Superpowered: The DC Story (2023): Season 1, Episode 1 - The Hero's Journey - full transcript

The origin of the DC Universe begins with the birth of a superhero trinity of characters: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

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[dramatic music]

♪ ♪

- What's the S stand for?

- It's not an S.

On my world, it means "hope."

- As a symbol, I can
be incorruptible.

I can be everlasting.

- I'm willing to fight for those

who cannot fight for themselves.

- [laughs] I can fly!

- How is it that I can
breathe underwater,



but you can still drink
me under the table?

- It's my superpower.
- [laughs]

- I'm a superhero!

- This town deserves a
better class of criminal.

- Wait till they
get a load of me.

- DC, to me, is the grand
proscenium of superheroes.

They all tell very
different stories

about what do you
do with great power,

and how do you help
mankind to become better?

- Hi, boys.

- They're all so
multidimensional,

and the humanity is what
people really respond to.

- It's about saving the world.

It's about convincing the world
that there is a better way.



- They're larger than life.

But they're also so
human and so real.

Narrator: For over 85
years, DC has been home

to a universe of characters
and thousands of stories.

But the real people
who breathe life

into these gods,
mortals, and monsters

are far less known.

Behind the scenes,
these creative minds

make their presence felt
through words and pictures.

- When you're reading
a well-crafted comic,

you're reading the movements

of a human being's
hand over a page.

- There is no more minute
form of storytelling

than a four- or
five-panel comic strip,

in which you're having
to tell a beginning,

a middle, and an end.

Narrator: Comic books
have always reflected

the human experience.

They reveal our fantasies,
tap our emotions,

and confront our demons.

- It's stories about hope.

It's stories about redemption.

It's the same themes that have
been underlying our folktales

since the beginning of time.

- People can look back
and say, "Well, you know,

you're talking
about comic books.

Comic books are for children.

Those ideas are for children."

Are they?

Narrator: Superheroes
are wish fulfilment,

a generation of talent,
forged icons of virtue

that embody both the dreams
and fears of America.

Those ideas triggered a
worldwide cultural phenomenon.

This is the story
of the creators

behind the legends of DC.

♪ ♪

The origin of DC begins
with a heroic figure

whose real-life adventures
read like fiction.

Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson,

a cavalry officer
in World War I,

fought in the Philippines,

chased bandits through Mexico,

and battled
Bolsheviks in Siberia.

As a writer, the major turned
his exploits into tales

for the pulp magazines.

In 1935, he formed
his own company.

In three short years,

he transformed the
comic industry,

not by reprinting
old newspaper strips,

but by publishing new
all-original stories.

That company would
eventually become DC Comics.

But despite being a visionary,

the major struggled
as a businessman.

- To make a long and very
complicated story short,

the major was forced out,

and the company was taken over

exactly at the
moment that Superman

was about to hit the stands.

'Nuff said.

[heroic music]

♪ ♪

- Who are you?

- He's someone who is always
trying to do the right thing.

That's his genuine intention.

Even if he doesn't achieve
what he set out to do,

he will make the best
effort to make amends.

And there's so much
which hasn't been told

or said about him up till now.

Narrator: The
origin of Superman

starts with writer Jerry Siegel

and artist Joe Shuster,

two Jewish immigrant teens

who survived the
Great Depression

by dreaming of a
better tomorrow.

- Both Joe Shuster and I were
great science fiction fans

back in the 1930s.

I was quite meek,
and I was quite mild.

And there were
attractive girls around

who just didn't notice I exist.

And I thought, "Gee,
wouldn't it be great

"if I was a mighty person,

"and these girls didn't
know that this clod here

is really somebody special."

- All my young days as a boy,
I was pushed around by...

I was very small, and I
was always pushed around

by bullies and so forth.

Narrator: While
still in high school,

the two collaborated on
samples for a newspaper strip.

After several iterations,

a champion of the
oppressed emerged,

a Superman who hid behind
the secret identity

of mild-mannered
reporter Clark Kent.

- He was certainly
the identification

for Siegel in particular

because he physically
resembled him.

Kent is the Jewish intellectual,

I think, you know,
he's a journalist

and he reads, a man of letters,

and Superman is
the man of action.

- Joe brought the fascination
with the bodybuilding,

with the circus performers,
the circus strong men,

creating really the iconography

what would be the
superhero costume.

They hadn't managed
to sell it anywhere.

Creativity requires courage.

The great creative works in
any medium lack precedent.

Narrator: After
six tireless years,

their courage paid off.

