Encyclopedia of superheroes on film and television Review and Opinion


The Encyclopedia Of Superheroes On Film And Television
John Kenneth Muir
McFarland hardcover $59.95

review by Tony Lee

The introduction sums up the enduring appeal of superheroes: "We all want desperately to believe that good can defeat evil, and... that there is a clear line differentiating these opposing philosophies." This may not be the whole story, but perhaps it accurately describes the prevailing hopes of western society, especially since the events of 11th September 2001. The book opens with a succinct history of the subgenre, and notes how various eras have presented comicbook figures, on home and cinema screens, from the straight-faced gung-ho action of postwar America, through a camp phase of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a decade of nostalgia, to the 'dark age' of hard-edged cynicism that characterised 1990s' vigilantes. The post-feminist (such as Buffy) and often plain-clothes icons (see Unbreakable) of recent years, culminated in the triumph of our 21st century's superhero renaissance, enabled by the 'fantastic realism' of advanced digital effects.
   Having written books about Blake's 7, Doctor Who, BattleStar Galactica, Space 1999, and the films of John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, and Kevin Smith, author John Kenneth Muir is well grounded in the lore and minutiae of sci-fi and fantasy adventure. This encyclopedia is organised by comic's character names, with details of particular films or series accessible via the index, so the main text begins with the Amazing Spider-Man, followed by the likes of Angel (four seasons) and Automan, then Batman (corny TV, influential movies), The Bionic Woman, Buffy (all seven seasons), with other lesser-known titles in between. All the entries for TV series have complete episode guides, even if details are occasionally sketchy, and there are some usually well-chosen b/w photos throughout the book, though not all entries are illustrated.
   This is the first book where all three Captain America movies are featured. Coverage of The Crow is particularly welcome as this antihero has been ignored elsewhere. And it's intriguing to read more about the alleged merits of the unreleased Fantastic Four live-action movie made in 1994. Muir's comments on the superb Hulk movie are unfortunately dismissive, but he makes up for this sleight by sorting out a number of confusions over look-alike or sound-alike TV superhero programmes, and provides the most comprehensive section on The Six Million Dollar Man, though hardly completist, I've yet seen in print. Of course, Superman, the mainstay of this book's entire subject, demands and gets a suitably expansive chapter-sized entry and, along with the write-ups for Superboy and Supergirl, this offers the most extensive coverage of DC Comics' veteran figurehead outside of those specialist single-character books. Also worth mentioning is Witchblade, a much-praised series with a dedicated fan following, but one that demonstrates how shabbily the TV executives have treated successful super-heroines over the last ten years, and the show remains sadly unavailable on DVD. The final item looks at the accomplishments and promise of the X-Men franchise.
   Appendixes include a sometimes amusing listing of subgenre conventions and clichés, including: amnesia, bounty hunters, dogged reporters, evil twins, and the iconic rooftop 'gargoyle pose', epitomised by Batman and Daredevil. 'Incarnations' lists the actors and actresses who have played superheroes and supporting characters, and Muir adds memorable ad-lines, and his choices for best and worst productions.

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