From lo-fi to 'huge properties', the superhero lives on
With not only Batman and Spider-Man returning to multiplexes this summer, but the arrival of all-star superhero troupe The Avengers, too, movies about masked crime-fighters seem as big a draw as ever.
But a new breed of superpowered upstarts are lining up to take on the A-listers on both film and television. They rarely wear capes, or brightly coloured underwear ... and don't seem too worried about saving the world, either.
Released this week, Chronicle is a modest-budget sci-fi movie about three Seattle teenagers who are mysteriously granted the powers of telekinesis, flight and invulnerability. Using the now-ubiquitous found-footage format (The Blair Witch Project), the movie sees the youths first using their new abilities for their own amusement - such as bringing a teddy bear "to life" in a toy shop to frighten a young girl - but soon discovering they have the potential for far more dangerous activities.
"Chronicle was written very much intending to be an antidote to all of the other superhero movies," its writer Max Landis (son of filmmaker John) told the Comic Book Movie website. "I wrote [it] specifically to show ... that a movie about people with powers doesn't have to be the way it's been presented so far. It can be something character-based. Chronicle is closer to Carrie than Captain America."
Lo-fi superhero tales are not exactly new, however. Debuting in 2009 and now on its third series, the UK comedy-drama Misfits sees a group of delinquents receive superpowers while on community service. More through accident than intent, the gang are forced to kill more than one of their probation workers, as well as fend-off werewolves and even zombie cheerleaders, while addressing their own personal problems, too.
Like Chronicle, the show deconstructs the superhero genre for a generation that has been bombarded with more men in capes than perhaps any other, while at the same time embracing it. Misfits has now not only become a cult hit stateside, but the wheels are in motion for a US TV remake. In the last year, yet another lo-fi superhero tale has screened on the US network NBC, The Cape. The show, which was cancelled in March after receiving a mixed critical reception and weak ratings, saw a man without any superpowers use theatrical tricks (such as smoke bombs and knife-throwing) in his fight against crime.
Unpacking the tropes of the superhero genre and challenging its characters' long-standing moral superiority has been common practice in comic books since at least the release of 1986's Watchmen. But although Alan Moore's magnum opus showed that masked avengers would likely be narcissistic, or even psychopathic, in real life, it took a different story to suggest they could be just like us. Kick-Ass, created by Mark Millar in 2008 and adapted for film in 2010, was the story of an normal US teenager who sets out to become a superhero and, unsurprisingly, is hospitalised after his first crime-fighting attempt.
"With comic books going digital, you can now launch a title without getting a publisher. So like lots of other media, comics are opening-up to people who have new ideas," says Arafaat Ali Khan, the director of public relations for the Middle East Film and Comic Con, a convention to be held in Abu Dhabi next year. "I think that trend for innovation is seeping on to the big screen and television, too, now."
Although not exactly lo-fi, even comics' most exalted hero, Superman, has been given a subdued makeover in recent months. In the hands of legendary writer Grant Morrison, the Man of Steel has been reimagined in DC's new Action Comics series as a younger, warier hero, who has yet to fully grasp the power of flight. Morrison describes the tale as Clark Kent's journey from being "an outlaw to the world's first superhero".
But for all the attempts to tone down comic book characters across comics, TV and film, it's still the most bombastic portrayals that draw the largest audiences - as this summer's movie release schedules makes clear.
"The big ones are still going really well. The Avengers is obviously going to be huge and the biggest will be The Dark Knight Rises, says Joe Gordon, blog editor at the comic retailer Forbidden Planet International.
"But the important thing to remember is that all these characters were once little-known, perhaps even somewhat lo-fi, creations. They were nurtured and became the huge properties that they are today."
Updated: February 1, 2012 04:00 AM