DC needed a story to anchor
a new anthology series

called "Action Comics."

- The first time we
ever see Superman,

he's lifting a
car over his head.

It is impossible to think
about this in this way today.

But back then, no one had ever
seen anything quite like that.

- The demand for the
character was high enough

that they launched
multiple books

and they had to keep
up with the workload

and hired other artists
to keep things going.

Narrator: That original
idea from Siegel and Shuster

set the gold standard
for superhero characters,

launched an industry,

and inspired
boundless creativity

in future generations.

- All these different
points of view

merge and meld together

to become this one
kind of uber story.

And yet, for it to work,
all those individual stories

have to reflect the individuals.

♪ ♪

- I got the call
to be the writer

not just for "Superman,"
but of "Action Comics" also,

the legacy "Superman" series.

In my run, Superman
is a father...

That's an important central
tenet of the stories

that I've been telling so far.

But he's also the
personification of hope,

of compassion, of
humility, of justice,

and not just to Earth,
not just to Metropolis,

but to the universe.

I understand how much
Superman means to people

because he meant
that to me as well.

Growing up, I always
wanted to be a tough guy.

I grew up really,
really small for my age

and got sick a lot

and kind of got
smacked around a lot.

And I just had this fantasy
of being this tough guy

that would protect everyone.

Seeing Superman on the
page flipped this fantasy

in my mind that became
really important to me.

I think Superman matters more
now than he ever has before,

in part because he is
the living contradiction

to the idea that absolute
power corrupts absolutely.

And we have to believe that
somebody can wield power

without being corrupted by it.

♪ ♪

- I think Superman fans have
a very particular worldview.

They tend to be optimists.

They tend to think that power

should be used in
a particular way.

- Look! Up in the sky!

It's a bird, it's a
plane! It's Superman!

- It wasn't until
the radio show,

which started in 1940,

where Superman as a
pop culture phenomenon

really took hold in the
collective unconscious.

♪ ♪

narrator: Radio introduced the
power of flight to Superman.

The silver screen
lifted him off the pages

and into the real world.

Live action actor Kirk Alyn
became the first Man of Steel.

A series of animated shorts
established his legacy

in glorious Technicolor.

- I think there's something
incredibly magical

about the creators

of these characters
that have taken off.

It's hitting its target so
perfectly that it just goes

on and on and on and on
and on and on and on and on

and just new things
are built upon it

in such a fascinating way.

Narrator: For
Siegel and Shuster,

the American dream
had come true.

Their outsider
insecurities inspired

a modern marvel, whose
arrival felt relevant

to a nation of immigrants.

- In the endless
reaches of the universe,

there once existed a
planet known as Krypton.

- His narrative is, he comes

from this strange
planet Krypton.

It really is the
pure immigrant story.

It's about someone who
comes from another country

who essentially looks like
the prevailing culture

but knows that he's an outsider.

- Where were you?
- Me? Oh, I...

- I think a lot of immigrants,

they try to be the
perfect citizens because

they don't want anybody to
question their citizenship.

And that's my theory
about Superman as well.

Superman tries to be
the perfect citizen

because he doesn't want anyone
to question his citizenship.

♪ ♪

- Siegel and Shuster
watched Superman

dominate pop culture,

while their new bosses profited.

DC President Harry
Donenfeld started his career

publishing racy magazines.

After he escaped obscenity
charges from the FBI,

Harry and his accountant
Jack Liebowitz

sought a more legitimate
enterprise to exploit

and took control of DC
at the perfect moment.

Siegel and Shuster felt
they were owed more

for making DC a success.

They negotiated a
better weekly rate

and became the highest-paid

comic book creators at the time,

but DC retained ownership.

- Comics in general were built
on questionable agreements.

It wasn't standard
practice for creators

to get the credit
that was due to them,

and it certainly was
not standard practice

for them to get royalties.

Narrator: Eager to capitalize
on the growing popularity

of superheroes, DC urged
other creators to pitch ideas

for the next caped crusader.

♪ ♪

- What are you?

- I'm Batman.

- There's so much history
invested in the iconography

and so many people connected
on such a deep level

and for so many
different reasons.

Batman's always, I think,

been quite an
accessible superhero.

The fact that he's just a guy,

I think, appeals
to a lot of people.

Narrator: That global
appeal attracts fans

of all ages and backgrounds,
and in doing so,

produces its own
unique celebrities.

- I got into Batman
through the art.

A lot of the creators
come into this business

because they were fans as kids.

I was born in South Korea.

We were the first of my
sort of extended family

to move to the United States.

