The superhero. The costumed, death-defying avenger of the common people. Sometimes, even a godlike being who embodies our deepest-held images of moral purity. Our modern-day equivalent of the ancient world superheroes like Hercules, Odysseus and Jason.
The superhero myth has been a successfully commercialized genre in this country for generations, starting with the so-called "golden age" of comics in the 1930's, progressing through the dark years of World War II, in which kids saw their superheroes, like Captain America, pitted against the evil Axis.
Then, in 1962 (the year before I was born) a young writer named Stan Lee teamed up with a young artist named Steve Ditko to usher in a new breed of comic book superhero. That was the beginning of a comic book publishing company called Marvel. Marvel comics were a big part of my childhood. I still remember my dad reading them to me when I was a child and I remember buying them later as an adolescent. And, I fantasized as a kid about becoming a comic book publisher myself one day. I amateurishly sketched out comic books in pencil and crayon, trying to imitate Marvel's style.
Stan Lee (a.k.a. "Smilin' Stan Lee", "Stan The Man Lee"), as he's so often pointed out in his retrospectives over the years, was ambitious enough to dare to defy the established patterns of comic book heroes. He wanted heroes with human flaws with which the readers could identify on a personal level. His first successful creation was the Fantastic Four, a superhero team which was actually a dysfunctional family, always bickering and fighting amongst themselves. He rejected the time-honored tradition of an adult hero with a teenaged sidekick when he later created Spider-Man, the first teenaged loner superhero, who had to deal with the daily emotional and financial battles of being a teenager, while trying to find time between classes to fight crime.
The superhero became less an idealized symbol of human perfection, and more a troubled protagonist, and the idea caught on. Decades later, (while Marvel Comics isn't doing that great) the characters they created back in the day (some of them, anyway) are living on successfully and capturing the public's attention on the big screen. (Even as a self-congratulating Stan Lee appears again and again in his now trademark Hitchcockian cameos in each Marvel film.)
It isn't just Marvel whose characters have evolved and matured in cinema, though. The Batman character has evolved over the decades from kid-friendly crime fighter and self-parody to dark, troubled vigilante. Superman, no longer the flawless man of steel, struggles with issues of self-doubt and destiny. What was a two-dimensional childhood mythology has grown with society through troubled and changing times into a genre with actual character-development, which the audience now expects. And, pays to see at the box office.
The superhero genre can be a vehicle for social and political allegory, as well. Most notably, the X-Men idea. It's an on-going metaphor for society's instinctive rejection of those among us who are different, and how they must struggle for acceptance. The voice of hope for a brighter future of mutual understanding and acceptance is embodied in the softly-spun, almost Ghandi-like wisdom of Professor Charles Xavier, while the voice of "us or them" revolutionary militant fanaticism takes shape in his nemesis, Magneto, who we see as a young boy watching his parents taken away by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
The latest X-Men film "Days of Future Past" takes a nostalgic trip through time back to the early 1970's. (I loved it. Who doesn't want to see a whole sports stadium flying through the air and dropped like a ring around Nixon's White House? Or, Nixon's panic room ripped right through the White House façade and dumped on the front lawn while Nixon himself is held up by a dozen floating hand guns?) But, on a deeper level, the film raised the philosophical question: Can one person really change the course of history? And, the moral question: Can we forgive those who would kill us? Two timely questions, set in a movie about the past. Both questions, approached through a labyrinth of anguished characters reaching back and forth across time, their older and younger selves arguing over whether to hope or give up, whether to devote a life to serving others or to surrender to fatigue and personal loss and retreat into oneself, reaches a climax in one critical moment. In the look of pain in the face of the Raven character (convincingly played by Jennifer Lawrence) as she literally holds the future in the palm of her hand as she points a gun at the head of a man devoted to the destruction of all who are like her, and has to decide whether to follow his example and kill, or take the nobler path and give the future a chance.
You can dismiss guys like Stan Lee as frustrated writers who never had what it took to make it into "real" writing. Or, you can admire their inventiveness in reshaping a popular modern genre in a way that endures through the generations. But, either way, there's no denying the power of a franchise that does more than just reminisce. The superhero genre, easy to mock though it may be, is genuine art, because it reflects the heart (young and old) of a changing society that still needs and struggles to find, its heroes.