Superhero Worship

Once the province of Garbo and Astaire, movie glamour now comes from Superman, Spider-Man, and Storm.

The Atlantic , October 2006

When Superman debuted in 1978, it invented a whole new movie genre—and a new kind of cinematic magic. Today, hundreds of millions of dollars depend on the heroic box-office performances of costumed crusaders whom Hollywood once thought worthy only of kiddie serials or campy parodies. The two Spider-Man movies rank among the top ten of all time for gross domestic receipts, and X-Men: The Last Stand and Superman Returns are among this year’s biggest hits.

Superhero comics have been around since Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer ruled the back lot, but only recently has Hollywood realized the natural connection between superhero comics and movies. It’s not just that both are simultaneously visual and verbal media; that formal connection would apply equally to the “serious” graphic novels and sequential art that want nothing to do with crime fighters in form- fitting outfits. Cinema isn’t just a good medium for translating graphic novels. It’s specifically a good medium for superheroes. On a fundamental, emotional level, super­heroes, whether in print or on film, serve the same function for their audience as Golden Age movie stars did for theirs: they create glamour.

If that sounds crazy, it’s because we tend to forget what glamour is really about. Glamour isn’t beauty or luxury; those are only specific manifestations for specific audiences. Glamour is an imaginative process that creates a specific, emotional response: a sharp mixture of projection, longing, admiration, and aspiration. It evokes an audience’s hopes and dreams and makes them seem attainable, all the while maintaining enough distance to sustain the fantasy. The elements that create glamour are not specific styles—bias-cut gowns or lacquered furniture—but more general qualities: grace, mystery, transcendence. To the right audience, Halle Berry is more glamorous commanding the elements as Storm in the X-Men movies than she is walking the red carpet in a designer gown.

“You’ll believe a man can fly,” promised Supermans trailers. Brian Chase, a forty-year-old Los Angeles lawyer and comic-book enthusiast, recalls, “They did make you believe it.” He says that after seeing the movie for the first time, when he was thirteen, he “ran back from the theater jumping over things. I was embarrassingly convinced. I projected myself into it, and I was not going to let it go for the world.” That is the emotional effect of glamour, and it’s something superhero comics have delivered since Superman hit print in 1938. The Superman movie’s marketing slogan was thus more than a promise of convincing special effects. It was a pledge to engage the audience’s dreams without ridicule. In Superman, only the villains were silly. A decade later, Tim Burton’s operatic Batman made even the clown-faced Joker seem genuinely scary. Influenced by Frank Miller’s reinvention of Batman as the Dark Knight, Burton’s Batman movies portrayed a dangerous world in desperate need of a masked hero. Instead of the campy straight man of the 1960s television series or the tame Mister Rogers of the 1950s comic books, Batman was again a glamorous creature of the night, powerful and mysterious.

The superhero movies that have followed, like the comics from which they were derived, have engaged their subjects without emotional reservation. They may have humor (Marvel comics like Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four are famous for it), but they lack the kind of irony that punctures glamour and makes the audience feel foolish for its suspension of disbelief, the sort of campy mockery exemplified by the Batman television show or Joel Schumacher’s disastrous Batman & Robin, featuring a smirking George Clooney in the lead.

The superhero fans who wear costumes to comics conventions, buy miniatures of their favorite characters, or line up for artists’ autographs aren’t themselves glamorous. But neither were the Depression-era housewives who bought knockoffs of Joan Crawford’s gowns or wrote fan letters to Gary Cooper. And neither are the InStyle readers who copy Natalie Portman’s latest haircut or wear a version of Halle Berry’s Oscar dress to the prom. But all are acting on glamour’s promise. Glamour is, to quote a fashion blurb, “all about transcending the everyday.” The whole point of movie glamour was—and is—escape. “What the adult American female chiefly asks of the movies is the opportunity to escape by reverie from an existence which she finds insufficiently interesting,” wrote Margaret Farrand Thorp in America at the Movies (1939). Movies are “the quickest release from a drab, monotonous, unsatisfying environment in dreaming of an existence which is rich, romantic, glamorous.”

