Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Depression-era teen geeks who still drive Hollywood

When writer Jerry Siegel (at age 19) and artist Joe Shuster (19 or 20) dreamed up Superman in the summer of 1934, they not only created the "modern" superhero but also unwittingly jump-started the comic book industry and—stay with me—built the engine that is currently powering Hollywood.

Hollywood tends to make a majority of its money in the summer and most of its summer money on movies about superheroes
even more acutely in the past decade:

Batman, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man and its sequels, Iron Man, and the X-Men trilogy are only some of the superhero films that became among the biggest hits (in the hottest months) of their respective years.

But these movies might not have happened if not for Superman: The Movie (1978), the first big-budget theatrical release about a superhero.

(I'm not counting the campy 1966 Batman film and the various 1940s superhero serials, but not just because of their lower budgets; Superman: The Movie was the first theatrical release about a superhero done "realistically." Another qualification: although Superman: The Movie debuted in December, most superhero movies in its wake have come out in summer.)

Before Superman: The Movie, Hollywood questioned who besides 10-year-old boys would go to a movie about a comic book character
—especially a comic book character done realistically. (And wouldn't that then also scare off the 10-year-old boys?)

Yet Hollywood did, of course, take the risk on
Superman: The Movie, probably due in some part to the heart of the film—and it wasn't just 10-year-old boys (or comics fans of any age) who made it an epic success.

The simple summary thus far:
  • There might not be big-budget superhero movies without Superman: The Movie.
  • There would be no Superman: The Movie without Superman.
  • There would be no Superman without Jerry and Joe.
And now, even some blockbusters not about superheroes can be traced back to Jerry and Joe.

Avatar and Sherlock Holmes don't feature superheroes as traditionally defined, and Avatar isn't based on material established in another medium, but they are nonetheless among a group described as "comic book movies." (Also, both came out not in summer but during the Christmas season, typically the province of any given year's most prestigious offerings. Maybe that influence of Superman: The Movie has come full circle.)

Other comic book movies include the
Star Trek, Indiana Jones, and Transformers franchises. These properties are based, respectively, on a TV show, adventure movie serials, and a toy line (although for all I know, some of those may have been inspired by comics!).

Today, kids are more likely to discover superheroes via movies, TV shows, or games rather than comics. I can't speculate how Jerry and Joe would've felt about that, though filmed entertainment about superheroes surely does motivate some kids to seek out superhero comics. Anything that gets young people to read is a positive.

In any event, we all want a good story; the Boys of Steel helped prove that a good superhero story is not just for kids
and not just for comics.

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