Our world is hurtling into the abyss, propelled by wars, genocide, terrorism, environmental disaster, and the global financial meltdown . . .
. . . but never fear, the superhero is here!
Not since Captain America and Superman were socking it to the Nazis (Pow! Splat! Thooom!) in the '40s has American culture been so inundated with tales of caped men and masked women with superhuman powers.
The comics explosion has even reached academe: The University of Pennsylvania has mounted a massive year-long celebration of comics, including exhibits of comic art at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
But most of all, superheroes are a boon for Hollywood: No other genre so consistently produces megahits, including the new Batman series, Spider-Man 1-3, and The Incredible Hulk.
Director Jon Favreau's adaptation of Iron Man, by comic legend Stan Lee, is no exception. The film, recently released on DVD, stars Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, a smarter-than-God weapons manufacturer who does his hero thing in a super-duper, electronic-age metal aqualung.
The movie grossed $318 million theatrically, making it the 21st highest grossing American film of all time.
It's not so hard to account for our yearning for superheroes, says British comics guru Alan Moore, the iconoclastic author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell.
"There's a side of American culture that's very uncomfortable with confrontation unless it has . . . superior power" over its enemy, "say, help from a man who rocketed here from Krypton," says Moore, who is the subject of director DeZ Vylenz's magisterial documentary, The Mindscape of Alan Moore.
Iron Man screenwriters Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby agree. "The fight used to be so clear in World War II. . . . There were good guys and bad guys," says Fergus. "Look around now, and we don't know who is what."
What divides Moore from Lee, who has helped adapt a number of his comics for film, including the Spider-Man series, X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Hulk, is that Lee embraces this nostalgia while Moore rejects it as a distraction from real problems.
Moore, who spoke on the phone from his native Northampton, northwest of London, says the industry is too quick to market palaver as serious art.
"I think a big misconception of the 1980s was that comics were growing up. . . . Instead, it was the culture [which] was being infantilized," he said.
Moore has repudiated every film adapted from his work, including From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Constantine, and V for Vendetta. He is wary of 300 director Zack Snyder's adaptation of his most-celebrated piece, Watchmen, due in March. (Vylenz said Moore has refused to accept payment for Watchmen.)
Lee, by contrast, says he loves to see his work on the silver screen. "There will always be high-concept [superhero] films. People love that sort of thing," said Lee, who turns 86 in December.
Iron Man is set in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military's mission is compromised by international terrorists. Even though the film touches on hot-button issues such as the military-industrial complex and the war on terror, the filmmakers avoid politicking. It's a hallmark of the blockbuster, which must not upset a single person in the world, lest it lose money.
"John [Favreau] told us he didn't want a movie that would make a statement," says Ostby. " 'Everyone knows war is bad,' " he said.
For Moore, this is what's wrong with the entertainment industry.
"My feeling is that my audience probably needs waking up or reconnecting to a more authentic appreciation of the world," said Moore.
"We have experience fed to us now by the media in pretty much the same manner a mother bird will feed regurgitated worms to the babies. The babies just have to open their beaks and do nothing," Moore said.
He maintains that like traditional myths, most comics reaffirm the status quo. If that's the case, then Moore's comics subvert the accepted world-view and challenge us to think differently.
Moore's method uses the conventions of the superhero story to deconstruct the genre. His heroes are revolutionaries who have no superhuman abilities - and sometimes no virtues.
V, the hero of V, is a "Romantic anarchist adventurer" who fights the Orwellian government ruling over a fictional England in the name of individual freedom. Published between 1982 and 1988, V was prescient: The government controls the public by installing surveillance cameras on every street in the nation. And indeed, a massive system of such cameras has been installed in British cities since 1997.
"I thought the idea . . . was a chilling vision of fascism. Now I'm actually living in that world," said Moore.
Watchmen is a mind-blowing, layered story set in an America on the brink of nuclear war. It follows six superheroes as they investigate the death of one of their own. Moore says the comic is an investigation of the use and misuse of power, a theme evident from its title, which Moore took from the Roman satirist Juvenal: "But who watches the watchmen?"
The comic asks that we watch the watchmen we've allowed to rule us, whether they be government, police, or the educational system.
Moore said he still marvels at the prevalence of superheroes in American comics.
"It strikes me that it might be largely an expression of a culture of impunity . . . of being untouchable," theorizes Moore, who said the superhero helps us to avoid facing the effects of Sept. 11.
"Instead of repairing a battered self-image," Americans have become fixated "on the idea of superhuman invincibility . . . and I think it might be this concept that is leading to so many problems around the world."