July 26, 2008

Why We All Love a Caped Crusader ; From the Incredible Hulk to Spider-Man, We Can’t Get Enough Super- Heroes. With Welsh-Born Christian Bale Starring in the New Batman Flick, Matt Thomas Asks What All the Fuss is About

By Matt Thomas

WHAT'S going on at the cinema these days? In the last few months the silver screen has been dominated by wall-crawling, tight- wearing, super-powered heroes.

We've only just finished with the Incredible Hulk, a big green guy in little purple trousers if you're not familiar, and before that it was Iron Man, an international playboy dedicated to saving the world with his superior technology.

And with the latest Batman sequel, The Dark Knight, smashing US box office records and set to do the same here, there's no sign of the flood of super-hero movies abating any time soon.

Sky Movies has noticed the trend and is running a month-long film season entitled Sky Movies Comic Book Heroes, from Monday night.

These characters, drawn from the comics produced by American companies like Marvel and DC, are big business.

But it's not just impressive ticket sales they're pulling in.

Critics across the world have acclaimed some of the new wave of hero movies as sophisticated pieces of cinema rather than straight- up big money blockbusters.

Siriol Griffiths, film critic for BBC Radio Wales, agrees.

"I've just seen The Dark Knight.

"It's just a phenomenal film. The late Heath Ledger as The Joker is excellent, there's already talk of a posthumous Oscar for him.

"Gauging the reaction in the room, everybody seemed impressed by it, which is unusual.

"And a lot of people turned out to see it, about 50, when normally there's only four of us for the advance press screening."

There's clearly a buzz around super-hero movies. But it is not necessarily driven by a sense of nostalgia for the heroes themselves, according to Siriol.

"I haven't read any of the comics that films are based on.

"Something like the Incredible Hulk I associate with the TV programme, which was first broadcast back in the '80s, and starred Lou Ferrigno.

"I used to watch it every Sunday with my dad so it has that resonance for me. The most recent Incredible Hulk film was very different to the series but had a great performance from Edward Norton, so it was enjoyable on a couple of levels.

"That film was very different again from the Ang Lee version five years ago. A lot of talented people are working on these films."

But there are also downsides to the emergence of the super-hero movie as a money-making Hollywood prospect. They are producing spin- offs at a bewildering rate.

"This is a problem I have with some of these films," says Siriol.

"The first Spider-Man suffered from it as did Iron Man. They felt like set-ups for sequels. That's why Spider-Man 2 was a better film. It had better performances, more in-depth relationships and felt more fully realised.

"We're usually told to expect much more spectacular scenes in the sequel. So it just feels like it's building up rather than being a complete film."

Despite all the thrills and spills we associate with the action- heavy genre of the comic book film, psychologist Cliff Arnall thinks that there is something reassuring about them.

"If you look at the political and social environment that produced these heroes, the America of the 1950s, concern about the Cold War comes through," he said.

"These super-heroes can solve big problems by using their powers. It's a way of dealing with that stress."

Cliff, who's based near Brecon, added: "Today, we're worried about terrorism and the collapse of the economy.

"It's a similar environment and I'm sure the current popularity of these films has something to do with that."

There are also factors closer to home that he thinks feed into our love of comic-book heroes.

"A lot of these heroes have secret identities. If you think about it, that's very clever. We all have different masks we wear, depending on whether we're at work, at home or out having a few drinks," he says.

"And we all like to think we could shed our inhibitions and rise to the challenge. So that's what we see when the heroes move between their identities. We feel they reflect our real lives."

It might even be possible the films affect our behaviour, not just reflect it.

"It would be interesting to do an experiment to see how people behave after watching these films, particularly the men," says Cliff.

"Because they often involve a man saving a damsel in distress, I think it would be very interesting to see if the men go home afterwards and maybe do a few pushups, try to change themselves in some way."

However it's not just men who enjoy the films.

Cliff has been watching family-friendly versions, like the recent X-Men series and Superman, with his 10-year-old daughter and twin boys who are eight.

"She enjoys the films because she thinks they're exciting," he says.

"I think she's too young to worry about the gender politics of it all, and whether it's right that all the heroes are men with mysterious powers. But I think that might come as she gets older."

Whatever our reasons for enjoying them, or however deeply we look into them, one thing's for sure - the super-hero movie is will be on our cinema screens for a long time to come.

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