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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: the Avengers

Who’s the richest superhero? Billionaire Bruce Wayne is an obvious choice. Tony Stark would be a good bet too. Green Arrow, Booster Gold, and Mr. Fantastic are all 1%-ers as well. Before comic books, almost all superheroes were wealthy: the Shadow, Doc Savage, Zorro, Scarlet Pimpernel, Spring-Heeled Jack. Money is the original superpower. It sunk its radioactive teeth into you from birth. But who’s the uber-richest of them all?

How about your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?

Look back at his 1962 issues and Peter Parker has to scrounge just to pay his recently widowed aunt’s rent. His first masked appearance was in a wrestling ring so he could take home some pocket money. When Tobey Maguire started playing the part in 2002, he just wanted to cash in, not listen to his Uncle Ben about responsibility and all that.

And cash in he did. The Spider-Man movie trilogy grossed just over a billion dollars. That’s about $371 million per film, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th biggest superhero money makers of all time.

Of course Bruce Wayne has some pockets of his own. The two Christopher Nolan films averaged $369 million, so just a couple of shakes of the piggy bank behind Tobey. Unless you average all six of the Batman films, including the 1997 franchise ending Batman and Robin. Then poor Bruce plummets to a $240 million average, way below Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man who ka-chings in at $315.

Fourth place goes to Superman Returns, the lonely solo reboot that still managed to gross $200.  Thor’s not far behind, debuting last year at $181. Though we may have to wait for Thor 2 to know the Asgardian’s real market value. And with Man of Steel in production, the Kryptonian is a wild card too. He could even redeem the collapse of his 80’s franchise when Superman III and IV pulled in a mild-mannered $60 and $16 million each.

Batman, however, has no flops in his bat closet. The 4 film franchise Tim Burton kicked off in 1989 averages $176 million, even with Schumacher’s Batman and Robin scrounging only $107. Ignore that low ball, and Batman flaps over Thor to perch under the 2006 Superman at $199.

Of course all this math is about to change.

July is rematch month for Hollywood’s billion dollar superheroes. The franchise-rebooting Amazing Spider-Man opens this week, and the reboot-capping Dark Knight Rises opens the 20th.

Despite Peter’s higher gross average, Bruce is the top seed. Dark Knight alone pulled in $533, more than doubling Batman Begins.  Until The Avengers plowed through box offices in May, Dark Knight was the third biggest money maker of all time, just under Avatar and Titanic (yes, uberdirector James Cameron hogs both first and second place). Adjust for inflation though and The Avengers plunges to 32nd, making Dark Knight s 28th the financial high bar for superhero films. (Gone With the Wind , the inflation-adjusted champion, opened way back in 1939, the same year the first 6-page “Bat-Man” premiered in Detective Comics.)

Peter Parker followed the more standard sequel trajectory, with Spider-Man 2 making a bit less than the Spider-Man, and 3 making a bit less than 2. Spider-Man 4 might have continued down that (still highly lucrative) slope, but post-trilogy contract negotiations were a supervillain Columbia Pictures could not defeat. Thus Andrew Garfield as the new Tobey Maguire.

Can Garfield really take on Christian Bale? Mark Zuckerberg pinned him in the first round of Social Network when Garfield played Zuckerberg’s less than savvy business partner. But Bale’s current Batman costume is so constricting, he almost passed out while filming.  Garfield also played a love-struck clone in Never Let Me Go, so Bale might have to face multiple spider copies. Of course Bale is also a two-time homicidal maniac from Shaft and American Psycho, so he could chainsaw all the Garfields Columbia throw at him.

Whatever the outcome, the fight won’t end here. Warner Brothers already has plans to re-reboot the Batman franchise after the Bale-and-Nolan tag team retires. And if Columbia doesn’t like Garfield’s performance, he could go the way of Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney. There are always more clones warming up in the locker room. And superhero fans ready to drop more cash into Bruce’s and Peter’s billionaire pockets.

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I’m Professor X, only with more hair and worse teeth. My mind control powers are less impressive, but I did just spend last month brainwashing my Spring Term class in the subtleties of superhero science. The Gavaler School for Gifted Youngsters is housed in Payne Hall at Washington & Lee University. To graduate, my twelve evil geniuses were required to breed their own mutations in the Petri dish of superhero conventions.

