Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Marvel Super Heroes: Super Heroes in Full Color

Superheroes populate our zeitgeist today, if we can define that by our popular cinematic entertainment. When Marvel Films began plotting how best to bring the iconic Marvel Universe, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the early 60’s, to screens around the world, using modern technology to help us really believe a hero can fly, they won the box office. Their old rival DC, with a stable of their own iconic superheroes (notably Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman), is currently trying to entice moviegoers into their cinematic superhero universe. These current superhero movies have started out dark and move into progressively darker territory, following the lead of superhero comics books. The comics have moved toward a mostly adult readership and now feature darker themes. They focus on grittier crimes and psychological analysis of the characters, always asking, “What would make a person disguise themselves and fight crime in a real world?”



Case(s) in point: the blockbuster film being released this week is “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” followed in May by “Captain America: Civil War.” In the first movie, the title says it all: the film features Batman fighting Superman, a dark vigilante fighting an unstoppable one-man judge of what is right and wrong. In Marvel’s third Captain America film, a similar dynamic is presented, as Captain America battles Iron Man, and all other heroes must pick a side. These plots reflect the narrative realism the comics developed as the readers grew older. Such tales are a long way from the zany fun of earlier Superman and Batman team ups in World’s Finest Comics. Even in the early days of Marvel, when the superheroes had real life problems and disagreements, they always had a villain present to show them what was really wrong.

I have my own bias. I don’t think Hollywood does itself justice. Sure, the audience seems to want to see darkness and more reality based stories, but that’s too easy. They take away the colorful madness that was comic books, put all the actors in black leather or mesh, i.e., more believable real costumes, and put these dark egos up on screen. In a real world in which it is hard to tell who a hero is, they show us heroes fighting each other. But it already seems cookie-cutter. I thought we might have had a move forward in what was possible with Marvel’s recent “Guardians of the Galaxy” comic book sci-fi extravaganza. This film featured a wider-ranging color palette, if not always necessarily brighter, and featured some exciting daylight action scenes. When Hollywood can make heroes in bright colors seem believable, I for one will finally think they got the comic book superhero right. Till then…

There is always “The Marvel Super Heroes” (1966). Or many other early animated superhero cartoon shows - whichever you like is fine. Me? As a kid, this 1966 series – one of the cheesiest ever made with an obvious (even to a kid) cheap budget allowed only very limited, ah, suggestions, of animation – introduced me to my favorite superheroes on a screen. I saw the Batman TV series, but you see, I was a Marvel reader. Where were my heroes? In this poorly done but fondly remembered series.

These shorts were licensed for production from Marvel by Grantray-Lawrence Animation, and there were five series produced: Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, The Mighty Thor, and the Sub-Mariner. Each had thirteen whole episodes made up of seven-minute segments for a full half hour show. The animation style is sublimely ridiculous, taking actual comic book art and moving the drawings around, or animating a limb or mouth here or there, to create an “animated” cartoon. When I first discovered the show at an early age, I loved this style anyway: it was the actual comic art I already enjoyed (such as the classic work of Jack “King” Kirby, among others) and it was now on my television screen. Ah, to be that young and uncritical again! My guess is they probably used the words Stan Lee wrote in the comics as well. So it looked cheap. But it was the best thing going. And it was somehow purely Marvel Comics!

Strangely, whoever put the show on for my afternoon viewings neglected to air “The Sub-Mariner” shorts, so I’ve never seen one. But the others seemed to run constantly and… they had theme songs. For each hero. Which were silly. And fun. And are the kinds of songs that lodge into your brain and don’t want to leave. I can recall them all. Except for The Sub-Mariner’s. Even now. And as a kid, I didn’t think these songs were weird. I embraced everything about this series because, well, because superheroes at that point were fun and were also models for how to view justice in the world. In today’s media saturated world, it might be hard to understand that this was an exciting series, even with bad animation and tons of commercial breaks.

Which brings us back to today. Though well-hyped now, I suspect interest will severely wane in the series DC is trying to jumpstart by having The Dark Knight fight the Man of Steel. And Marvel. Their formulaic scripts are just starting to run dry of excitement, so my hope is that they try to overturn the darkness of today’s comic book universes and give us some heroes. There should be less ambiguity about who is a hero. And there should be more color. And how about a closing theme to get people excited and hopeful, maybe something like this, the theme song of The Merry Marvel Marching Society, from the same era:



The Merry Marvel Marching Society Theme Song

Stand a little straighter. Walk a little prouder.

Be an innovator. Clap a little louder.

Grow forever greater. We can show you how to.
Where will you be then?
You belong, you belong, you belong, you’ll belong
To the Merry Marvel Marching Society.
March along, march along, march along to the song
Of the Merry Marvel Marching Society.
I you growl, if you grown with a dour sour outlook,
If you howl, if you moan, you can lose your sour grout
By keeping trim and in step with the vim and the pep
Of the Merry Marvel Marching Society.
Be an early riser. Strive to be ambitious.
Speak a little wiser. Try to be judicious.
Be a good advisor, never ever vicious.
Where will you be then?

Face front…
Lift your head…
You’re on the winning team…
NUFF SAID!

You belong, you belong, you belong, you belong,
To the Merry Marvel Marching Society.
March along, march along, march along to the song
Of the Merry Marvel Marching Society.
I you growl, if you grown
And your star is nearly zero,
Do not howl, do not moan,
You can be a superhero,
Marching right along to the fighting song
Of the Merry Marvel Marching Society.
Stand a little straighter. Walk a little prouder.
Be an innovator. Clap a little louder.
Grow forever greater. We can show you how to.
Where will you be then?


Can you imagine anything so positive in any movie today, let alone a superhero blockbuster? Come on Hollywood. I dare you. Where will you be then? Maybe making some really fun comic book films. Maybe it’s time for a Legion of Superheroes franchise.


*** The Marvel Super Heroes show is not currently available.
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