Superman vs. the Recession: Superheroes Battle Our Fears

BY Jane McGrath / POSTED March 25, 2009
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It’s a bird … it’s a plane … No — It’s a distraction from the economy!

Here at HowStuffWorks.com, one of our all-time favorite topics is superheroes. That’s why I jumped at the chance to blog about it when I ran across this CNN piece, which discusses how the first superheroes were born out of the Great Depression. At the tail end of the Depression (and as war was starting in Europe), Americans created such larger-than-life characters as Superman and Batman.

In Los Angeles, the Skirball Cultural Center is holding a new exhibit of these classic superheroes. Curators of the exhibit say that the characters were a form of escapism for a public who was losing faith in the American Dream.

A similar thing was already happening in America’s movies at the time. Throughout the Depression era, Hollywood produced lavish flicks that historians often chalk up to “escapism” to distract from the tough economic times.

To me, calling these superheroes and movies mere escapism seems like an oversimplification. Neither ignored real problems. Superman was a cynical superhero who fought against villains who sometimes exploited the hard financial times, according to this New York Times piece. And 1930s Hollywood musicals pervaded sarcasm and cynicism despite their extravagant backdrops. Sometimes, they even included somber musical numbers that faced political and economic problems head-on.

But they’re also more than escapism because they offer hope. Now that we’re starting to struggle with the economy again, we are getting a glimpse of the pain that those during the Depression experienced. We are starting to realize how hard it must have been to cling on to even the slightest glimmer of hope. If something as seemingly frivolous as movies and comic books can lend refuge, then they don’t seem as silly anymore.

More you might like:
Battling Blockbusters: Fighting Against Superman
How Kryptonite Works
How Recessions Work

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