“Disrupt the tropes!” I bellowed from my levitating wheelchair. “Disrupt the tropes!!!”

Their frothy creations unmask a few facts about superheroes, themselves, and our college.

Professor G’s New Mutants include:

Seven superheroes and five superheroines. The class itself was an even split, but three of the women and one of the men quietly gender-jumped. The slight disproportion does not reflect my testosterone-heavy syllabus, with only one female author (Baroness Orczy) and only Wonder Woman in the otherwise all-boy club (Frank L. Packard’s Tocsin, arguably the first superheroine, is a brief exception, and Moore’s Silk Spectres are at least female, though not exactly heroic advances in gender typing).

Washington & Lee, since its co-ed reboot in 1985, maintains roughly the same gender ratio as my class, but the faculty is closer to my syllabus, about 2-to-1. Which still beats both the Justice League (see Wonder Woman above) and, worse, The Avengers’  6-to-1 casting rate (what happened to the Wasp? Scarlet Witch? Mockingbird? Tigra? Moondragon? She-Hulk? Hell, what about Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer?).

Of my students’ twelve characters, none self-identified by race. Guessing from appearance (my students created posters), two were African American. That’s roughly 17%, and it beats our university’s diversity stats, which list about 85% of the student body and 90% of the faculty as White, Non-Hispanic. I have numbers for African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, but since my students’ characters didn’t fill out census forms, we’re left with the skin tones and limited facial features available at Hero Machine 2.5 (3.0, they tell me, is crazily more advanced, at least for identity-obscuring costumes).

My syllabus included only two authors of color (both of whom were poets, an even rarer presence in superhero demographics). The Avengers score lower (if you don’t count Nick Fury as a team member, then the only non-Caucasian skin is green). At least when the Justice League rebooted last year, they retconned a black cyborg (named Cyborg, which at least is better than Black Cyborg) onto the roster. W&L is trying its best too. reports our school “just isn’t too diverse, but it is working on it. The $100 million Johnson Scholarship has allowed students of many different backgrounds to attend, and everyone at the University seems to be embracing it.”

I have no idea which if any of my students are Johnson scholars, but some of their characters could qualify for financial support. There’s a homeless anarchist (secretly the creator of all life on Earth), a poverty-vowing monk (though he should probably leave his years as a drug kingpin off the application), and a slum-raised orphan (he would have had some serious money if a different drug kingpin hadn’t murdered his soda pop tycoon parents). If the eugenically bred right-wing millionaire mercenary donates another $100 million, W&L could pull the next roster of need-blind heroes past the $56,400 attendance costs. Meanwhile, the other 2/3rds of the team appear solidly middle class.

There are no boxes for sexual orientation on the superhero application form, but since “love interest” was one of the most analyzed tropes in class, most of the characters had their sexualities on full display. Of the twelve, only one was openly gay. Even though that’s below 10%, it’s still a promising sign for W&L. It’s now possible to be an out student here, and a friend over in Counseling Services says the gay support group gets happily raucous. When a student in my wife’s poetry class workshopped a poem about his boyfriend, he was more worried about meter than outing himself. Excelsior!

Age wise, the characters cluster close to their creators. We have only one parent on the team, a stay-at-home mother of two, and one child, an unrelated ten-year-old, plus two high schoolers (though one time travels, so technically he’s over a hundred). It may be a reflection of the current economic environment, but there’s only one hero holding down a regular day job. He’s a cop. I’m not counting the government assassin because her only paycheck is the government not murdering her brother.

Government, especially law enforcement, tends to take a pretty bad rap in superhero stories, but for this crowd, superhero vigilantism is worse. (This may have something to do with my presenting the 1914 KKK as a model for the formula.) A total of five of these characters use deadly force while heroing, often as an outgrowth of their own self-defined, Nietzschean morality. (There was a vandal in the group too, but he seemed to grow out it.) But three of these homicidal whack jobs pay the ultimate price and die themselves. On the other end of the spectrum, two characters are proud law-abiders, working with the police and community to fix long-term problems instead of pulverizing the bad guy of the moment. One’s even a vegan.

There was only one case of bullying in the origin tales. It was nerd-on-nerd violence, and given the near lethal doses of comic book geekness I was exhaling into the classroom, I’m thankful it wasn’t worse. In the end, all my evil geniuses graduated from the Hall of Payne.

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