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Tracking Heroes

John Flynn Offers An Up To The Second Compendium Of Comic Book Superheroes Moving From Page To Screen

Daniel Krall

By J. Bowers | Posted 8/15/2007

101 Superheroes of the Silver Screen

By John Flynn

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It's summertime, geek high season.

During these three blessed months, comic book stores feature epic crossover events, the Inner Harbor teems with cosplaying otaku, and area multiplexes runneth over with that most revered of nerd events--superhero movies. Nothing brings a geek more pleasure than seeing his or her favorite costumed crusader beautifully translated to the silver screen. And nothing boils a geek's blood like seeing his pet character badly portrayed, underused, or, worst of all, completely movieless.

From reading his book, 101 Superheroes of the Silver Screen, you get the idea that John L. Flynn, Ph.D., knows this feeling well. Subtitled A Compendium of Cinema's Costumed Crimefighters, Flynn's 12th book is a to-the-minute encyclopedia of nearly every superhero movie that's ever been made--including movies as recent as The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer--and television shows, from the 1960s Batman comedy series to the recent smash hit drama Heroes. Speaking via phone from his Owings Mills home, mere days before his annual pilgrimage to the Comic-Con International in San Diego, Flynn weighed in on why superhero screen time is big business.

"Superheroes are taken a little bit more seriously today," Flynn says. "There is a sort of gap or hole in our culture. We've always had superheroes in one way or another, going back to the Greeks and Romans. Coming into the 21st century, we seem to have lost so many of those myths, and superheroes have taken on the role of these mythical figures. After the horrible events of 9/11, heroes were what America truly needed. The comics that came out directly afterward showed Superman and Batman as some of the first responders. They couldn't prevent it, but they were there pulling people out of the rubble."

Comics embraced a similar art-imitates-life aesthetic after the events of World War I, with the creation of Superman, and later, near the beginning of World War II, as Captain America was notable for socking Adolf Hitler in the jaw on an early cover. Through Superheroes, which includes more than a few obscure entries from the early decades of cinema, Flynn attempts to chronicle an omnipresent part of pop culture, often overlooked by his scholarly peers.

"If you go back to the 1930s, superheroes have always been a part of our culture in some way or another," he explains. "The soldiers who went to World War II put comic books in their duffel bags. Superheroes have always been `allowed'--they've dominated American media for a long time, crossing over from being comic books to radio dramas, then television in the 1950s and '60s, and now they're on cinema marquees. These stories are really somewhat universal stories. This summer, we've got the Fantastic Four dealing with Dr. Doom, Galactus, and the Silver Surfer, but this is really about people we look up to dealing with threats, whether it's someone trying to eat the world, or trying to take over corporate America."

It's true that superheroes, whether mythical or modern, have always been humanity's go-to characters when the world needs saving. But while Flynn was growing up, receiving comics--secondhand, he suspects--from his Aunt Shirley while the Cold War loomed, superhero movies and TV shows were a rare--and usually hopelessly cheesy--treat. "Back when I was growing up in the '50s, we were really lucky if we got a superhero movie," he says. "Now it seems they're lined up in May and they go through September. Today, we have the ability to really show superheroes, with our special effects. Back then, if you wanted to have Superman, George Reeves, bend a metal pipe, you'd have to get a rubber pipe. These days, you can have these characters do anything, and it looks real."

Flynn's true love affair with the superhero genre began with Richard Donner's genre-defining 1978 version of Superman. He still cites it as his favorite superhero movie, and though he was pleasantly surprised by the recent Superman Returns, he still views Christopher Reeve as the quintessential Superman. He also praises Donner for making the most of available special-effects technology, and overcoming the expectations of a public used to campy interpretations of super-powered beings, not characters with genuine emotions and problems.

"Superman set the standard for a lot of the superhero movies we have today," Flynn says. "I think if we didn't have that movie, we wouldn't have the superhero films we have today. When Richard Donner was making Superman, there hadn't been a major superhero movie for at least 10 years. The Batman TV show was still on a lot of people's minds. His audience was expecting camp, played for jokes, but they got a really earnest portrayal.

"Superman allowed people to look at comic book movies or superhero movies in a different light. After Superman was done, there were a lot of other superhero movies that came out, like Sheena, and they weren't treated with the same respect, so they tanked."

Flynn thinks that the recent boom in superhero movies can be partially attributed to a pool of directors who grew up watching Donner's Superman and the late-'70s/early-'80s television version of The Incredible Hulk. He reckons that, thanks to the interest of high-profile directors like Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2, and Superman Returns) and Ang Lee (Hulk), talented actors are viewing superhero movies as more than just big-budget schlock. Hugh Jackman's role as Wolverine in the three X-Men movies was a star-making turn, and he's slated to star in a spin-off that will focus on the clawed Canadian.

"Many of the people who are making movies today grew up reading comic books and watching superhero shows," Flynn says. "Bryan Singer, for instance, grew up reading comic books. Nicolas Cage has said that he wanted to star in Ghost Rider because he wanted to do a comic book movie. He has his own comic series, co-written with his son, coming out this year. The Hulk is returning, and this time Edward Norton will be playing the Hulk. Norton's an Oscar-caliber actor. There's just more interest all around."

Though 101 Superheroes of the Silver Screen is so up to the minute, it includes available information on forthcoming superhero movies like Ant-Man and Iron Man, it may soon be out of date, given the glut of superhero blockbusters that entertain throngs of die-hard geeks and weekend thrill-seekers every summer. Equal parts fanboy and critic, Flynn can't wait to see what Hollywood comes up with next.

"There are quite a few characters left to do," Flynn muses. "Captain America, one of the major superheroes. Wonder Woman, one of the big three with Superman and Batman. There will be a Spider-Man 4, and an X-Men 4. The SciFi Channel is doing a remake of Flash Gordon in the fall. Superhero movies will always be around. If the public gets tired of superhero movies, we'll see a decrease in number, but I don't think they'll ever go away. For a while, westerns were the mainstay of movies. Then sci-fi. Everything sort of seesaws back and forth. I wouldn't be surprised if direct-to-video becomes the main venue. But as long as the public wants to see superheroes, they'll be there."

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