Superheroes appeal to a different sort of romanticism. Brian Chase draws a distinction between himself and other members of a hip e-mail list called Glamour: “Their idea of glamour would be to get invited to the right party. To me growing up, the idea of glamour was to be the guy who could save the right party from a meteor.” Says Richard Neal, owner of Zeus Comics, an upscale comics store in Dallas, “It’s not just superpowers but dashing good looks, villains you can fight, getting aggression out.” (Buff and business-savvy, Neal bears no resemblance to the classic comics-store proprietor, represented so memorably on The Simpsons.)

Superheroes are masters of their bodies and their physical environment. They often work in teams, providing an ideal of friendship based on competence, shared goals, and complementary talents. They’re special, and they know it. “Their true identities, the men in colorful tights, were so elemental, so universal, so transcendent of the worlds that made them wear masks that they carried with them an unprecedented optimism about the value of one’s inner reality,” writes Gerard Jones in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book. “We all knew that Clark Kent was just a game played by Superman and that the only guy who mattered was that alien who showed up in Metropolis with no history and no parents.”

Comic-book heroes, like all glamorous icons, cater to “dreams of flight and transformation and escape.” Those words are from one of the best books ever written on glamour: Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay . Like many a Hollywood story, Kavalier and Clay is wise to the perils of trying to live out glamorous dreams in the real world, again and again showing the tragicomic effects of such attempts. Early on, for instance, young Joe Kavalier almost drowns while attempting a Houdini-like escape designed to gain entrance to what he imagines is a glamorous private club for magicians. (It is, in fact, a rather run-down place whose dining room “smelled of liver and onions.”) On the eve of World War II, Joe and his cousin Sammy create a successful comic-book hero called the Escapist, whose villainous foes include Hitler himself. Their glamorous illusion is that such fights are easy to win.

Chabon explicitly defends the escapism of comics. After the war, his Kavalier reflects:

Having lost his mother, father, brother, and grandfather, the friends and foes of his youth, his beloved teacher Bernard Kornblum, his city, his history—his home—the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf … It was a mark of how fucked-up and broken was the world—the reality—that had swallowed his home and his family that such a feat of escape, by no means easy to pull off, should remain so universally despised.

Still, glamour is always vulnerable to those who love it. The more we’re drawn to a glamorous person, place, or thing, the more we scrutinize it, seeking to fill in the details—which ultimately destroys the mystery and grace. Someone will always look for the hidden flaws, the seamy side of the story. Hence the demand for gossip about Princess Diana’s bulimia or Jennifer Lopez’s romantic problems. These Behind the Music–style revelations replace the transcendence of glamour with the mundane problems of mere celebrity. Beyond these grubby details is a more mythic kind of debunking: the artistic revisionism that warns of glamour’s dangers and disappointments. The power of such revisionism, however, depends on the emotional pull of the original. Someone who knows little and cares even less about Hollywood dreams will miss the pity and terror of Sunset Boulevard. Someone who scorns superheroes as infantile won’t understand the scary wonder of Watchmen, the brilliant 1987 graphic novel in which Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons deconstruct superheroes. To the wrong audience, glamour, even revisionist glamour, will seem like camp.

One way to balance the real and ideal while preserving glamour is to give the audience an insider’s view. So superhero comics now tend to situate their stories in a world like our own, with ubiquitous, sensationalist media and inescapable trade-offs between personal and professional life. To their audience inside the comics, the superheroes are powerful and mysterious celebrities subject to public adulation and tabloid attacks. The real-world audience, by contrast, gets a glimpse behind the mask, a chance to identify with the character and to experience glamour once removed—to imagine what it would be like to be glamorous, and how much hard work, sacrifice, and attention to detail that seemingly effortless power requires. This double vision acknowledges the art behind the illusion. Glamour may look easy, but it never is.