I didn't speak any English.

But I recognized Superman
from the cartoons, you know,

that I watched in Korea.

And so I just gravitated
towards comic books.

Batman resonated with
me at a very early age,

like, eight or nine.

I remember checking out
books from the library

and just being fascinated
by those adventures.

I bought this when
it was on the stands,

so probably '70, '75.

And then obviously, I
read it over and over.

And then I used
both masking tape

and Scotch Tape to
hold it all together.

If the artist did
an incredible job,

it made those worlds
or those characters

feel so lifelike to me,
so immersive, and so...

When you opened up a comic book,

you felt like you
were in that world.

In many ways, it kind
of relieved the pressure

of being this outsider
in a strange new country.

Batman first appeared in
"Detective Comics" issue 27.

So this is the 1000th
appearance of Batman.

Bob Kane with Bill Finger
introduced the world

to this masked vigilante,

kind of changed
the game forever.

♪ ♪

- I was 19 when
I created Batman,

and I've been with the
same company ever since.

World's most leading
character, Batman,

as done by the creator,
me, little ol' me.

- Bob, tell us about the
earliest recollection you have

with the creation of Batman.

- There are two stories.

There's a mythical story you
kind of create and make up.

And then there's the truth.

And the myth and the truth
become clouded after 30 years.

- If you look at the
earliest Batman stories,

they all say "by Bob Kane."

The problem was,

these stories weren't
necessarily by Bob Kane.

Narrator: The controversial
origin story of Batman

begins when Bob Kane,

a 19-year-old cartoonist
from the Bronx,

saw Siegel and Shuster
cash in on Superman.

He jumped at the chance to
create his own superhero.

- I was a great copycat.

So I copy Leonardo.

I remember seeing a
movie called "The Bat."

I also was influenced
by "The Mark of Zorro."

And I saw the original version

with Doug Fairbanks Sr.,
that's how old I am.

I kind of got the
combination of all of them

and created a Batman.

- And he comes in with
a little rough sketch

and the name Batman.

And the editor says,
"That's cute, Bob,

but, you know,
what's his story?"

Bob said, "I don't know."

"Well, maybe you
should get a writer."

narrator: Bob Kane
hired a ghostwriter,

Bill Finger, to flesh
out the character.

Finger wrote an origin story

born from a fear of urban crime.

He even darkened the
look of Kane's design

to reflect the pulps
and German cinema.

- And in short
order, they create

an amazingly specific
narrative and backstory,

his wants, his
needs, why he fights,

what he's railing against.

Young Bruce Wayne sees
the most horrible thing.

I mean, think about that,

to see your parents gunned down

in front of you, and then later,

he's kneeling over
his bed and praying,

"Please, Lord,
give me the tools.

I promise you, I will spend
the rest of my life warring."

He uses that word,
"warring," against crime.

- I always just got the
impression that he's just

wants to keep
recreating the night

where his parents died.

He just wants to
inflict pain, inflict,

like, his kind of
form of justice,

which is kind of
questionable justice.

- Batman's a kind of
satanic looking figure.

He has horns. He
operates at night.

He relies on fear rather
than trust or strength.

He relies on stealth rather than

this kind of grandstanding
circus showman.

It worked so well because
these are two opposing figures.

It's like finding the two
poles of a potential idea.

[inquisitive music]

narrator: As
Batman's popularity

increased over time,

Kane renegotiated a
contract that earned him

a rare thing in the industry:

rights, royalties,

and sole creator credit.

- Bill Finger was
long gone by the time

he was officially acknowledged

as co-creator of Batman,
and not just Batman,

but the Joker and
all of these concepts

that we've come to
associate with Gotham City.

Narrator: Shortly
after Finger's death,

Kane made a rare
public admission.

- Bill not only wrote
the early stories,

but he helped me
innovate and create

more than half of the villains

and all the innovative
characters in the Batman.

Most of it, the credit
should go to Bill Finger.

[exciting music]

narrator: Batman's
solitary war on crime

broadened when the creative team

introduced a unique concept
to attract young readers:

the sidekick.

- Somebody had the bright idea
that, since kids read comics,

they would want a character

that they could kind
of identify with

and project themselves onto.

And this was Robin.

- DC is so famous for sidekicks.

You have a superhero,
and they have a sidekick.

It just was a given.

- Robin's certainly
one of the first,

if not the first,
starting a proud tradition

of child endangerment.

He takes this young
kid on as his sidekick,

dresses him in red and green.

Who's gonna draw the gunfire?

