Superheroes have existed for almost a century now. In that time they've evolved from campy, over-the-top characters in tight suits to dark, broody vigilantes with tragic backstories and adult themes. Captain America, for example, began in the 1940s as American propaganda for the Second World War. Currently, he represents the international movement of antiestablishmentarianism (I just ticked "use that word" off my bucket list) and personal liberty.
This has been the most evident on screen as the film industry is a much more widely viewed medium. In some cases the way our favorite heroes and villains change onscreen give us an insight into the current state of our social and political environment worldwide. In others it could just symbolize a change in taste among the people.
Or sometimes it could just be that old effects sucked and now we're finally starting to catch up.
1. Captain America (1944)
Before his days as an Avenger, Captain America was an independent superhero who, in his first ever comic in 1941, punched Adolf Hitler in the face. Throughout the forties, Cap galavanted around the globe with his trusty sidekick, Bucky, foiling the plans of the nefarious Red Skull and Baron Zemo. His stories carried a very heavy anti-Nazi vibe. The 1944 serial, Captain America, had no trace of the political aspect but managed to retain the overblown campiness of the comics. Cap, in this version a DA called Grant Gardner, spent the entire story chasing after a museum curator trying to steal artifacts. There was a lot of terrible action and missed punches as you would expect and no hint of any political agenda.
Fast forward to 2014 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier is released. While the first movie in the series, The First Avenger, harked back to the original anti-Nazi propaganda, The Winter Soldier perfectly harnessed the current threat of cyber-terrorism and moles within the government. Many described The Winter Soldier as a political thriller hidden behind a superhero facade.
2. Spider-Man (1977)
Everyone's friendly neighborhood Spider-Man first hit TV screens in the feature film pilot for his short lived TV series, The Amazing Spider-Man. The movie is a very paint-by-numbers superhero adventure, in which Peter Parker receives his spider powers and goes out to stop a villain who wants an buttload of cash. The movie had very little in the way of a sociopolitical message and didn't really address any serious issues at the time. Themes of responsibility and loss were barely touched upon, instead focusing on the cheesy seventies action you'd expect.
Flash forward to the 21st Century and Tobey Maguire is Peter Parker. In the Sam Raimi Trilogy, Spider-Man deals with the more personal themes of responsibility and the blurred lines between right and wrong. It also briefly brings mental illness to attention and the importance of trust. During Andrew Garfield's run, the movies explored the concept of loss further through Spider-Man's relationship with Gwen Stacy and her father. While it may not have been obvious, it certainly had a deeper meaning than the seventies version.
The Batman from the forties had two different iterations. The comics depicted him as a detective first and a vigilante second, stopping the various crime syndicates rather than battling super-villains. The onscreen version, first depicted in 1943 in a fifteen-part serial, had a heavy anti-Nazi and anti-Japanese agenda. In this, Batman and Robin were employed by the US government to hunt down the evil Dr. Daka, a Japanese scientist. The film, although popular, often blurred the lines between harmless propaganda and racism, but was also the inspiration for the 1966 television series, Batman, starring Adam West and Burt Ward.
By the time the Dark Knight Trilogy rolled around, the world was a very different place. Christopher Nolan's movie series sidelines the detective work and campiness and instead focuses on realism and the war against terror. All of Batman's villains in the trilogy are painted as terrorists rather than over-the-top super-villains, with Ra's Al Ghul wishing to destroy Gotham, The Joker blowing up a hospital and Bane killing the mayor and destroying a football pitch. The movies utilize imagery that harks back to the 9/11 attacks and give Batman a more up to date role in society.
4. Superman (1978)
This entry is cheating a little bit as Superman did appear onscreen before Christopher Reeve took on the role. He had two serials in the late forties and a feature film, Superman and the Mole Men, in 1951. However, the differences between Reeve's portrayal and Henry Cavill's recent outing in Man of Steel are a much better comparison of sociopolitical climate throughout the decades.
Reeve's Superman, particularly in Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, really pushed the pacifist point of view. Particularly in The Quest For Peace, Superman takes an active role in nuclear disarmament and the prevention of mutually assured destruction from the Russians as it was, at the time, the height of the Cold War. While the movie tanked, it did represent the feelings of a huge number of Americans at the time.
In Man of Steel, the movie has a very different approach, once again drawing on the public's memories of 9/11. With over-the-top destruction and themes of hidden agents and a breakdown of trust, Man of Steel captured the modern day fears of domestic terrorism as well as the current cinematic themes of desolation and war.
5. Thor (1978)
During his brief appearance on The Incredible Hulk, Thor looked more like a Viking than he does now.
That's literally all there is to it.