A two-night documentary about the history of superheroes in comic books, the movies, and on television, Superheroes Decoded does a good job of summarizing how we arrived at our current state: a pop culture overloaded with superhero material. The first night, which aired Sunday on History Channel, is titled “American Legends” and is dominated by DC Comics and the first appearances of Superman and Batman. The second part of Superheroes Decoded, titled “American Rebels,” airs Monday night, and is focused largely on Marvel Comics creations, such as Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Black Panther, and others.
“Rebels” makes Marvel Comics the primary source of innovation in comic-book history, starting with titles such as The Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The X-Men in the 1960s. Marvel writer-editor Stan Lee trots out to give his usual I-invented-everything spiel. Superheroes Decoded covers a lot of ground, pointing out the parallels between the births of various superheroes and concurrent societal events, such as the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the modern feminist era, and post-9/11 terrorism. For the most part, the talking heads enlisted to frame these events come from the comic book industry, including such writers and editors as Geoff Johns, Gail Simone, and Joe Quesada. It’s also fun to see Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin read aloud a fan letter he wrote to Marvel Comics when he was a kid. “It changed my life,” he says about seeing his byline in print, and one has no doubt this was an inspiration for the future novelist.
There are particularly good segments about the creation and evolution of the Black Panther and Wolverine. Decoded sometimes resorts to tired clichés in its voice-over narration (“It’s the dawn of geek culture”; “In the new digital age, the nerd is king”), but for the most part, it’s an efficient distillation of superhero mythology. It’s too bad that, as the history approaches contemporary times, Decoded relies less on comic-book art for its visuals and more on TV and movie adaptations. Who would not rather see artist Jack Kirby’s version of The Fantastic Four rather than the movie incarnation of those heroes?
Lurking around the edges of this production is a dilemma — a paradox — hinted at but not directly addressed: The source of a multibillion-dollar industry in superhero movies and TV shows remains rooted in comic books, an industry that is economically and culturally far smaller than its multimedia spinoffs. It is asserted by Decoded that comics have “matured,” but no one on camera wants to admit the fact that the readership has gotten older without growing much of a younger audience.
Superheroes Decoded wants to remain upbeat and positive, however. With its emphasis on Marvel, Decoded slights DC Comics’ contribution to the show’s “American Rebels” theme — but then, it also ignores virtually every other comic-book company other than DC and Marvel. This isn’t a definitive superhero history, but it’ll do fine as an introduction.
Superheroes Decoded airs Monday at 9 p.m. on the History Channel.