Martin Scorsese’s now repeated dismissals of the Avengers movie series have provoked a variety of reactions—some of them very strong. The core of Scorsese’s critique is that Marvel (and similar big budget action movies) are like a “theme park,” that is, they are pure visual spectacle without intellectual or artistic substance. However, there is a reason why the Marvel films are popular. If something is desired by many, it does not necessarily mean that thing is good, but the intense, universal desire for something does mean something. There is something behind the vapid irony and CGI spectacle that touches deeply into the human spirit.
Indeed, before the rise of the twenty-first century superhero movie, comic book culture was engaged in a tug -of -war with the guardians of haute culture for the minds and hearts of moviegoers whenever comic book culture broke out of the marginal realm of readers of actual comic books. For conservative grouches lamenting the decline of the American university, one of the primary complaints was that their more progressive colleagues were “teaching comic books” in their classes. At the same time, it has widely been recognized that comics—along with other elements of American popular culture—are very important to the people of the world and can make a strong case for their place in the Western Canon.
In his recent book, Superheroes! The History of a Pop-Culture Phenomenon form Ant-Man to Zorro, Brian R. Solomon chronicles the history of comic book culture from its inception in the twentieth century until the recent proliferation of seemingly never-ending comic book films and streaming series. First and foremost, it must be mentioned that Solomon’s work is not an academic or even “middle brow” book. It is written for popular readers and contains bite sized portions of mythology, critical theory, and history-along with section headers, lists, and blocked off inserts. At the same time, Solomon does provide interesting pieces of comic book arcana that are not necessarily readily accessible to the outside observer.