The first recorded usage of the word ‘superhero’ came back in 1899. Now over a century later, superheroes have infiltrated every corner of pop culture imaginable.
How superheroes have evolved from comics is a fascinating story, as they are now some of the most most influential (and profitable) characters in entertainment.
Although superhero films are currently riding a wave of unprecedented success, they also have a long and rich history. Superhero ‘serial’ films (where you’d go see a short chapter of a larger storyline every week at a theater) were popular in the 1930s and 40s and featured the first screen appearances of comic book heroes we love still today, like Superman, Batman, and Captain America.
As the comic industry slumped in the 1950s and beyond, so too did superhero movies. It wasn’t until the late 1970s when the success of Star Wars paved the way for the blockbuster superhero/sci-fi flick. Starting with Superman (1978), the next 15-20 years saw commercial successes for both traditional superheroes (like Flash Gordon and Batman) as well as newly-born ones (like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).
Successful titles like these, a new comic book boom in the 90s, and better special effects ushered in yet another era of superhero movies, many of them becoming multi-movie franchises (like X-Men, Spider-Man, and Fantastic Four). Today, superhero films have global appeal and they continually smash box office records.
Did you know ‘action figure’ was a term invented by Hasbro in the 1960s to get boys to play with their G.I. Joe dolls? The move worked and just a few years later Marvel and DC allowed toymaker Mego to begin manufacturing licensed superhero figures which remain popular collectibles today.
Then in the 1980s, an explosion in cartoon programming became a great tool for toy companies to sell their products to kids. Many of these action figures were based off original superhero cartoons (like ThunderCats) or were even packaged with their own comic books (like Masters of the Universe). Superhero action figures continue to enjoy a healthy presence today in toy aisles and comic conventions with both kids and adults alike.
With the advent of home game consoles in the late 70s, it only seemed natural for comic book heroes to make the jump from the big screen to a slightly smaller one. In 1979, Superman was released for the Atari 2600 (the first licensed video game). From then on, no matter how the genre seemed to be selling in the comic book or film markets, video games and superheroes remained inseparable.
But unfortunately for a long time, superhero video games had an awful and sad track record. For decades, the average console superhero title seemed to be nothing more than a franchising cash grab with the games often focusing too heavily on one gimmick or simply being a lame rehash of its associated movie’s plot. One notable example, 1999’s Superman for Nintendo 64, regularly appears on Worst Games of All-Time lists nearly two decades later.
But there were still some diamonds in the rough over the years (like 1991’s TMNT: Turtles In Time and Activision’s Spider-Man in 2000), and gradually developers have figured out what fans want in a superhero title. Sometimes this means inventing a universe of their own that we can all live in, like the MMORPG City of Heroes (2004-2012).
Whether they’re real machines or online slots you can play without spending, superheroes have also made their imprint on other types of games, including themed slot games featuring DC and Marvel heroes from companies like Playtech.
The success of superhero franchises has led to a pervasive presence in just about every other medium imaginable. From fan fiction to tabletop role playing games to school supplies, your favorite heroes can be found just about everywhere.
This even applies to roller coasters and other amusement park attractions. Superhero comic books and movies of course have plenty of thrills, making them perfect partners for theme rides like Universal’s Islands of Adventure’s The Incredible Hulk ride, Six Flags Fiesta Texas’ Superman: Krypton coaster, and countless others around the world.
Although it might feel like every available superhero has been thrust upon every medium there is already, there’s still plenty of superheroes who haven’t made it off the comic pages just yet. Be on the lookout for even more superheroes from DC, Marvel, and other publishers’ talent pools to go mainstream in the next decade or two.
As time goes on, it will be interesting to see if we are currently in a superhero-sized bubble that’s about to burst, or if larger-than-life heroes are going to remain standing tall as true pop culture icons.