Superheroes are primarily thought of as comic book stars but the superhero is actually a multimedia phenomenon with roots going back to newspaper comic strips. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and the Phantom all began as newspaper comic strips. It was the Phantom, introduced in 1936, that was the first famous masked and costumed crime fighter. Flash Gordon also began as a comic book character and, within two years went from being a comic strip character to the hero of the motion picture serial, Flash Gordon (1936).
Not all superheroes began in comic books or comic strips. The Shadow began as an anonymous announcer for a detective fiction radio show and proved so popular that author Walter B. Gibson was hired to write pulp crime novels featuring the Shadow as a crime fighter. Universal Studios produced six film shorts featuring The Shadow in 1931 and 1932. The Shadow starred in his own radio show beginning in 1937 and only became a newspaper comic strip and a comic book superhero hero in 1940.
These early superheroes paved the way for their superhero successors. It was the Phantom who invented the superhero costume with mask while the Shadow’s real identity as millionaire playboy Lamont Cranston was a major influence on Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne.
Superman and Batman are the superstars of superheroes. They are the comic book characters everyone thinks of as the definitive superheroes and dominated the golden age of comic book superheroes by selling millions of books annually. Superman and Batman owe their dominance in the world of superheroes due to the fact they were multimedia stars. Superman was introduced in Action Comic #1 June 1938. By January 16, 1939 he was a daily newspaper comic strip and on February 12, 1940, Superman became a radio star. It was the Superman radio show that introduced “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” to the Superman mythos and it was as an animated cartoon produced by Fleischer Studios (creators of Betty Boop and Popeye) that gave us “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive.” The Fleischer cartoons also began the custom of Clark Kent using a phone booth to change into Superman. He was a hugely popular star of motion picture serials, a b-feature movie star, and with the arrival of television; Superman was the first superhero to get his own television show, the Adventures of Superman.
Batman, like Superman, was a multimedia superstar of the Golden Age of comic books. Like Superman, Batman quickly had his own comic strip and motion picture serials, and while Batman did not get his own radio show, he was a regular on the Superman radio program to give the Superman radio stars time off for vacations. Batman’s greatest contribution to superhero multimedia was the campy Batman television series of the 60s, which was a two part weekly television series that included a cliff hanger each week as homage to Batman’s motion picture serial past.
In 1968, 2001 a Space Odyssey proved that special effects movies could make money. Special effects had improved to the point that they were believable, seamless, and even unobtrusive in cinematic storytelling. In 1977 Star Wars (1977) rocked the motion picture industry as the first special effects action packed summer blockbuster film. Special effects action thrillers continue to dominate cinema to this day. It is no surprise that Superman: the Movie (1978) was the first blockbuster feature film starring a superhero and also number three at the box office the year after Star Wars came out. Batman would follow in 1989 as the top office champion.
Blockbuster special effects movies are enormously expensive. Star Wars: the Force Awakens (2015) had a budget of over three hundred million dollars. Studios cannot afford to invest these kinds of sums into movies without some guarantee of box office success. Movie franchises like Jurassic Park, James Bond, and Star Wars have dedicated followings guaranteed to pull in significant audiences to the theater near you. So do, superheroes. When studios produce high quality productions which stay true to the superheroes’ mythos they have a huge fan base with which to draw fans into the theater. Batman (twice), Spider-Man (also twice), and the Avengers have all been number one at the box office. In 2016, four super hero movies were in the top ten Captain America: Civil War #3, Deadpool #6, Batman Vs. Superman Dawn of Justice #8, and the Suicide Squad #9. Within a short period of time the Marvel World has become the third highest grossing movie franchise behind James Bond and Star Wars. For movie heroes, this truly is the Age of the Superhero.
The Action Movie is defined by car chases, martial arts, gunfights, spectacular stunts, and lots of things blowing up. The Action Hero has to pull off all of this and look convincing doing it. All movies have some kind of action, but the Action Hero as a specific type of movie genre evolved from the Antihero movies of the 60s and the 70s.
The ancestor of all Action Movie car chases is the famous car chase in the movie Bullitt (1968), starring Antihero superstar Steve McQueen. This chase has been copied, parodied, and referenced in countless movies, as car chases in general have become a staple of Action Hero films.
Bruce Lee epitomized Kung Fu and popularized the martial arts movie as a whole new genre of world cinema. Because of Bruce Lee, Karate, Kung Fu, and Tai Kwan Do became the primary form of cinematic unarmed combat. This style of martial arts quickly became a staple of action films starring actors such as Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jackie Chan and more recently Jason Statham.
The two biggest influences on Action films are James Bond films and Star Wars (1977). The James Bond of the Ian Fleming novels was the protagonist in Cold War era espionage/suspense novels but the James Bond of movies quickly evolved into an Action Hero with technological gimmicks, car chases, spectacular stunt work, and improbable Special Ops combat. For example, in Thunderball (1965) frogman armies fight underwater battles to recover stolen atomic bombs; and in You Only Live Twice (1967) a Ninja army breaks into a secret underground space launch facility hidden in a fake volcano.
Possibly the biggest single impact on the development of the Action Film was Star Wars (1977). The inspiration for Star Wars was the Flash Gordon (1936)serials of the 1930’s and 1940’s. With light sabers, barroom brawls, exploding Death Stars, and non-stop action Star Wars ushered in a new era of action packed blockbuster film.
Like Star Wars, the hugely successful Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) starring Harrison Ford, paid homage to the 1930s & 1940’s serials with a breathless fast paced series of cliffhangers, special effects, and incredible stunts. The movie also copied the look and feel of the 30s and 40s serials with a pre WWII era setting for added effect. The rock-jawed hard-boiled Indiana Jones is considered by many to be the greatest of all Action Heroes. Indiana Jones was featured in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1985), and Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (2008).
Mel Gibson also became a superstar by playing the Action Hero. The Road Warrior films and the Lethal Weapon (1987) series are hugely successful Action franchises. Bruce Willis entered the fray with Die Hard (1988). Arnold Schwarzenegger dominated the science fiction action genre with his Predator (1987) and Terminator (1984) series, while Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo character introduced in First Blood (1982) has become so infamous it is now an eponym. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “Rambo” as “A person resembling or displaying characteristics of Rambo; an exceptionally tough, strong, and uncompromising man (esp. in militaristic contexts); one who is characteristically aggressive and violent.”
While the Action Hero has some of the elements of the Swashbuckler from the serials of the 1930s and 1940s, the Action Hero also reflects the characteristics of the Antihero. All of the chivalry, romance, and gallantry of the Swashbuckler and classic Western Hero are gone. James Bond for example takes on the persona of his creator Ian Fleming who once said “I’m going to be quite bloody-minded about women from now on. I’m just going to take what I want without any scruples at all…” In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana’s guiding principles are “Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.” In the Mad Max films like the Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985); Max rarely shows the slightest hint of a code of honor or a sense of right and wrong, nor any romantic interest whatsoever. He is “a scavenger…living off the corpse of the old world.”