Since Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster’s Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in the spring of 1938, superheroes have occupied an inexorably growing space in American popular culture to the point that superhero movies are now the dominant force in international box office and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. But we tend to see our world through a contemporary lens, and in so doing we forget that comic book characters leaping from the printed page to the silver screen is a phenomenon almost as old as Superman himself. The same stories have been constantly retold for new generations, so that images of Batman’s parents being gunned down in Crime Alley or an infant Superman crashing to earth in a Kryptonian space capsule are so ingrained in the cultural imagination that these mythic creation stories have attained folkloric status. Despite some of these characters now approaching 80 years old, they remain forever in amber, eternally of a certain age and status, even as the world around them rapidly changes. Their ongoing appeal is rooted in a universal desire for eternal youth and vigor and the ability to overcome mortal and corporeal limitations.
And the idea of superheroes’ appeal being universal is important not just culturally, but financially. Indeed, the international appeal of superheroes is why these four characters have been chosen by Time Warner (which owns DC Comics) and the Walt Disney Company (which owns Marvel Comics) as the lynchpins around which to build multiple narrative film franchises, which themselves are merely the tip of an iceberg of ancillary products produced and distributed by the various subsidiary platforms of the monopolistic parent companies. This conflagration of art and commerce has always been at the heart of the entertainment industry, and it’s no different here. But, perhaps more importantly, why have these companies pinned their commercial ambitions on these four characters? What is it about them? Batman’s comic books are top sellers, but Superman’s aren’t nearly as successful, Iron Man’s are even less so, and at the moment Captain America doesn’t even have a solo title. And they certainly aren’t reflective of the diversity that increasingly characterizes both American life and mainstream comic books.
But for better or worse, these characters are the yin and yang of the respective companies that hold their copyrights. As such, they are simultaneously representative of varying aspects of American culture and philosophically at odds with each other. Superman is a being of the light, a man whose power comes from the sun and who typically does what he’s asked to do by those in traditional positions of power. In contrast to his iconoclastic wiseacre persona, Iron Man is also a person who frequently acts in support of governmental desires. Conversely, Batman is a creature of the shadows that does everything short of killing to ensure his idea of justice is served, laws to the contrary be damned. Likewise, even though he was created in an era of overwhelming public support for the American government, since his “rebirth” in 1964, Captain America is much more interested in defending individual civil liberties than supporting actions of a government he believes to be in the wrong. The ongoing tension between these pairs of characters is central to their appeal; you can’t think of one without considering his relationship to the other. While these characters’ ideologies have shifted with the times through the varying eras of comic book history, their being in opposition to each other has remained constant as has comic book geeks reveling in the countless resulting conflicts. And the movies have followed suit as in the spring of 2016 these characters finally faced off on the big screen in DC Entertainment’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Marvel Entertainment’s Captain America: Civil War. Regardless of what happens in the subsequent films and comic books, it’s safe to assume that both mediums will reboot these characters ad infinitum and if history tells us anything it’s that audiences will keep coming back for more.