“We don’t need another hero,” sang Tina Turner, in the theme song to the third instalment of the Mad Max franchise, Beyond Thunderdome. She couldn’t have been more wrong. In a world beset by tyrants, terrorism, geopolitical instability, rampant financial inequality, a resurgent nuclear threat and runaway climate change, we need all the heroes we can get. Marvel – the comic book franchise turned cinematic juggernaut – has always understood this.
Marvel was born in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War amid the rise of worldwide fascism. In the 78 years since, it has given the world unforgettable characters that have spoken to our collective anxieties, including Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man and teams including The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy – enjoying its greatest successes during especially troubled times.
This weekend (May 27), Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art opens an exhibition that celebrates the history of Marvel and its transition from comic-book cult to the screen. Patrons will be able to enjoy an ongoing retrospective of films in the gallery’s two cinemas before wandering through rooms filled with fantastically detailed costumes, sets, rare memorabilia and gorgeous key-frame art works that served as the films’ storyboards.
Much of the detail will never have been seen even by the most dedicated fans. Amanda Slack-Smith, the show’s curator, points to the top of the petrol cap on Captain America’s motorcycle – a lovingly carved death’s head with octopus tentacles – which never appeared on screen. “There’s so much they do [that] nobody’s really meant to see,” she says. “But they do it because they love it.”
Captain America is one of Marvel’s foundation characters and, as Slack-Smith calls him, the heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even though the first film released by the franchise was Iron Man in 2008. His resurgence through the films The First Avenger (2011), The Winter Soldier (2014) and last year’s Civil War is particularly interesting as the US grapples with its own spectre of authoritarianism.
Slack-Smith says the pulse underneath all of Marvel’s superheroes is that they have a conscience. They wrestle with their abilities and place in the world and are accountable for their actions, giving them a core of integrity an audience can relate to. “I think we like characters that have strong moral centres.”
Of Captain America, she says: “I think the films in particular have managed to contemporise him, because those values are still needed in a modern world – they’re just harder and the world’s gotten greyer. I mean, why have we got this rise of superheroes? There’s this need for someone who can step up and do what needs to be done, but have a conscience about it.”
The decade following the September 11 terrorist attacks saw more than 50 Marvel characters adapted for the screen, accelerating as computer-generated imagery (CGI) technology began to make the Marvel Universe both more possible and plausible to viewers. In this parallel universe, Slack-Smith says, viewers are provided with the visceral release of characters who can solve end-time problems with an almighty thwack.
“I think we all feel disempowered,” she says. “We don’t feel that we can save the world, and our avenues to even impact on the world are quite stymied. But you can experience this kind of catharsis of a world with these large characters that can step in and solve things without having to deal with them in your real life. That’s the beauty of a fantasy – the fantasy doesn’t have repercussions.”
Marvel’s world taps into a need for transformation and transcendence that goes back to ancient gods: Stan Lee, the now 94-year-old creator of most of these characters alongside Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, was open about the world of Asgard’s basis in Norse mythology. “It’s the same need for these grand narratives and the hero’s quest,” Slack-Smith says.
The other main focus of the exhibition is Spider-Man, who first emerged in 1961, presaging the next golden era of the superhero. Elvis Presley, by then, was in the army; the Beatles were yet to conquer the world; the hot war of the 1940s had turned icy cold. A more complex cast of characters for a more rebellious, uncertain era was called for.
The Cold War brought forth a central ethical question: how do we use, or not use, lethal and potentially civilisation-ending force? High school student Peter Parker gets his superpowers through a bite from an irradiated spider; his guilt over his failure to save his uncle Ben from a burglar motivates his actions. But, as his uncle tells him, with great power comes great responsibility.
The ’60s saw a wave of disaster films filled with terrifying invading forces, often gigantic and inhuman. “Everything was bigger,” Slack-Smith says. “You know, giant ants! You can understand the need to respond with a level of might, but also the need to exercise self-awareness: yes, you can have that power, but you need to actually think about how you use it.”
Spider-Man became Marvel’s most beloved and enduring creation, according to Slack-Smith, because audiences could identify with him. “One, he’s a teenager, so those issues are relatable to a younger audience … And because he was the nerd! He was smart, he was flawed, he was picked on, and he has to wrestle with the fact that he potentially allowed his uncle to die, and that’s what guides his moral compass.”
Of course, there will always be boys to watch boy’s own adventures. But what about the super-heroines? “I cannot wait for Captain Marvel to come out,” Slack-Smith says, referring to the film starring Brie Larson, due in 2019. Captain Marvel – another post-holocaust character who emerged in 1968 – went through many iterations before the appearance of Carol Danvers as Ms Marvel in 1977, to be played by Larson.
Danvers fits a new age of super-heroines for an age of female Ghostbusters and Felicity Jones’ celebrated role in Star Wars: Rogue One. “We need to redress the balance, let’s be honest,” Slack-Smith says. “A lot of the films are drawing on stories from the ’60s, so that balance wasn’t naturally imbued. But I think there’s a realisation that girls want to watch those adventures as well.
“And if we’re talking diversity we have to talk more broadly than just gender; we have to talk about the diversity of everybody, and I think there’s a whole wave of people going, ‘I want to look at me’. Maybe that’s the other thing about Spider-Man as a character – he’s got a mask on. He could be anybody – he could be male; female; he could be an alien; he could be green.”
And, as a famous frog once said, it’s not easy being green. The Incredible Hulk serves as an expression of pure, primal rage, but like other characters in the Marvel universe, it’s a power he has to wield with care. Slack-Smith points out that Hulk’s character doesn’t exist in isolation. “The relationship between him and Black Widow takes her character in a direction that you don’t expect, even though he hasn’t changed.”
Marvel itself is a classic example of the transformation of a cult into a cultural phenomenon. “If this is part of a cycle, it’s a long cycle,” Slack-Smith says. Marvel has films scheduled through to 2020, with no sign of waning enthusiasm. “Guardians of the Galaxy II coming out just blew that out of the water,” she says. “Are people tired of superheroes? Ah, no.
“You’ve got to look at the audience. You have people our age, who have kids in their teens, and it’s a family moment. You take your kids to see the films, and you both enjoy them, and there’s a linking. The number of people who I’ve talked to who have gone, ‘oh, I can’t wait to take my son to that, my son’s really into superheroes at the moment’ – people want to relate.”
And, just like the creators of the characters who were really creating fantasy archetypes of themselves, we all want to be heroes. Just for one day.
First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 26 May 2017