How Superhero Movies Save Us When We Need Them Most

By  · Published on June 11th, 2013

The first superhero in comic book history and famous instigator of the most profitable movie genre of all time (a.k.a. the one who started it all) is flying back to theaters this Friday in Man of Steel. Few industry analysts seem to agree on a common lockstep to pin down box-office predictions for the one we now like to refer to as the “Man of Steel.” According to most recent reports, distributors expect a $130M opening week-end domestically and a healthy run that could fly as far as late August. There are many arguments against the movie doing great business and many arguments in favor. I personally think the Zack Snyder/Christopher Nolan joint effort will perform exceedingly well, and one reason I consider relevant is the current state of the world and how we could all use a hero in light of recent times.

Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie opened in theaters on December 15, 1978 and would have made $455M with today’s 3D ticket prices. Perhaps it was Marlon Brando’s infamous 15 minutes of screen time with his nicely coiffed hairdo that infused enough credibility into the production to seduce audiences at the time. Or perhaps there was more. The movie’s very first frames took us back to June 1938 – showing the original issue of Action Comics featuring Superman – as you can hear a young boy uttering these words: “In the decade of the 1930’s, even the great city of Metropolis was not spared from the ravages of the worldwide depression.” This reminds us of how the character, and consequently the concept of superheroes, was indeed conceived and introduced to the world during the worst period of the Great Depression. After several years experiencing sloppy recovery, U.S. markets fell sharply in 1937 and the unemployment rate skyrocketed to 19% a year later. Thus, it is no secret to anyone that a hero like Superman became a symbol of hope at a time when Americans were at their most vulnerable and desperate. Fifty years later, history repeated itself. A brand new economic crisis. A brand new introduction to Superman.

Superman’s first motion picture opened in the wake of the Iranian revolution and on the verge of a second oil crisis in the United States. One month before the Man of Steel would be reintroduced to the world, Iran’s nationalized oil refineries significantly reduced production by 400% and followers of the Ayatollah Khomeni burned American flags and chanted anti-American slogans on the nightly news. The economy was in a downward spiral and the American people needed something to lift their spirits up. There was crucial demand for escapism and to regain a lost sense of naive optimism during that time, the likes that can only be reminiscent of the circumstances around the creation of Superman himself in the 1930’s. With broadcast news becoming so negative, people needed someone to believe in. It was the kind of perfect correlation between real-world events and silver screen make-believe that meshed together perfectly – like a symptom meeting its antidote. And it’s something that would happen once more in the United States again several years later.

Jump forward to May 3, 2002 when a famous web-slinger was about to hit the multiplexes for the very first time. Less than eight months prior, the World Trade Center had been catastrophically destroyed by hijacked planes in what is likely to remain the biggest terrorist attack in US history for quite some time. Sony Pictures had suddenly found themselves in hot water as the first teaser trailer for their highly-anticipated Spider-man had already been shown in movie theaters across North America and featured a chopper entangled between the Twin Towers. Sam Raimi went on to reveal that the entire final act of his film was taking place at the World Trade Center and needed to be reshot entirely a few months before the film’s release. Interestingly enough, he decided to add a surprising moment in his revised ending where citizens of New York would throw objects at the Green Goblin in solidarity and one stated: “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” At a time when New York needed a hero to believe in, Spider-Man went on to give us a glimpse of how New Yorkers themselves were true heroes, thus drawing a parallel to the many real-life heroics that took place on September 11, 2001. With adjusted inflation, the movie made $551m domestically (for comparison’s sake, Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man made $262M last year).

But how does all this rhetoric connect back to Man of Steel? Are we to draw some kind of parallel with the economic crash that happened back in 2008? That represents a five-year gap where the unemployment rate has been steadily going down. Fair enough, but just take a look at how other heroes like Batman and Iron Man have been doing for themselves since the meltdown. Perhaps Iron Man is a weak example since we’ve never witnessed him in theaters while times were prosperous in America. The Dark Knight, however, greatly improved its ticket sales post-crash while it even had to cope with two sorrowful tragedies that forever attached themselves to the trilogy – Heath Ledger’s sudden passing and the atrocious movie theater shooting of Aurora, Colorado. What’s been even more unbearable after Aurora is that extreme acts of human cruelty have been making headlines on a monthly basis since then. Without having to go into specifics, I think everyone can agree that following the news within the last 12 months has been a more tragic than encouraging exercise.

Coincidence struck on April 17, 2013 when the highly praised third trailer for Man of Steel was released online – a mere two days after the Boston Marathon bombing. It’s a great piece of inspired editing that echoes the feelings we had about the Superman mythos back in 1938 and 1978. You can hear a score from Hans Zimmer that is beyond epic and Russell Crowe’s Jor-El speaking to his son and stating how he will give give the people of Earth “an ideal to strive towards.” For me at the very least, it was exactly what I needed to see and hear in the middle of such depressing times. And it’s also the precise moment when I became seriously excited for Man of Steel. Let it be noted that commenting a movie’s performance certainly feels trivial and even borderline insensitive when revisiting events as tragic as all the ones mentioned in this piece. Nevertheless, there is no denying that there exists an enduring connection between the morale of the masses and the financial success of the superhero genre and for this reason above all, Man of Steel will surprise more than many at the box-office this Summer.

Fun Fact: Superman was co-created by Joe Shuster, a Canadian from Toronto. The Daily Planet (originally The Daily Star) was named after The Toronto Star where he worked as a newsboy.