Features

Live-Action: The New Adventures of Superheroes – The 90s

Live Action
Written by David Molofsky
As I mentioned last week, there are several important differences between live-action Superhero TV Shows and their animated counterparts. Live-action shows strive to be more realistic, especially since the dawn of the Golden Age. The focus shifted from the superhero to the civilian. What were these Heroes like in their everyday life? How did having super powers impact their school life or jobs? Costumes all-but disappeared as Heroes became more human and relatable. Heroes were shown to rely on their intellect much more than their powers to take down Villains. The idea of multiple identities was jumbled as characters became more likely to keep only their powers a secret instead of entire personas. These were real people, with real problems that couldn’t be punched away with super strength and followed them around now matter how quickly they ran away from them.
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Two Supehero Shows premiered during the transitional period between the Silver and Golden Ages. The first was The Flash in 1990, followed by Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman in 1993. Both shows retained the campiness that characterized the Silver Age shows, but at the same time fought to break free of the stigma that came with it. Both shows spent a lot of time showing the Hero outside of his costume, solving mysteries through research and investigation, a theme that would carry on into the Golden Age.
There was also a significant change in the character of Clark Kent/Superman. Before Lois & Clark, Superman was always thought of as the primary personality with Clark Kent as the disguise. Previous incarnations played into this paradigm, focusing on Superman more than Clark. This version, however, flipped it the other way around. Clark was the true persona, with Superman as the façade. Clark’s life dominates the main storyline, with Superman often being used as a tool for Clark to get to the bottom of a juicy story. According to Wikipedia:
A few episodes directly emphasized that Clark was the unequivocal ‘dominant’ personality, not [Superman]. Following this theme, an innovation unique to the series was the depiction of Clark Kent and Superman’s traditional hairstyles being reversed – here it is Superman whose hair is slicked-back, and Clark whose fringe falls more naturally.
Dean Cain as Clark Kent (left) and Superman (right)

Dean Cain as Clark Kent (left) and Superman (right)

In addition, Lois Lane was just as much of a main character as Clark, providing one of the first examples of a Hero being upstaged by a Damsel. This added to the emphasis placed on the normal part of Clark’s life.

When the Heroes finally figured out what they needed to do, they wore costumes with much more significance than those of past shows. The Flash’s costume was made of the only cloth that could withstand the friction and pressure caused by his running at such high speeds. On the other hand, Martha Kent made Clark’s costume for him, however the ‘S’ shield emblem came with him as a baby from Krypton. Thus, the suit acts not only as a disguise, but also as a reminder of his dual heritage.
Barry Allen tries on the friction suit for the first time.

Barry Allen tries on the friction suit for the first time.

Despite Lois & Clark‘s success, by the time 1997 rolled around, it the world was ready for a different kind of superhero. And what we got was not only different, but the complete opposite of what we were used to. After years of leaving superheroing to grown men, we finally saw our first teenage superheroine, Buffy Summers. While some had met Buffy years earlier in the lesser known film of the same name, it was only when creator Joss Whedon brought Buffy the Vampire Slayer to television that audiences finally saw her as a character they could connect with.
Buffy’s path was a bit rockier than those of the Heroes who came before her. For one thing, Buffy did not choose to be a superhero, but was instead chosen by forces outside her control. For much of her early life, Buffy viewed her responsibilities as a burden, something she did because she had to, but not necessarily because she wanted to. She had many other commitments to attend to, high school, college, and a little sister to name a few. She yearned for a normal life, a desire she hardly kept quiet. This contrasted with Clark’s view on the subject: he wanted to help people because he had the power to. In the pilot episode, before he becomes Superman, Clark has trouble resisting saving people, while Buffy has to be convinced to take action.

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In part because of her desire for a normal life, Buffy never really created any additional persona for herself. In fact, it eventually becomes common knowledge in Sunnydale that Buffy is the person to turn to if you have a supernatural problem, although nobody really talks about it. She does not have any kind of costume or mask. While she does not flaunt her status as the Slayer, by the end of the series, more people know Buffy’s secret than almost any other superhero. To be fair, the main reason for this was that Buffy wasn’t alone; she had many friends to help her in her battles against evil. The Scoobies, as they grew to be called, served as both Confidantes and Secondary Heroes, and often dealt with the same desires for normalcy that Buffy faced.
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And so, with the 90s drawing to a close, it seemed that high school was the place to be for superheroes. Costumes were either functional or frivolous, as the Heroes didn’t make clear distinctions between the different parts of their lives. Heroes to come would be assembling their own versions of the Scoobies, friends to turn to in a crisis. As the 2000s began, it seemed clear that these trends would continue.

About the author

David Molofsky

David is the Owner & Editor-in-Chief of AP2HYC.