Superheroes were different when I was a kid. They mostly lived in comic books. Superman later became a TV show, but the special effects were so hokey you could practically see the strings propeling him in flight around the stage. We didn’t mind. We were kids. It was understood that childhood imagination, pretending, was part of the deal.
Adults were indulgent of superheroes and comics — it was understood that this was a phase, like dolls for girls. One grew out of it like boys grew out of short pants. Adults worried about adult stuff, like the space race or whether the lengths of The Beatles’ bangs were corrupting the youth of America.
Batman was a TV show after Superman, but adults were mostly involved for the satiric factor. Pow! Biff! Splat! “It’s so bad it’s good,” my old man would chortle.
It was a big deal when Superman came out in 1978 with the latest technology for special effects — it was no longer so hokey. Christopher Reeve didn’t seem ferried about by pullies, he was Superman grown up.
And then the whole genre “matured,” in a sense. Quite naturally, I suppose, those kids grew up and now they wax enthusiastic with their own kids about Batman, Superman, The Fantastic Four and all the rest of the super-endowed do-gooder role models of the third quarter of the 20th century, roughly from World War Two until the Carter administration. (Good and bad were clearly demarcated; moral content was once big, especially in the 1950s.)
What strikes me is the enthusiasm adults now have for superheroes. Their faces light up — they look forward to the movies as much as the kids do, if not more. Maybe I’m wrong, but when I was small, had any adult gotten that worked up over Batman, it would have led to snickers, arched eyebrows, and perhaps half-muttered jokes between adults when they thought we kids couldn’t hear.
Which brings me to neoteny.
A couple decades ago the Sunday paper had this wonderful article about neoteny. A science journalist wrote about separate projects in different parts of the world that were coming up with surprising results. Ferrinstance, one was in Siberia, where Russian researchers were trying to breed foxes to be more tame. They selected subordinate pups and bred successive generations; interestingly, the subsequent foxes retained juvenile characteristics longer, maturity was inhibited. They also began wagging their tails, became increasingly friendly with humans, and began barking, paralleling the changes from wolves to dogs.
Neoteny has evolutionary advantages, in that the mental elasticity of youth is retained longer into adulthood. The article applied the findings to primates, too, pointing out the quicker physical maturation of other great apes, including facial features, and how humans mature more slowly. We can learn new things later into adulthood, and our facial features generally mature more slowly than other primates, too.
When I worked at CNet, back at the turn of the millenium, almost all of my coworkers adorned their cubicles with hosts of figurines, dolls, and wind-up toys. Some of them had whole armies decked out — one had to be careful with the actual work getting in the way of their displays. (“Look out! That binder might tip over T. Rex!”) I’d see my friends from earlier jobs, they’d ask what my workplace was like, and I’d say that it was sort of romper room, kind of grown up.
As kids prefer action to preaching, we aren’t as caught up now in moral content and delivering an upright message as we once were, either. Give us action! And I do prefer the greater moral ambivalence of movies these days, where the white and black hats are not always so uniformly obvious.
Sometimes, when I see all the excitement over blockbuster movies made for comic book heroes (appealing to “kids of all ages!” as toys get slylymarketed) it makes me smile. I wonder if it’s a minor instance of human neoteny, like those silver foxes wagging their tails and barking like puppy dogs.
Or maybe not. A cultural phenomenon isn’t exactly a behavior, right? Even if, as I age, young adults do seem to look younger and younger …
Besides, when I was a boy the adults were very nostalgic about the radio programs of their own youths. They felt radio was superior to TV as it left more to the imagination, and waxed just as enthusiastic over The Green Lantern, Dick Tracy and others as people do now over this crop of superheroes.
Who knows what childhood lurks in the hearts of men? Maybe only The Shadow knows, after all.