Something has happened this decade, something that made every jock cry out “Nerrdsss” only to be silenced by the roar of the crowds. Something has happened which has led to celebrations among nerds and the occasional lament from conspiracy theorists. Superheroes are now mainstream. You can’t argue against that when a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy makes over 300 million dollars in the United States. We can get into a discussion about advertising or how the internet itself has changed how society views “nerds”, but that wouldn’t get to the heart of the matter of why superheroes are now mainstream.
The issue is one of mediums. Comic books have been viewed as childish for quite some time, largely due to the Comic Code of the 1950s. This was a code of ethics that was driven by hysteria unleashed by a psychologist named Fredic Wertham. Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent which argued that comic books were corrupting youth with depictions of violence, horror, and homosexuality. Thus, in response to this fear mongering, comics were forced largely to self censor themselves, thus comic books’ reputation for childishness was born. Comic books have tried to shake this reputation several times. Some have done so by re-branding themselves as graphic novels. But still the medium wasn’t taken seriously. They were for children and if you still read them as an adult, that made you a man/woman child. This was the fate of the superheroes, until the movies came out.
Movies have been taken seriously as a medium for quite some time. The fact that an existentialist postmodern sci fi movie like the Matrix can succeed is proof of that fact. So when Thor leaped out of his tights and onto the silver screen, suddenly he didn’t seem so silly and childish. Suddenly Iron Man wasn’t just for nerds, he was awesome. Suddenly Spider-man wasn’t just stuck in your friendly neighborhood.
However, in essence has the stories of the superheroes really changed? The details have certainly been changed around, but the character traits of the superheroes, the villains, and the plots are all drawn from real comic books. The only thing that changed was the medium.
This speaks to how strange our society is when it comes to the medium. We don’t take animation seriously because its either for freaks or kids, but we take live action movies seriously. You can think of it like box art or the cover of a book. Just by changing what the cover looks like, you can convince a lot people to purchase it even if the content is basically the same.
In the end, almost anything is just one repackaging away from being mainstream.