When Superman debuted in 1978, it invented a whole new movie genre—and a new kind of cinematic magic. Today, hundreds of millions of dollars depend on the heroic box-office performances of costumed crusaders whom Hollywood once thought worthy only of kiddie serials or campy parodies. The two Spider-Man movies rank among the top ten of all time for gross domestic receipts, and X-Men: The Last Stand and Superman Returns are among this year’s biggest hits.
Superhero comics have been around since Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer ruled the back lot, but only recently has Hollywood realized the natural connection between superhero comics and movies. It’s not just that both are simultaneously visual and verbal media; that formal connection would apply equally to the “serious” graphic novels and sequential art that want nothing to do with crime fighters in form- fitting outfits. Cinema isn’t just a good medium for translating graphic novels. It’s specifically a good medium for superheroes. On a fundamental, emotional level, superheroes, whether in print or on film, serve the same function for their audience as Golden Age movie stars did for theirs: they create glamour.
If that sounds crazy, it’s because we tend to forget what glamour is really about. Glamour isn’t beauty or luxury; those are only specific manifestations for specific audiences. Glamour is an imaginative process that creates a specific, emotional response: a sharp mixture of projection, longing, admiration, and aspiration. It evokes an audience’s hopes and dreams and makes them seem attainable, all the while maintaining enough distance to sustain the fantasy. The elements that create glamour are not specific styles—bias-cut gowns or lacquered furniture—but more general qualities: grace, mystery, transcendence. To the right audience, Halle Berry is more glamorous commanding the elements as Storm in the X-Men movies than she is walking the red carpet in a designer gown.
“You’ll believe a man can fly,” promised Supermans trailers. Brian Chase, a forty-year-old Los Angeles lawyer and comic-book enthusiast, recalls, “They did make you believe it.” He says that after seeing the movie for the first time, when he was thirteen, he “ran back from the theater jumping over things. I was embarrassingly convinced. I projected myself into it, and I was not going to let it go for the world.” That is the emotional effect of glamour, and it’s something superhero comics have delivered since Superman hit print in 1938. The Superman movie’s marketing slogan was thus more than a promise of convincing special effects. It was a pledge to engage the audience’s dreams without ridicule. In Superman, only the villains were silly. A decade later, Tim Burton’s operatic Batman made even the clown-faced Joker seem genuinely scary. Influenced by Frank Miller’s reinvention of Batman as the Dark Knight, Burton’s Batman movies portrayed a dangerous world in desperate need of a masked hero. Instead of the campy straight man of the 1960s television series or the tame Mister Rogers of the 1950s comic books, Batman was again a glamorous creature of the night, powerful and mysterious.
The superhero movies that have followed, like the comics from which they were derived, have engaged their subjects without emotional reservation. They may have humor (Marvel comics like Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four are famous for it), but they lack the kind of irony that punctures glamour and makes the audience feel foolish for its suspension of disbelief, the sort of campy mockery exemplified by the Batman television show or Joel Schumacher’s disastrous Batman & Robin, featuring a smirking George Clooney in the lead.
The superhero fans who wear costumes to comics conventions, buy miniatures of their favorite characters, or line up for artists’ autographs aren’t themselves glamorous. But neither were the Depression-era housewives who bought knockoffs of Joan Crawford’s gowns or wrote fan letters to Gary Cooper. And neither are the InStyle readers who copy Natalie Portman’s latest haircut or wear a version of Halle Berry’s Oscar dress to the prom. But all are acting on glamour’s promise. Glamour is, to quote a fashion blurb, “all about transcending the everyday.” The whole point of movie glamour was—and is—escape. “What the adult American female chiefly asks of the movies is the opportunity to escape by reverie from an existence which she finds insufficiently interesting,” wrote Margaret Farrand Thorp in America at the Movies (1939). Movies are “the quickest release from a drab, monotonous, unsatisfying environment in dreaming of an existence which is rich, romantic, glamorous.”