The kid in the red and the green

or the guy in the
gray black suit?

But as a kid, I loved
his comics, growing up.

Narrator: The duo's
dynamic shifted the tone

from a gothic noir towards
more of a playful romp.

The DC character
roster expanded,

but it lacked a female touch.

- What's your story, lady?

- Story?
- Okay.

Suppose we start with your name.

- Wonder Woman.
- Sure.

That's the last name Woman,
first name Wonder, right?

- Right.

[bombastic heroic music]

- The beautiful thing
about Wonder Woman

is that she's so many things.

She's very righteous.

She's all about justice.

She's the greatest warrior ever.

- [yelling]

- She has this spark in her.

She's... she has this
fire in her eyes.

Narrator: The creator
of Wonder Woman,

William Moulton Marston

was a radical figure
who led many lives.

- We're are now going to test...

narrator: As a psychologist,

he paved the way for
the lie detector test

through a series of
bizarre experiments.

[gunshot] [people scream]

- Dr. Marston and science show

blondes are easiest to scare.

Narrator: Marston was
also a staunch critic

of the comic book industry.

He challenged them to
confront what he called

the bloodcurdling
masculinity of superheroes.

[dramatic music]

DC agreed and invited him to
create a female character.

He hired editorial
cartoonist H.G. Peter

to design her signature look.

- I always go back to
that original drawing

of the character of Wonder Woman

where she was
beautiful, approachable,

very feminine, very strong.

There was an everywoman
quality to it,

which was intrinsic to why
she succeeded as she did.

- She is an Amazon.

She has connections
to Greek mythology.

Her people were children
of Aphrodite and Athena,

of love and wisdom.

And Wonder Woman asks us
to grapple with questions

about how we feel about gender,

how we feel about sex,

and how we feel about
war and conflict.

What makes Wonder
Woman interesting

are the politics of feminism.

Narrator: Marston was
an ardent feminist ally,

even if his fight
for women's equality

revealed itself in
subversive ways.

Wonder Woman's lasso compelled
people to tell the truth.

However, the frequent
images of restraint

also evoked sexual bondage.

That wasn't Marston's
primary intent.

He chose imagery that reflected

the women's suffrage movement
and symbolized emancipation.

- The myth of it was that
William Moulton Marston was

cranking out all these stories.

The reality was that he
was surrounded by women,

he was in an open
relationship with his wife

and another woman, and
they were all contributing

to the Wonder Woman mythos.

They're working under the radar,

they're working under
pseudonyms and so forth.

But their impact is huge.

- All of them really
believed in putting this out

into the world, a female who
was just as strong as men

as a woman in every way.

Narrator: That strength
allowed Wonder Woman

to transcend time.

Storytellers continued to
build upon her foundation

and populate her world
with new characters,

ones that reflect a
more modern audience.

- I adore Wonder Woman,
and I adore Diana Prince.

But I can never aspire to be
a perfect woman or a symbol

like that without any flaws.

[inquisitive music]

Wonder Woman, when she came out,

she's the first woman
through the door.

She had to be perfect
and good at everything.

But there's more
nuance to the character

that I didn't see before.

I really wanted to
create Wonder Girl

in response of discovering
the world of Wonder Woman.

I wanted somebody that's more
human and not as disciplined.

You rarely see female characters

that wear their flaws
on their sleeve.

I'm like, "Come on, I can
barely get through a day.

I want to see somebody
struggle too."

These are some really
early concepts,

playing with, like,
hairstyle, body type,

random old ladies I see on TV

'cause I have very
busy hands. [laughs]

The female characters that
I've always responded to

or wanted to be like
when I was young

owned their sexuality in
a way that empowered them

as opposed to took
power away from them.

So like with Wonder Girl, I
got called out a few times

for her not having pants.

First of all, I
love the silhouette.

So I'm not changing it.

But Beyoncé doesn't
have to wear pants.

There's something
about Yara that speaks

to women's history
that's moved a little

further down the road.

She gets to be more herself.

That strikes me as
a little bit more

of a modern struggle than
what Diana had to deal with.

Narrator: During World War
II, Wonder Woman symbolized

a cultural wave of
tough, assertive women

in the workforce.

A call for truth, justice,
and the American way

rallied the masses.

The industry
enlisted superheroes

to support the war effort
and spread propaganda

but often laced with racism.

- The heroes had
to become patriots.

The need for the
characters to stand up

for American values
rather than oppose them

changed them
completely, but also,

I think, made them
even more popular.

