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“Superheroes are all around us,” says PBS’ three-hour Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, a documentary about comic books and their lasting influence over the last 75 years. We don’t really need to be told — the characters saturate TV, movies, and costumes from Halloween to international conventions. As the series points out, it’s not a niche anymore, it’s mainstream.
Still, there’s quite a bit that the casual comic fan might not know about the origins of these now ubiquitous characters, and that is primarily who Superheroes seems made for. The documentary hits the highlights of the rise of DC and Marvel comics and their most popular and enduring creations, like Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman and X-Men. Liev Schreiber provides a short, subdued introduction at the top of every hour (his connection to the comic world is that he played Sabertooth in the much maligned Wolverine: Origins film), but he need not say much. Superheroes flies through its historical survey like an (invisible) jet.
Superheroes collects some of the biggest names in the industry to help tell the sprawling tale, including artists, actors, and illustrators: Stan Lee, Jim Steranko, Michael Chabon, Joe Simon, Adam West and others. Naturally, enthusiasts may bristle at the finer points of comic history being glossed over, but overall the program does a fine job of exploring the early years of the comic industry in its first episode, a burgeoning TV market in its second, and the rise and future of digitization for its finale.
PBS has made the odd choice to run all three episode hours back to back, which, while somewhat exhausting, does pack a powerful punch. And for all of its industry back-patting and heralding of the greatest of superhero kind though, the documentary doesn’t shy away from mentioning the commercialization of the form, or its greatest money maker: merchandising. Nor does it ignore the impact that independent comics like Image have on the industry, and why their creators left the main comic houses (namely, that big-name titles, like Superman, have become too corporatized to be innovative).
The documentary also touches on feminist issues, racial integration in comics, the rise of the super-villain, pop art and the comics code. Essentially, everything; comics have always served as a mirror to all that’s happening in culture, and the influence clearly flows freely in both directions. Seeing that develop over a century makes for an engaging watch.
Superheroes adds a little zing to its linear narrative and traditional documentary approach though by doing exactly what the comic industry is doing: digitizing. Panels pop, heroes animate off of the page, and all of it is wrapped up in a fast-paced sweep of history that, despite its three-hour time stamp, only lags in a few places (mostly in the latter two episodes, where the sprawling content begins to lose too much focus).
After going from the humble creation of Superman to the filmic juggernauts like Avengers, those with a growing interest in the world of comics should leave satisfied with their new knowledge, while veteran fans will likely be drawn in by a strong sense of nostalgia, particularly given the ample amount of archival footage. The impression left is that for an industry “built on sticky dimes and lunch money,” the geeks have come a long way, and can certainly claim a victory — just like Superheroes.
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