Just looking at the past decade alone, with superheroes earning billions of dollars at the box office, you’d be forgiven if you thought that at no time in history have superheroes had this kind of mainstream influence before. But a newly released 2-part documentary hopes to change that impression. Called Superheroes Decoded, it is a fascinating look at the ups and downs of the superhero genre within the past century.
The first thing you’ll notice about the documentary is just how many people they interviewed. I was so happy to see a diverse group of people, from pop culture giants like Patty Jenkins, Clark Gregg and George R.R. Martin, to comic book creators like Nicola Scott and Mark Waid, to editors and publishers like Sana Amanat, Jim Lee and Geoff Johns. They also bring together several authors and academics, including Sean Howe, writer of the fantastic non-fiction book, Marvel: The Untold Story. And of course, no superhero documentary is complete without Stan Lee.
Oh, and the narrator of the documentary? Kevin Conroy, best known for the voice of DCAU’s Batman.
Needless to say, they truly pulled out all the stops here – and it’s so great to see them feature some older creators as well. Creators like Trina Robbins, who’s credited as an artist on Wonder Woman in the documentary, but is actually so much more – an industry pioneer and a long-time advocate for female comics creators.
But if getting so many of these brilliant people together isn’t good enough for you, then you have to be impressed with the vast resources used – from historical footage, to iconic comic book artwork, to clips from superhero media across all mediums. Clearly, no expense was spared to truly capture the experience of superheroes through the decades.
Here in Singapore, you can catch the 110-minute Part I tonight, 30 June, at 9.55pm on History (Starhub TV Channel 401)
While both parts of Superheroes Decoded are very US-centric, Part I is particularly so. Entitled “American Legends”, Part I looks at the characters of Superman, Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man, in the order that they were created. The documentary then tries to tie in the United States’ development through the years with the respective superhero.
For example, it connects Superman’s creation to the immigrant experience, while Batman’s creation ties in with the rise of organised crime. Captain America and Wonder Woman were created in response to the rise of Nazi Germany, while Spider-Man’s creation was connected to the growing youth counterculture of the 1960s.
Granted, there’s sometimes not enough evidence to say for sure how much of these cultural milestones influenced comic book superheroes. What was obvious to non-US fans like myself is that there’s always something new to learn about the historical environment that these superheroes were created in.
For example, I had not truly realised how big the role of women during World War II was, as they took on the jobs abandoned by men who were fighting overseas. It makes much more sense, therefore how having a role model like Wonder Woman must’ve resonated both in the US and outside of it.
Part I rounds off with the much maligned clampdown on the comic book industry thanks to a unsubstantiated link to juvenile delinquency. In particular, it choose to touch on how Batman and Robin’s relationship was accused of being homoerotic.
Part II will premiere in Singapore on 7 July, 9.55pm on History.
For me, personally, Part II, titled “American Rebels”, was much more interesting as it touched on superheroes including the Hulk, Wolverine, Iron Man, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Luke Cage and the X-Men. As in Part I, with each of these characters, they tied their creation and popularity to the concurrent US cultural experience.
The deeper look at the civil rights movement and the rise of feminism provided particularly valuable insights, while the opinions of authors like the enthusiastic William H. Foster III, who wrote “Dreaming of a Face Like Ours”, were both educational and entertaining.
I won’t spoil more of the truly eye-opening Part II, though I will say, if you’re particularly sensitive to being consistently called a nerd, be warned, this documentary will seem to delight in that label. And unfortunately, that’s not the only criticism I have.
It’s not a perfect documentary, of course…
Don’t get me wrong, Superheroes Decoded is an excellent look at the history of the US in the past century. However, the documentary does seem to conflate comic books and superheroes at times, selectively deciding when to talk about the history of comic books and when to just gloss over it in favour of a superhero-specific angle. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but it does make an already US-centric documentary even worse by pretending comics elsewhere in the world don’t exist.
I would also have preferred it if a greater number of people of colour and women in particular were represented throughout the documentary and not just where their voices are most important. So while it’s great to see mainly people of colour talk about black superheroes and the civil rights movement, and women talking about Wonder Woman and the rise of feminism, I would have liked to see them more often elsewhere in the documentary.
All in all, Superheroes Decoded is a must-watch regardless of whether you’re a long-time comic book fan or a relative newcomer. There’s truly something for everyone.