Marvel Age. The birth of the Marvel Universe took place in the early 1960s. This was a period that people were in awe with all of the wonders of science and space exploration. The Space Race and the Cold War were on the minds of the people. The Zeitgeist was the fear of the imminent Red Invasion and the Promise of Science- where will it take us?
The core of the first generation of Marvel superheroes were essentially Science Heroes. With the exception of Dr. Strange, the rest of the Marvel Universe was largely a world of weird science and science fiction. Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Captain America, Giant-Man, the Wasp and the Hulk were Radioactive Heroes. Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider. The astronauts from Reed Richard’s group were exposed to cosmic rays during their maiden voyage into outer space. In an unfortunate accident, Dr. Bruce Banner was hit with the full blast of Gamma Rays. Tony Stark built an electronic-laden armor with tons gadgets and abilities. Captain America was a patriotic hero that survived World War II by being frozen due to his exposure of Vita-Rays; part of the catalyst that transformed Steve Rogers from a skinny kid to an athletically proportioned hero. Giant Man and the Wasp benefitted from Hank Pym’s size magnification and reduction experiments, along with side studies in insect communication and gene splicing.
Great concepts- ahead of its time- but what made the Marvel Universe different, however, was not only the science aspect, but rather the fact that these Marvel heroes were emotionally flawed, imperfect, and fallible. Tragedy strikes as often as victories. Moral dilemmas were as large as the threat.
Spider-Man wins the battle with the big bad villain, but he can’t get enough money for his rent and he blew a date with either Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson. Captain America is back in the modern world, but he feels lost like a fish out of water. The X-Men have astounding abilities, but they are persecuted and feared by society, who view mutants as aberrations, and treat them as outcasts. The Fantastic Four’s Thing has great power, but he also has this great fear that his blind girlfriend Alicia won’t accept him if she ever regained her sight and found him ugly. But the Thing- AKA Ben Grimm, is very human despite his rough exterior, with a heart that endeared him to readers. Dr. Strange was a callous, money-loving jerk; a celebrity physician until a terrible traffic accident ended his career. This gave him pause to reflect and improve on his past behavior as he was now invested to learn the mystic arts to save the world from an ancient evil. And the list goes on and on with the great flaws that these characters have, but that is what made these characters appealing. That in particular was something that comic book readers became very attuned to, and why they identified with them.
Marvel Superheroes Have Joined The Pantheon Of World Heroic Folklore: The novelty concept of the Marvel Universe will one day fade away – everything new eventually becomes old. By understanding that something new cannot remain new forever, like all world legends – Marvel heroes will one day seem old to a future generation.
It may not be next year, or in five years, but in some distant year, decade or century perhaps, Marvel may become vintage and old fashioned. The same way we look at Greek mythology, the mythic folklore of the American cowboy and the Old West, Arthurian legends, the Samurai, the Mayan Gods, world mythology, etc.– even the Marvel Universe will one day seem ancient and vintage. When that happens, the next set of heroes will be influenced by Marvel not by perfectly imitating it, but being the next step. The new generations will one day forget how in the first decades of the 21st century Marvel heroes were the world’s foremost cinematic heroes. When that time comes, a new set of creators and a new set of stories will emerge, presenting a new set of heroes that the future generations will identify with in the backdrop of their own time and place, just as Marvel was a reflection of the heroes that the world wanted to see from the early 1960s onto today. One thing is for sure, there will be no future heroes if it wasn’t for the Marvel Universe.
Marvel Maintains Popularity By Crossing Over To Other media: Aside from comic books, Marvel dominates other media like toys, animated TV shows, live appearances, video games, and movies. Regarding the latter medium, The Avengers is one of the most successful movies of all time. The movie hit the right notes to die-hard fans and to general moviegoers. Many Marvel movies are big-budget epics that generated big profits and wide acceptance. Marvel movies are not afraid of humor- the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have great scripts, great characters, cast great actors who add a touch of needed humor and comedy relief. This is something which the DC Cinematic Universe seems very afraid to approach. DC was burned by Superman III, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies, and other flops where the humor was self-serving, cheesy, obvious, leaned toward marketing, and frankly, insulted the characters. In the Marvel movies, the humor is character driven and fits the situation in which the audience can relate.
A Shared, Faithful Universe Is The Key To Marvel’s Big-Screen Success : In the battle between “Marvel Studios” and “DC Entertainment”, it looks like Marvel is winning. Marvel superheroes have a more faithful interpretation on the big screen then DC movie superheroes. What’s more is that the films are interrelated to each other; characters like Nick Fury appear in more than one film and sell the notion that moviegoers are watching a larger universe. It is widely viewed that Marvel’s phase one movies leading up to The Avengers were more faithful interpretations of their comic book origins than DC’s interpretations of Batman and Superman. The Dark Knight Trilogy is great in its own right -especially the second movie The Dark Knight – but it has its own self-contained universe. On the other hand, Man Of Steel was a launching pad to open up the possibilities of other superheroes inhabiting the same universe as Superman.
As much as Warner Bros. wanted to create this powerhouse-umbrella-internal-department called DC Entertainment where anything related to superheroes in movies, video games, cartoons and comic books now work under one umbrella, it really didn’t do anything to create a shared cinematic universe as the fans in particular would’ve wanted.
Marvel and its parent company, The Walt Disney Company, have one big disadvantage when it comes to movies: Marvel has licensed out some other top properties to other movie studios. Fantastic Four and the X-Men have been licensed out to Fox. Spider-Man has been licensed out to Sony Pictures. But the rest of the fan-favorite characters like Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, and the rest of the Marvel characters including the Guardians of the Galaxy are still under Marvel Studios’ full control. But time will tell if Marvel will reacquire the film rights to their popular heroes.
As long as Marvel continues to have control over most of their properties, and know how to strike the right tone in their interrelated movies, Marvel will continue to be successful.
Marvel has been thriving for 75 years now to the point that it has firmly established its credentials for creating enduring and popular superheroes. Many of which are a permanent part of our culture.
Steven L. Walterson