Superheroes are some of the longest lasting characters of our modern pop culture history, and some of the earliest examples are still to this day the most well known of the genre. Superman and Batman were both created in the 1930s, and today they are two of the most easily recognizable fictional characters in the world.
A lot has changed over the last 75 years. How do the characters of this genre manage to go so long without dating themselves? Casablanca takes place the same year Wonder Woman was created but Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman now seem very old-fashioned, while Wonder Woman is more relevant today than ever. How is this possible?
For the most part, superheroes aren’t directly tied to one specific time. They exist in all times in the modern era (and if they happen to have a time machine that week, any era). Superhero stories are often written so you can’t specifically tell what year it is. “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” came out in 1973 but it’s a story that can be told over and over in any year.
The thing that separates most superheroes from other types of characters is their connection to a medium that is constantly creating new stories for them. If we think of movies and short stories as short-form fiction, and television and novels as long-form fiction then superhero stories (and soap operas for that matter) can be considered super-long-form fiction. Sure there have been reboots over the years but it’s not difficult to think of the Batman that met a young Dick Grayson in 1940 as the same Batman whose own son eventually dons the red and yellow in 2006. The character of Batman boasts an impressive amount of story and has culturally relevant staying power that would make Bart Simpson jealous.
This kind of staying power requires a certain amount of flexibility. Luckily, the ability to adapt to contemporary topics is so ingrained in the genre, it might as well be considered its superpower. While the characters in Casablanca are trapped in their 1940s story forever, comic book authors are constantly working to reflect the society that each new story is told within. In the 60s we had a Batman that was full of camp and surrounded by bright colours. By the moody 90s, the city of Gotham had been stripped of almost all its humour to fit with the emotional climate of the time.
In the 70s and 80s, drugs and AIDS were quickly becoming major social issues and superheroes stepped up to the plate and told stories about them. In 1971 an issue of Green Lantern/Green Arrow revealed Green Arrow’s longtime sidekick Speedy (little on the nose with the name there) to be addicted to heroin. The cover famously shows Speedy about to shoot up while Green Arrow stands in the background dramatically exclaiming, “My ward is a junkie!”
The genre has also been able to adapt to cultural sea changes by pumping new characters into these stories that can better reflect the changing times. The 70s were a time of great change in race relations in the United States and superheroes dove in headfirst. In 1972 a new hero came to Marvel’s New York City: Luke Cage. Cage’s hyper dense skin makes him impenetrable to bullets. At a time when African American men were being gunned down in the streets, Cage was often shown with bullets bouncing off of him as he wore his trademark metal cuffs and chain. As the issue of Black men being shot in the streets returns to the cultural zeitgeist today, it’s no coincidence that Luke Cage has a small-screen adaptation (currently in production) coming to Netflix.
While some superheroes have slowly changed their tones to fit the time they’re being written in and other new characters have been introduced to deal with the troubles of that time, there are still others that have had complete retroactive continuity changes (retcons) to make sure they fit in a contemporary world. From the character’s inception in 1963, Tony Stark has been involved in the international arms trade. In his first incarnation he is injured during the Cold War and has to take on the role of Iron Man to escape capture by Vietnamese forces. In the 90s, his story was retconned and the Gulf War became the setting for his origin-inducing incident. When the character was brought to the big screen in 2008, this origin story changed yet again to reflect the ongoing war in the Middle East.
Without the ability to adapt and change to fit different cultural moods, stories of super-human valour and adventure would seem, at best, as quaint as a pair of former lovers meeting in a Morrocan nightclub in WWII. At worst, they’d be seen as nothing more than drawings for children from a different time. Instead, these characters feature in some of the highest grossing films of all time. As new stories continue to be told about these characters, we can be sure that we’ll keep coming back to them, like an old familiar song that we just want to hear one more time.