Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
Two hours into Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, Spawn creator Todd McFarlane delivers the documentary’s money quote: “We’ve gotten into pop culture now—and none of it is silly anymore.” “Silly” will always be a relative term in relation to characters with fantastical abilities parading about in outrageous costumes, but this is a crucial point for comics creators like McFarlane as well as any PBS viewer who stumbles upon Superheroes. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and their ilk aren’t only enjoying unprecedented levels of popularity—their achievements at the box office and their continued incursion into the mainstream grants their entire genre legitimacy.
Throughout Superheroes, that legitimacy is treated as the spoils of victory in the never-ending battle of the doc’s subtitle. It’s the tension that motivates innovators and agitators like McFarlane, Stan Lee, and Alan Moore—the third of whom appears in Superheroes exclusively via archival interview footage. For fans of costumed crusaders and the comics from which they leap, it’s a tired narrative and one that lost its punch in the flurry of “Superheroes aren’t just for kids anymore!” trend pieces inspired by the parallel successes of Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. However, as a condensed history bookended by the creation of Superman and the 2012 release of The Dark Knight Rises (never mind TV’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., airing not-so-coincidentally opposite the first third of Superheroes), the documentary isn’t properly equipped to provide new angles or incisive analysis. It’s the story of the birth, fall, and triumphant rise of superheroes, as marked by the biggest and best-known signposts.
That’s where McFarlane’s “none of it is silly” quote truly makes a difference: While Superheroes is forced to cram seven decades of a multimedia phenomenon into three hours of airtime, at least it does so while taking its subject matter seriously. At times a little too seriously—particularly whenever Liev Schreiber’s narration conflates superhero history with American history. Pushing back against that sober perspective are the men and women who’ve kept these characters in the public consciousness—people like Lee, underground comix creator Trina Robbins, and Nick Fury, Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D. artist Jim Steranko—each a colorful character in their own right. The dynamics of the documentary shift considerably any time Steranko appears, his laid-back commentary complementing the psychedelic surrealism of the panels superimposed behind him.
Unfortunately, the stories from Steranko’s brief run at Marvel Comics coincide with the most problematic portions of Superheroes, a middle act that projects the experimentation of the Silver and Bronze Ages of comic books onto the political turmoil and social upheaval of the 1960s. While digging just deep enough to turn up super-powered reflections of the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, and the War On Drugs, the documentary takes several cringe-inducing shortcuts into Forrest Gump-like portrayals of the Cold War era. Stock-footage hippies, Eric Clapton guitar solos, and street protests are just some of the moth-eaten baby boomer signifiers.
These dispatches from a society in disorder underline a larger problem with Superheroes, a different battle waged beneath the documentary’s surface: Is this a comics history or a superhero history? You can’t have one without the other, but the books so dominate the conversation that a sharper, more incisive version of Superheroes could take place solely within the pages of DC, Marvel, or the creator-owned publishers that receive a brief mention late in the proceedings. The dilemma of telling this story lies in the many, messy threads of superhero culture: Superman now occupies realms of entertainment that creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster couldn’t even imagine. In its attempts to wrangle the big picture, it’s the smaller personal moments in Superheroes that count—McFarlane’s declaration of victory or Phil Jimenez choking up at the solace afforded by the metaphorical depths of X-Men. In spite of a muddled execution, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle knows that if these characters are to be taken seriously en masse, individuals must first take them seriously.