- Comic books were being
prepared for sailors

who not only needed to
be taught how to read

but taught how to do their job.

Narrator: During
the early '40s,

comic book sales shot
up to an industry high

of 25 million copies per month.

An explosion of new heroes
heralded a golden age.

DC brought the fan
favorites together

and formed the first team-up:

the Justice Society of America.

But by war's end, with no
Axis villains left to fight,

a period of postwar
blues hit DC.

Superhero popularity
faded further

as a shiny new object
invaded living rooms.

- My babysitter as a kid,

along with most
of my generation,

was television.

We had the "Mickey Mouse Club."

We had "Howdy Doody."

But we also had the
"Adventures of Superman."

- Faster than a speeding bullet,

more powerful than a locomotive,

able to leap tall buildings
in a single bound.

- Look, up in the sky!

It's a bird!
- It's a plane!

- It's Superman!

Narrator: DC responded to
the threat of television

by embracing it.

For six seasons, B-movie
star George Reeves

donned the cape and became
the face of Superman

for a generation.

- Every day you go to school,

we were all talking
about the same shows

that we saw and
could discuss them.

And what that provided us with

was a commonality of experience.

- My friend and I
were watching a show,

then at the end, it said,

"Superman is based on
the copyrighted character

appearing in 'Action
Comics' and 'Superman.'"

And the two of us got
up, walked to the corner,

and bought our first
comics and never stopped.

- You asked for
it, now here it is,

the new official
Superman T-shirt

with the official
Superman insignia.

Narrator: As kids sought out
Superman at the newsstand,

the lurid covers and
gory art of horror comics

also drew their eye and
the concern of parents.

[dramatic music]

[siren wailing]

- '50s America was afraid
of the Russians, number one,

but it was also afraid
of the Martians,

it was afraid of giant ants
and jellyfish. [laughs]

It was afraid of gay people

and subterranean sailors
writing beat poetry.

There's hardly anything
you can name that Americans

weren't afraid of in the '50s.

- "Confidential File."

One of the nation's
distinguished news reporters

brings you a factual
report on America today.

- This comic book describes a
sexual aberration so shocking

that I couldn't mention
even the scientific term

on television.

I think there ought to
be a law against them.

- There was a growing
undercurrent that was

on the precipice of
becoming a tsunami,

and that was that comic
books were morally depraved,

the root cause of the
post-World War II rise

of juvenile
delinquency in America.

- Most comics are killers:

they kill time, they
kill imagination,

they make the rule of
violence the only rule.

Narrator: Parental discord
reached a fevered pitch

with the publication of
"Seduction of the Innocent"

by Dr. Fredric Wertham.

He preached the
depravity of comics

and the threat they
posed to American youth.

- Wertham was trying so hard.

He would find an image of
Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson

and somehow map a ton of
homosexual overtones to that.

- Dr. Wertham decided there
is no reason why two young men

should be living together
and working out together

and dressing up
in tight costumes

unless there was something
going on between them.

- "Seduction of the
Innocent" claimed that

comic books like "Batman"
and "Wonder Woman"

would encourage their
readers to be gay.

In the case of "Wonder Woman,"
maybe not entirely untrue.

- There were comic book
burnings across America.

Siblings were
ratting out siblings

to their parents who were
then uncovering stashes

of hidden comic
books under the bed

or hidden away in
the garage or attic.

- There were about 400...

narrator: Fears of a
federal investigation

and government
regulation drove DC

and other publishers to act.

In 1954, they formed the
Comics Code Authority

in an effort to self-censor
and preserve their livelihood.

- You couldn't
publish any comics

with the word horror or terror
in the title or even crime.

They had to make
sure that, you know,

good always triumphed over evil.

- Like, you couldn't
talk about divorce,

you couldn't present
law enforcement

in a negative light.

- Women should not be
featured in comic books

in prominent roles.

No zombies, no ghosts.

It was a creative stranglehold.

Narrator: The
strict censorship

lobotomized the superhero genre.

Many publishers folded as
a generation of creators

scrambled for work.

- What the code and what the
persecution of comics did

was to make the people
who were producing

the comics feel oppressed.

Was not a very happy
time in comics.

- They didn't wear their
job on their sleeve.

I mean, it was not a
respected profession.

So these men in their suits

who could pass for
insurance agents

would go in and
secretly do comics

for eight hours a day
and then get on the train

and come home.

- It's a very lonely business.

You work all alone
for hours on end,

and you get strange
machinations in your head

because you think about
the world outside.

And you're really not
a part of it, you know?

And your world is
that fantasy world

you're creating on paper.

