The Amazing Spider-Man is one of those movies that obtained a solid Rotten Tomatoes score solely on the basis that so many reviews gave it praise that was faintly damning, but still praise. “Not as bad as it could be” was the refrain. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 looks to be even less successful than its predecessor. If you want to fulfill your superhero needs, there is no shortage of options. You could of course check out the original, far superior Spider-Man films. You could watch any of the better superhero films that are out there, or you could catch a few episodes of the excellent superhero cartoons that exist. But if you’re documentary-minded, then I suggest watching Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle.
A three-part series made for PBS, Superheroes is an excellent primer for anyone who knows about costumed crusaders from the movies or the comic books but who wants to learn about the writers and artists behind the characters. It covers the complete breadth of superhero history, starting in the 1930s and continuing on through to today. “Truth, Justice and the American Way” covers from 1938 to 1958, as superheroes were birthed with Superman and eventually made their way to radio, even as comic books were hobbled by a series of congressional hearings. “Great Power, Great Responsibility” shows how Marvel comics shook up the formula in the ’60s and ’70s, while the genre also found exposure on television. “A Hero Can Be Anyone” acts as an overview of modern superheroes, as storytellers have pushed them in new directions while cinematic success has made them more popular than ever.
If you’re already familiar with comic book history, this series is unlikely to teach you anything new. In fact, it’s liable to anger you, since it has to leave so much out in order to fit 70 years or so of dense developments into a three-hour timeframe. Many important writers and artists have to get the short shrift for the sake of simplicity. For example, this means that, as usual, Jack Kirby gets far less attention that Stan Lee. Still, it’s not made for the experts. It’s for the old people who watch PBS.
What Superheroes really represents is a baby step. Culture is only now grappling with the fact that things that were once considered niche are now beloved by all. Some day, certain comic books will be required reading in schools. It won’t be unusual at all to talk about the latest big graphic novel. All associations with “nerdiness” will have evaporated, the nerds now defined by some new, weirder affection. There will be many more documentaries about comic book writers, about artists, about comics history. The discussions currently relegated to Tumblr and specialty sites will be happening in whatever the likes of Slate and Salon will evolve into. It’s a strange new world.
No better proof of the mainstreaming of superheroes exists than the fact that no one will blink an eye when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 makes a billion dollars or whatever. But any given episode of Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle is a more engaging rumination on what Spider-Man and his ilk mean to us than that rebootquel thing.
Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle is available on DVD and Blu-ray, easily found in the PBS online store.