The world of the superhero/crime fighter is one that, by definition “is one of unprecedented physical prowess dedicated to acts of derring-do in the public interest”. These stirring words would bring a smile to any superhero ironing their tights in preparation for a night of crime fighting, but the storm that has surrounded the superhero of modern times is enough to make the best of us climb the wall in despair (with or without a cape). Controversy has been the sand in the underpants of Batman ever since he decided to have a Boy Wonder, – the Fredric Wertham book 'Seduction of the Innocent' targeting Batman’s sexual orientation with outrage in the 1950s. Before Batman could say “Holy Slander!” he was soon repackaged, still with Robin, but now with a Bat Woman to restore the masculine image - the heterosexual citizens of Gotham City resting safely in their beds. Batman’s macho image would take a further knock when Adam West slid down the bat pole; his version of the crime stopper was more camp than a field full of tents. But when the series was cancelled, West was forced into typecast Hell, having to learn to embrace the character many years later by lampooning it.
Over in Metropolis, Superman was a Man of Steel who could jump tall buildings in a single bound (others had to take a run at them). He was also faster than a speeding bullet, but for the actors that played him, life was anything but Super. Kirk Alyn found that playing Superman led to the previously successful actor being typecast and left without any identity, bar the one of the man in the red boots. Alyn later died, almost forgotten by Hollywood. George Reeves was a talented actor who had a role in Gone with the Wind, but following his starring role as The Man of Steel found his career had blown away too. Depressed and bitter, Reeves was found dead with a bullet in his head. The police ruled it a suicide, but conspiracy claims still abound. While many would put the misfortune of the Superman actors down to bad luck, for the next incarnation, several actors associated with Superman would also experience tragedy.
Christopher Reeve played the man in tights in the 1978 blockbuster Superman, but soon he and the cast and crew found themselves the victims of circumstance and misfortune. Margot Kidder, who played the feisty Lois Lane, would develop mental health issues. Richard Pryor, who played Gus in Superman 3 would soon develop MS, while Christopher Reeve was the victim of a tragic horse riding accident, leaving him paralysed from the neck down. Mark Pillow, who played Nuclear Man in Superman 4: The Quest for Peace never worked again (although to be fair, not many people in that film did). The curse even stretched to Marlon Brando, who played Jor- El in Superman. His family life fell apart after the film, his son killing his daughter’s boyfriend, and Brando become a sad shadow of his former self. These events further strengthened the Superman Curse myth, and legend had it that Dean Cain (the Superman with a desperate housewife) would not even be fitted with a cape without some serious insurance guarantees (and no kryptonite on set. OK, I made that last bit up).
With the superhero franchise becoming a money making spinner in the form of Toby Maguire getting everyone tangled in his web, things seemed better for the superhero. Three films on and Spidey seemed to swing clear of any controversy, but there was one man who felt cheated. Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman, The Hulk, Iron Man, X Men and more, was fighting Marvel for 10% of the profits from the films and merchandising. Lee eventually won, but once more a financial hurricane immersed the superhero world. It seemed the comic book empire was still shutting out its creators from fair recognition and payment. Such a legal battle would mirror Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's fight for recognition and financial retribution for The Man of Steel over forty years earlier.
Back in the dark world of Batman, the man with a bat cave for a postal address had gone from the campy days of Adam West to the darker incarnations of Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney. The film series was successful but poor with the critics. And so before you could say “Atomic batteries to power, turbines to speed”, another actor was handed the keys to the bat mobile.
When Christian Bale took over in Batman Begins, the bat tale took fans into a whole new realm of excitement. However, for the films sequel, The Dark Knight, controversy and tragedy once more rained down on Gotham’s sky when Heath Ledger was found dead. The official verdict was an accidental overdose of prescription drugs, and the whole world mourned the death of its young star. After previews for The Dark Knight, many have whispered of a posthumous Oscar for Ledger’s stunning portrayal of the Joker. But just as the Batman franchise was beginning to recover from the demise of its star, Christian Bale would soon find himself being interviewed by Scotland Yard. The allegation was that the actor had assaulted his mother and sister the day before the British Premiere. This news that the man in black had been arrested by the boys in blue set the tabloids alight with headlines such as 'Batman Arrested!' and 'Holy Stitch Up!' Even if the allegations were true or not, the publicity was about as welcome as a spot of rust on Iron Man’s crotch, and the film went into PR overdrive.
Now in 2009, Heath Ledger has won the best supporting actor at the Golden Globes for his portrayal of the Joker, with many predicting a repeat at The Oscars in March. But although he has been honoured for his work, the character of the Joker, along with so many of the comic book superheroes, will find that their enemies are not each other, but the controversy that envelops them.