- And we were kind of concerned,

where is the comic book
business going to go?

So we used to hold meetings

to plot what our
next move would be.

We had to come up
with new ideas.

Narrator: While the
imagination of artists

and writers knew no bounds,

the editors
shouldered the burden

of shepherding creativity
from concept to profit.

- I was an editor and a
freelance writer for them.

But it was all male.

It was difficult to be
friendly with these men

because they looked at me
like, "What is she doing here?"

They were very,
very hard on artists

because they wanted
good stories,

they wanted good artwork,

and they could yell

if they weren't getting
what they wanted.

- An editor's like the
general of an army.

He lays out a plan for the army

being victorious over the enemy.

In my case, I had
to lay out a plan

for me being victorious
over the public out there.

I had to get them to spend 10
cents to buy that magazine.

Narrator: Desperate
for success,

Julius Schwartz
decided to revitalize

a long-forgotten
superhero, the Flash,

a character who moved
at lightning speed.

♪ ♪

- My name is Barry Allen.

I am the fastest man alive.

[exhales]

[electric crackling]
- Whoa!

[heroic music]

♪ ♪

- Julie said, "We're gonna
be doing superheroes again."

I'm like, "Oh, my God."

And I wasn't thrilled
about the idea.

I didn't like the superheroes.

That was a hell of
a thing to admit,

but I didn't like doing them.

I don't know.

They were a little
flamboyant for me, you know?

Narrator: Despite
his resistance,

Carmine Infantino's
sleek artwork

and sense of scale clicked

with the science
fiction approach.

It proved irresistible
to a generation

raised on chemistry sets.

- Julie brought a science
angle to these characters

in what was, you know, the
Jet Age, the Space Age.

He tapped into the
kids who wanted

to be astronauts, the kids
who wanted to be scientists.

- "The Flash" and "Flash Facts"
were because of Julie Schwartz

and him caring about

the science part
of science fiction.

It worked for me.

I would rather learn my
science from a comic book

than from going to school.

[dramatic music]

narrator: The
Flash's alter ego,

police scientist Barry Allen,
was more down-to-earth,

unlike the mythic
stature of DC's Trinity.

- Superman was Superman.

He was an alien
from another planet.

You couldn't be Superman.

Batman had stuff, but he
was a really rich guy,

you know, who had stuff.

But the Flash was sort
of like us, you know?

He was just an average
guy who just happened

to get struck by
lightning, and I remember

thinking as a little kid, like,

"I could get struck
by lightning.

"That could happen.

I could actually become
a superhero that way."

- When I read "The Flash,"
it wasn't just about

a guy ran fast, it was
about a man who could travel

through time and go through
different dimensions

and parallel worlds.

So the Flash's canvas was,
like, all of space and time.

Narrator: 1961 marked a
big bang of creativity.

Julius Schwartz introduced
a groundbreaking idea

to comics... the existence
of parallel worlds.

The theory allowed
different versions

of the same characters
to meet one another.

From that concept
grew a multiverse

that defined superhero
stories for years to come.

- Now everybody talks
about parallel universes.

Not a lot of people
were talking about that.

And certainly for a kid coming
across concepts like that,

that was incredible.

It was like someone stuck a
stick of dynamite in your ear

and lit it and
blew up your head.

[inquisitive music]

- It's this idea
that we're not alone.

Yes, we live in this reality,

but there are infinite
multiple realities

that basically sit
side-by-side one another.

And in those
alternate realities,

we have our iconic
versions of our characters,

but on other Earths,
they might be villains

or they might be
married with kids.

It really expands our ability
to tell different kinds

of stories but still
keep our core nucleus

of iconic characters.

Narrator: DC plunged
into a catalogue

of unused characters

in what became a rapid
procession of reinvention.

This renaissance marked a
silver age for the industry,

an era defined by
mind-bending artwork

and eye-catching covers.

Many were crafted by
artist Joe Kubert,

a Polish immigrant who
pushed the envelope

of visual storytelling.

- Storytelling sounds very easy
to do, but let me tell you,

it is really hard. [laughs]

It's really, really difficult.

My father could
draw with a stick,

and you could still
tell what was going on.

He was the type of person,
when you're growing up,

that wouldn't put up
with a lot of stuff.

You know, he was kinda like
growing up with Sgt. Rock.

♪ ♪

narrator: Joe Kubert's
dirty, scratchy artwork

brought vitality and
emotion to DC war comics,

a genre for those that
preferred grounded reality

over superhero fantasy.

