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.