My latest Atlantic column explores the glamour of superheroes. Here's the opening:
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.
There's an interesting intellectual property story behind the column's art. The art director originally wanted to reproduce Savador Larroca's Storm image from the comic book pictured above. But Marvel dragged out the permission process until the day before the issue was supposed to go to the printer. As a condition of permission, the company's lawyer then insisted that the article treat the word superhero as a Marvel/DC trademark, spelling it Super Hero. Fortunately for me, The Atlantic declined and went with Superman.
As is so often the case, aggressive IP lawyers trumped smart business strategy--good fodder for a future Forbes column. Marvel is supposed to be promoting second-line characters, including Storm, and The Atlantic is clearly not trying to publish a superhero comic in competition with the trademark holders. I'd be interested in hearing from anyone with insight on the controversy surrounding this particular trademark. Meanwhile, I'm investigating how the Sci-Fi show Who Wants to Be a Superhero? managed to use both Marvel images and the normal spelling of superhero.