Set against the backdrops
of the World Wars,

their popularity grew with the
introduction of Sergeant Rock,

a stoic John Wayne
figure that represented

the moral side of war
and the internal conflict

that soldiers face.

- Eventually, every single
war comic ended with a title

that said, "Make war no more."

And they became not war stories
about the glorification of war,

but they became war stories
about the tragedies of war.

- My father's style was
very impressionistic.

I mean, he would get the
emotions in the characters,

their feelings, what
they were emoting, down.

- You've got to kind of feel
the drawing that you're doing.

And that's not an
easy thing to do.

And I try to invest
myself completely

and totally into the story.

And I learned early
on that that's what

this whole business is about.

It's not a matter of
doing pretty pictures.

It's great if you could do that.

But the whole call for our
business is telling a story.

We're communicators.
We're storytellers.

- Comic is a medium
like no other.

There is an intimacy
there that is not present

in movies and TV or whatever.

With comics, you get
to decide the pace

at which you absorb the story.

There's something about
the comics that allows you

to really be an
intimate part of that.

- It could explain why fans are
so ravenous, like, you know,

and they take it so personal
because it is personal to them.

They've had a
personal interaction

with these stories.

You can see why people
love it so much.

[upbeat music]

narrator: In the
1950s and '60s,

love and desire brought
young girls in droves

to a genre in full
bloom: romance.

- They were drawn beautifully,

and the stories were relatable.

Who hasn't gone
through heartbreak?

Who hasn't loved someone and not

had somebody return that love?

Tony Abruzzo, who was
a wonderful artist,

I wanted him just to work for me

because he did such beautiful,
sensitive characters.

Narrator: In 1962, DC
artist Tony Abruzzo

drew a girl drowning in
issue 83 of "Secret Hearts."

One year later, a New
York City based pop artist

named Roy Lichtenstein
turned that same drawing

into one of his
most famous works.

- I go through comic books
looking for material which

seems to hold possibilities
for a painting

both in its visual
impact and in the impact

of its written message,
which I rarely make up.

I don't think I'd be
capable of making them up.

I know that my work has
been accused of looking

like the things that I copy,
and it certainly does look

like the things that I copy.

- "The Drowning Woman" was
straight out of that book,

"Secret Hearts."

First you feel flattered,
and then you feel used.

Since nobody interpreted
it as a stolen thing,

it was his artwork.

- 35 million, 36 million, with
Mark still at $36 million,

37 million, 38 million.

At $38 million.

- You've taken these panels
that these guys have drawn,

we're making, like,
15 bucks a page,

and you're basically just
blowing up their work.

That was a tough nut to swallow
for a lot of those artists.

Narrator: Whether
highbrow or lowbrow,

Americans chased one
artistic trend after another

with a speed greater than ever.

♪ ♪

Throughout the '60s,
counterculture pushed

pop culture to
reflect the times.

And in so doing proved
DC was out of touch.

A growing competitor tapped
into that reality, Marvel.

Editor-in-chief Stan
Lee made sure his heroes

looked current on
the sales racks,

which set the stage
for a lifelong rivalry.

- Years ago, the readers
were just interested

in regular fantasy,
and our villains

were just some mad men who
wanted to rule the world.

But today, our readers,

they're interested
in real problems,

and we find that our villains
today are the kind of people

who might be causing race
riots or fermenting trouble

between different classes.

- Marvel was coming
into its own.

This was a time of change.

And their superheroes
had quirks.

And they were a little nutty.

- They were weird.

They weren't even
particularly heroic at first.

They fought with each
other, They bickered.

They were petty.

You know, they caught colds.

They were jealous of each other.

These characters are
characters that could be you.

Marvel was very much
focused on being,

you know, the world
outside your window.

All their stories take
place in New York City.

- DC established all
of the conventions

of the superhero genre,

and Marvel made a
name for themselves

by breaking those conventions.

They couldn't have done
that had DC not first said,

"This is what a
superhero looks like.

This is what a superhero does."

- DC looked at Marvel like,

"Ah, it's a passing fad,
they'll come and go."

They would look at the comics
and go, "Well, this art's bad.

I mean, I guess that's what
selling comics is... bad art."

- I don't think DC,
as a group, got it.

I don't think they had
any real understanding

of what Marvel was doing
well that they weren't doing.

It was a company that had
been the dominant player.

But the Marvel stuff
was gaining strength

and the DC stuff was not.

- Superman and Batman
and Wonder Woman

during this era were
especially bland.

The heroes became more like
jolly authority figures,

you know, they became paternal.

