Review: Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle
As a lifelong comic book collector and artist, I have been fascinated with the medium. Comic books have reflected the times we live in every bit as much as they’ve displayed a world we can barely imagine. As an art form, comics have always been the underdog, put in the pigeonhole of “pop art” and treated very much like a passing fad or distraction rather than a distinct and important piece of our lives. Thankfully, there are documentaries like PBS’ Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle that point out the journey the medium has taken and the impact its had on our world since emerging on the scene.
Directed by Emmy Award-winning producer/director Michael Kantor and hosted by Liev Schrieber, the three-part documentary examines the defining eras of comic books and the superheroes featured in them, building the story of their journey much like a comic book. Featuring interviews with a bevy of writers and artists like Stan Lee, Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Phil Jimenez, Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Denny O’Neil, Joe Quesada, Zack Snyder, Jim Steranko, Neal Adams, etc., each era has a subject matter expert to give insight into a particular era, which makes it all the more intricate.
Unfolding like an origin story, we start at the very beginning, when creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created one of the most defining superheroes of all time: Superman. From their humble beginnings and tumultuous experiences in reaping any kind of reward from their creation, the documentary examines the plight of early creators as they “broke ground” on what would eventually become a billion dollar industry. Seeing the old black and white photos of these early comic book pioneers, along with interviews with those who are still alive, is a slice of warm nostalgia and immersive enough that you can feel the energy and freshness of a medium being born.
Interspersing interviews with old photos, art, and video throughout the various segments, the documentary is a wonderfully exhaustive look at the comic book industry, which takes a look at not only the creators and publishers, but the characters born of them and how they took shape over the years in the ever-changing social tide of the world, particularly the United States. From the early days of World War II, through Vietnam, and post 9/11, the doc peels back the layers of how characters “responded” to the world they lived in, paving the way for their own growth and change.
What I love the most about this documentary, besides the fact that it fits squarely within my interest in the subject matter, is that it really covers the gamut on the evolution of the industry. From the humble beginnings of the early artists and writers to the journey to radio, TV, film, and beyond, you feel like you’ve been given the ultimate history lesson on comics and superheroes. For avid readers, it’s a trip down nostalgia lane, where you can nod your head and smile approvingly as they mention the various familiar turns that the industry has taken in its progress to the current state.
Covering the key moments in comics history, such as the creation of Superman, Batman, and Captain America, the emergence of Marvel comics, the Batman TV show, the death of Gwen Stacy, the one-two punch of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen in 1986, the Image Comics revolution of the ‘90’s, the death of Superman, and the current era at its height of popularity with the success of comic book films like THE AVENGERS and THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy, as well as the video game market, I felt like I was witnessing the journey of one of my favorite characters, from underdog to hero.
That may sound a bit hyperbolic, but it’s hard to separate yourself from an industry that has such a huge influence on geek culture (probably THE biggest next to movies) and it resonates in a way that makes you feel proud to be a geek. Witnessing the humble beginnings and ups and downs of the industry, including the war with censors and the comics code authority, the doc shows that it wasn’t always a bunch of guys just drawing funnybooks in a basement, but an industry struggling to survive. Censorship, economic woes, social issues, and commercial growth are all tackled here, as well as the allure of why we are drawn to superheroes.
Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle is the finest documentary I’ve seen on comic books and superheroes, serving as a perfect companion piece to similar docs like CRUMB and Comic Books Unbound and can easily be looked at as an updated and more refined version of 1988’s Comic Book Confidential. If you’re looking for an immersive, fun, and inspiring look at the evolution of comic books and the superheroes they spawned, this is it. Watching the journey unfold from era to era is an amazing thing to watch and may leave you with a well of pride by the time its over. It did for me.
You can catch Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle when it airs in its entirety on PBS on October 15, 2013 or purchase it on blu-ray on the same day. Get it here now!