The other day a friend of mine was talking about the way we recognize symbols and what they mean to us. He suggested that with the end of the series Smallville a huge portion of the nation’s bloated television audience would no longer be exposed to even a hint of the symbol of strength and courage by which the Man of Steel is known, but instead would find themselves unhappily relegated to watching re-runs of Cheers or M.A.S.H. or even older late-night paradigms of hopelessness (e.g., Archie Bunker). A symbol that we can look up to in times of trouble is something we all need, of course, but I found it oddly intriguing that the symbol he looked toward was a make-believe superhero from the Golden Age.
Upon further reflection, I attribute his thinking to the society we live in, which is inundated with stars both real and imagined, but which of late seems to have openly embraced the icons created so long ago by the stalwarts of the comics industry. Thus, recent years have seen a spate of movies about the Dark Knight, Daredevil, Iron Man, the X-Men, Wolverine, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four — to name a few — and the superhero bandwagon shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. This year alone has witnessed new films about the Green Hornet, the Green Lantern, and everyone’s favorite hammer-loving knucklehead, Thor.
America has grown so fond of heroes leaping around in multi-colored tights like jesters in a Shakespearian farce that a cottage industry has grown up devoted to making fun of superhero movies. Do you remember that Oh-so-forgettable Will Smith vehicle about the drunken superhero who drank to forget the sorrow of losing his one and only super-mate? Who had ditched him to marry a human and was hiding her own stupendous array of superpowers? Yes, I’m talking about Hancock, for any of you brave enough to own up to having seen it.
But I’m not just talking about overt (and some might say ham-handed) rips on superhero-dom, but about more subtle plays on the nature of the beast as well. For example, let’s look at Kung Fu Panda, which I will admit was a winner not only at the box office but in the hearts and minds of little kiddies everywhere. Like many a Jack Black film, if you liked the Jack Black vibe you were already halfway to liking the movie. Unlike many of his lesser efforts, however, this had a sustained brilliance that perfectly encapsulated the idea behind much of superhero fandom — i.e., it captured the idea of the lonely, overlooked boy who acquires fabulous powers that make the world sit up and take notice. That’s the bit that draws boys in, but if they graduate from the comics of the 60s and 70s and grow up to be lifelong fans (or even sporadic enthusiasts), attentive readers will recognize that after the initial phase of “Hey, this is great! Look everyone! I’ve got super powers!!” the other shoe drops, and the recipient finds that with great powers comes great responsibility. I like to call this the “Oh, c^*%. I’ve got to save the world!” phase of the superhero relationship, in which our hero stalks about all broody and reluctant until struck by a much-needed ray of enlightenment. This concept was magnificently riffed on in the utterly fantastic Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which is a thoroughly engaging hybrid of the superhero supernova. It is — literally — a movie that makes fun of the concept of superheroes while embracing and making the concept itself fun. Which is almost a zen koan, really.
Of course, I’m oversimplifying. I recognize that some superheroes were created broody from the start. The Silver Surfer only assumed the mantle of his powers in order to try and save his dying race and/or bring back his one true love. And Batman’s psychoses, of course, sprang from having witnessed his own parents’ murder.
Other of the supers were created in a burst of patriotism, and we will soon be privy to the birth of CaptainAmerica as he steps to life from the narrow silhouette of his tubercular mortal host, Private Steve Rogers. Cap’s heroism was born in WWII and his history is an almost perverse echo of America’s own — he is steeped in the blood of America’s enemies, having fought in virtually all its wars, including the Cold War, as well as other wars that are too secret to reveal to our citizens outside the confines of Marvel Comics. If Wikileaks could reveal Cap’s history, I have no doubt we would be appalled and thrilled in equal parts.
What does all of this mean from the standpoint of symbols? In a very real way, what the public focuses on and recognizes, what draws our attention, is the same sort of packaging that corporations use to draw the public in. We recognize the Superman symbol in the same way we recognize the Nike swoosh. We recognize the Bat signal thrown up in the sky the same way we recognize the shadow of the Golden Arches. The logos of our favorite superheroes are no different than the logos of our favorite football teams, Catwoman’s costume indistinguishable from Louis Vuitton’s magical monogram.
What is amusing to me is that these symbols have stepped out of the pages of books and have taken on power in the real world. Though they were never intended as trademarks by their creators, they are among the most powerful marks ever known. Just try and use the Superman symbol for your business and see how fast you get sued by DC Comics and whatever movie studio is contemplating the next installment in the series. In truth, these symbols have now become enshrined in our collective consciousness to such an extent that they are at least as famous as any other mark.
If you doubt that this is so, then riddle me this. Other than the cross, what symbol is more famous than the Superman logo?