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How many superheroes is too many?

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A little over 30 years ago, the movie that kicked off Hollywood’s love affair with comic-book superheroes — 1978’s Superman — was heralded by an ad line that now sounds quaint enough to have come from some three-ring circus in the 1920s: ”You’ll believe a man can fly.” At the time, it did seem an astounding thing to believe. I swear, during the sequences in which Christopher Reeve whisked Margot Kidder through the air, a lot of people were looking for the strings they assumed the actors must be dangling from, and when they couldn’t find them, they were amazed.

Today, the powers possessed by movie superheroes are so showy and colorful that they make easy believers of us all. This summer alone, we believed that an intergalactic Norse-god bruiser could wield a cosmic hammer to demolish his enemies (Thor); we believed that a man in a pulsating lime-green bodysuit could sculpt objects from his mind made entirely of light (Green Lantern); we believed that a man — or woman — could magnetize the arcs of speeding missiles, sprout dragonfly wings, or turn their body to diamond crystal (X-Men: First Class). This week, in Captain America: The First Avenger, a film that didn’t screen in time for EW’s deadline (though why do I sort of feel like I’ve already seen it anyway?), we’ll believe that a bionically enhanced paramilitary stoic with an impenetrable shield…well, I have no doubt we’ll believe he can do something that knocks our socks off.

There’s a real drawback, however, to all this promiscuous believing: We no longer believe that very much of this stuff is special. How could we, when we see it, at least over the summer, on a more or less weekly basis? Superheroes, before they do anything else (act alienated, defeat sociopathic criminals, drive heavily gadgetized retro-future sports-mobiles), are supposed to make us go ”Wow!” But in this season of one comic-book adaptation after another, I’ve experienced something a lot less bedazzling than that. Call it Superhero Fatigue. Digital effects now make everything possible — but they therefore have the effect of making the impossible seem expected, even banal. Stare at enough visual magic and it’s no longer awesome. It’s just F/X wallpaper.

Yet I’m not only talking about the jadedness that can arise from the all-CGI-all-the-time era. Here are a few other reasons I think Superhero Fatigue is now upon us:

The Rerun Factor
The tropes and backstories and concepts that power superhero fantasies are becoming seriously repetitive and innocuous. We seem to be watching the same three or four stories over and over again (a mystically strong stranger arrives from another planet! A lonely rich dude puts on a vigilante mask! A guy undergoes a mutation and turns into a monster/spider/überhuman! They all kick ass and get lots of media exposure from fictionalized big-city newspapers!). Comics, especially some of the more ambitious graphic novels, allow these concepts to flower in wonderfully twisted directions. In movies, the kinks tend to get flattened out, and we’re left with eternal variations on the same theme.

The Franchise Factor
The sheer numbing frequency of sequels, prequels, and reboots has created an atmosphere of comic-book overkill. I’m not sure I can pinpoint when I began to feel saturated by superhero glut, but it may have been the moment when I saw The Incredible Hulk (2008), Hollywood’s second stab at the unjolly green giant, and realized that the film had ”corrected” the folly of Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) simply by not being terrible. Or maybe it was the moment, over the past year, when the plan was announced to reboot Superman…again.

The Antihero Factor
This dates back to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman (a succulent pop spectacle) and Burton’s decision to cast the mealy Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader. It worked — and so, to a degree, did the cutesy-morose Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man (2002) and the jabberingly ironic Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man (2008). The hero of Kick-Ass (2010) was just an ordinary kid pretending to be a superhero. Yet the cumulative effect of all these anti-macho brainiacs has been to make it seem as if a superhero could be anyone. When Seth Rogen mugged and posed his way through the flaky idiot whimsy of The Green Hornet, it was like, Why are we watching this guy?

The Second-Tier Factor
By the time they got to be movie heroes, Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man had a mythical place in global culture. Simply by showing up, they were cool. Now we’re on to more derivative and less exalted heroes, such as Thor and Captain America. I’m not dissing them (Thor, for my money, was high formulaic fun), but as characters they lean a bit more toward the generic. There’s a feeling that Hollywood has now begun scraping the Marvel/DC barrel. Next summer’s The Avengers is a comic-book epic with nearly every hero in the Marvel stable. Which raises the question: After that, who’s left?

Repetition, of course, can dull the thrill of almost anything. Yet I think there’s another underlying reason for Superhero Fatigue, a reason that points to the antidote. When comic-book movies really work, it’s because our connection to those heroes is intensely personal. They’re the rebels/mutants/geeks who transform themselves and triumph. It’s telling that The Dark Knight, the greatest superhero movie ever made, wasn’t really directed in a ”comic-book style.” It was more like visionary ’70s psycho-noir. Christopher Nolan made a film that, in its grand and brooding psychology, transcended the genre, and we can all hope that he does it again with The Dark Knight Rises. More and more, though, the films that emerge from our tentpole-movie culture force interior struggle to take a backseat to external razzmatazz — the sheer spectacle of men flying, lifting, smashing, morphing. It’s all very eye-popping, but there’s only so much fun to be had when you’re on the outside looking in.

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