The modern hero is a messed-up guy who drinks too much – and is all the more super for it, says James Delingpole.Underpants on constant display, unflattering tights, stupid flappy cape, implacable enemies, zero sex-life, a tortured past and the nagging frustration of having to save the world on a daily basis but never being able to claim credit under your true identity: who in their right mind would want to be a superhero?
Over here, the latest Marvel Comics blockbuster Iron Man is fast becoming the summer's must-see movie. The critically acclaimed film, starring a rehabilitated and on-top-form Robert Downey Jr as a millionaire businessman and inventor whose metal suit grants him incredible powers, generated £100 million worldwide in its first five days of release.
The Incredible Hulk, Batman: The Dark Knight and Hellboy II will likewise be invading our cinemas shortly, while the Bionic Woman is already back on our television screens.
Now Marvel has announced a slew of new productions, including Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America and one featuring all three characters, The Avengers. After its announcement, Marvel's share price rose by more than nine per cent.
So just what is it about today's breed of superhero that sets them apart? In some respects, not a great deal.
Iron Man, for example, has been with us since 1963. He was co-created by Spider-Man's inventor, Stan Lee, and based on Howard Hughes – "an inventor, adventurer, a multi-billionaire, a ladies' man and finally a nutcase", as Lee put it.
There can be no doubting, though, that superheroes are cool again. More revered and successful, perhaps, than at any time since the era comic collectors call the Golden Age. This was the period between 1938, when Superman was invented, and the post-War late-Forties, when the public had an understandably voracious appetite for the exploits of strong, decent, super-endowed men and women triumphing over evil.
But then came a backlash, in which superheroes fell out of favour, accused of everything from fostering juvenile delinquency to promoting deviant sex. According to the influential 1950s psychologist Fredric Wertham, Wonderwoman encouraged female dominance, fetishism and lesbianism, while Batman and Robin were obviously gay. The adoption in response by the comics industry of a stringent new Comics Code resulted in story lines so blandly inoffensive that no one wanted to read them.
Ever since, the fortunes of comicbook superheroes have waxed and waned according to the tastes and mores of each new generation. After the Sixties "Silver Age", which saw the birth of more complex, science-fiction-influenced characters such as Spider-Man and X-Men, came the inevitable rejection of old-fashioned superhero values.
What the disillusioned Seventies crowd wanted were more socially conscious types like the Green Arrow (an angry, street-smart populist who acted as the groovy foil to the nice-but-dim authoritarian Green Lantern) and antiheroes like the savage Wolverine and dark and tormented The Punisher.
Today, audiences are far too sophisticated to take at face value the plain, honest, good-versus-evil simplicity of the Golden Age superheroes.
"The way the superheroes of today are presented is darker and more complex than it was in the past," says Paul Simpson, author of the Rough Guide to Superheroes. "Many were created in the 1930s, in the middle of the Great Depression, when people needed a certain kind of hero. Superheroes with flaws are easier for us to take in now."
Probably the last franchise to pull it off was the one featuring clean-cut, straightforward, sexless late-Seventies Christopher Reeve as Superman. But long before that, the seeds of doubt had been sewn in the Sixties by the self-parodic kitsch and high camp of the "Bif! Bam! Pow!" Batman television series. The cause of superhero credibility was looking all but lost.
The book that really changed everything was Watchmen – the seminal 1986 graphic novel by British writer/artist team Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
This portrayed superheroes not as magnificent, selfless, crime-fighting role models, but as warped, sexually confused sociopaths whose powers had brought them little but misery and psychological damage. Everyone in comics worships it.
You can detect the widespread influence it has had in modern television series such as Heroes. Here, no matter how apparently thrilling and delightful and useful their superpowers, the characters are contractually obliged to see them as a curse, never as a fun party trick.
Either that, or the powers they have are really horrible ones, like the poor Guatemalan girl who can't help weeping black tears of death which kill even nice people who are trying to save her. Today's audiences like their superheroes to be flawed: the more messed up the better.
Hence the popularity of the increasingly dark Batman movies, based not on the original caped crusader but on the much edgier, more angst-ridden and morally compromised figure in Frank Miller's 1980s Dark Knight graphic novels.
Christian Bale's Batman in Christopher Nolan's much-praised 2005 film noir Batman Begins (the sequel to which comes out later this year) has plenty of money, a cool underground bunker and some pretty smart kit: but you wouldn't want to be him. Too much hinterland.NVDL: Now for vital soial commentary....this is excellent and insightful:
All of which, of course, gels perfectly with how so many modern viewers like to think of themselves: as amazing, special people with truly unique talents which yet astonishingly have gone unappreciated by a foolish, uncaring world.
For a good example of this, look at how most of the contestants on The X Factor and Pop Idol behave when Simon Cowell tells them they aren't, after all, God's gift.
This phenomenon is brilliantly anatomised by writer Peter Whittle in his new book Look At Me. In it, he argues that the Western world, and Britain especially, has fallen prey to a vacuous solipsism brought on by our collective failure to teach children that respect needs to be earned, not given as of right, and by our new fashion for always praising but never criticising. We all think we're superheroes now.
The second obvious explanation for the great superhero comeback is the state of the world. The darker the times, the more urgent our collective need for super-powered fantasy figures to dig us out of our hole.
Superman did it for the Thirties generation, sandwiched between the Depression and the Second World War. Iron Man and his chums are doing it now in this new era of recession and global terror – the only difference being that in accordance with modern tastes, they're that little bit more psychologically damaged.
"I was very taken by Iron Man – I knew it was going to be good when Robert Downey Jr was cast," says Roz Kaveney, the author of Superheroes! Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Films. "He captured the flawed nature of the character – after all, Iron Man is one of the few superheroes who has a serious drinking problem."
So why does he think superheroes are undergoing such a resurgence?
"It's because comics are one of the few places in popular culture that discusses power and its uses, and the idea that with great power comes great responsibility – something Spider-Man was told by his doomed uncle – at a time when politics are about individual responsibility and the need to be accountable. And, of course, superheroes show it is possible to make a difference."
Indeed, one of the reasons Iron Man has proved so successful, critics have suggested, is the way – made, as it was, with the full support of the US Air Force – it manages to endorse war and militarism for the hawks in the audience, while simultaneously appeasing pacifists by showing that peace is the only way.
Most incredibly of all, Iron Man even manages to make the UN come together as an effective peacekeeping organisation. Now that's what I call super power.
From The Daily Telegraph, UK.
NVDL: This needs to be emphasised again: individual responsibility and the need to be accountable. And, of course, superheroes show it is possible to make a difference.
My favorite superheroes are Superman, Batman, Thor, Wonder Woman, the Fantastic Four (movies have been terrible), X-Men (especially Wolverine). Once upon a time I fancied myself as Thor...when I had long flowing locks and the body of a young god. But I think the popular culture sense (though they might not admit it publicly or even in conversation), that the world is in deep shit. What we need now is to get away from our computers and start taking individual responsibility. Grow up, get back a sense of discipline and the habit of 'trying to do right', because there was never a better time for individuals to make a difference in the world.