Narrator: Originally
conceived as a vigilante

that struck fear into
the hearts of criminals,

the Batman of the '50s and '60s

played in a colorful,
juvenile world of fantasy.

Interest and sales plummeted.

As its cancellation
neared, a lifeline was cast

when DC licensed the rights
to a live-action TV show.

["Batman" theme playing]

- ♪ Batman! ♪

♪ ♪

♪ Batman! ♪

- When the "Batman"
TV show came on

on that cold winter
night in January of 1966,

I was 14 1/2 years old.

I was an ardent comic book fan.

Nobody was more excited
about the "Batman" show

coming on TV than I was.

- ♪ Na-na-na-na,
na-na-na-na, na ♪

♪ Batman! ♪

- Remember, Robin,
always look both ways.

- There was nothing that
creative on television,

and that show showed
up fully blown.

It had its look figured out.
It had its tone figured out.

The acting was exactly what
that show was supposed to be.

- Push yourself away, Robin.

- I took that as a
very serious show.

I didn't realize it
was funny at all.

There was no comedy in
it for me, I thought.

And so it was a
great introduction

into the world of Batman.

- Holy human pearls, Batman.

- Correction, Robin...
Pearls come from oysters.

You came out of that clam.

- About 20 minutes
in, it hits me.

Pow.

Zap.

Whamm.

Oh, my God.

This is a comedy.

They are making a
joke out of Batman.

The whole world is
laughing at Batman.

And that killed me.

[funky music]

- William Dozier, you know,
who's the executive producer

of "Batman," had never
read a "Batman" comic

when he got that job.

[uplifting music]

- Well, the fairly obvious idea

was to make it so square

and so serious and
so cliché-ridden

and so overdone and yet do
it with a certain elegance

and style that it
would be funny,

that it would be
so corny and so bad

that it would be funny.

- Holy jack in the box!

- For a lot of folks,
the bright, happy,

TV Batman was a distraction,

and that's a good distraction.

We all need distractions
at some times

from what's going on
outside in the real world.

[funky music]

- Here was this
completely ludicrous show,

they made it colorful, they
made it larger than life,

and they made it a
little bit subversive.

- The flower children
think we're cool, man.

Like, we turn them on, you know?

- Although it may
not be understood

by more literal minds,

in their own way, they're
doing what they can

to correct the world's
woes with love and flowers.

Narrator: While the high
adventure and Bat-Gadgets

appealed to kids,
adults got their kicks

from the humor and
sexual innuendo.

- Would you like to come in

for a glass of milk and cookies?

- Man cannot live by
crimefighting alone.

[suggestive fanfare]

[upbeat surf rock music]

narrator: Even though
"Batman" caused a flurry

of short-lived excitement,

the TV show became
a parody of itself,

and viewers tuned out.

The network cancelled
the pun-filled madness

after only three seasons.

No one recognized the show's
true creative discovery

until decades later... That
each rendition of Batman

could have a different tone.

- If you look at Batman,

the Batman that
was created in 1966

is not the same Batman
that exists today.

There were always moments
where the creatives

wanted to do
something different.

[soft dramatic music]

♪ ♪

- Yeah. Look at
that. That is great.

I wanted to do a story where

the character Batman had an arc.

I wanted to do an
imperfect Batman.

[indistinct chatter]

And I wanted to
set him into a mode

that hadn't been quite done,

which was to lean hard
into the noir side

of the story and make him the
world's greatest detective.

The first days of
shooting, they were really

about figuring out
how Batman sounded,

how the other characters
related to him.

- Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.

Police section.

- How does a masked
man with a cape

walk into a crime scene,

and how do you make
that feel real?

And shooting this scene was
really, really challenging

and, ultimately, sort of set
the tone of the whole movie.

[dark dramatic music]

- Don't make me hurt you.

- You better watch it.
[laughs]

You know my reputation.

- There's certain things you get

to do on a Batman movie.

You kind of have to pinch
yourself 'cause you're, like,

going, "Oh, well, we're
gonna need our version

of the Batmobile."

As a kid, I loved "Batman"
'66. I loved Adam West.

And that Futura Batmobile,
that concept car,

I thought that was
the coolest car ever

with the fire that
came out of the back.

And I knew what I wanted
to do was a muscle car.

I wanted you to feel
it was totally real.

♪ ♪

- The strength of this
film is that it delivers

in all of these big moments,

but it really all
feels grounded.

He's really dedicated
to it feeling real

and being motivated by emotion.

- The story is a very
psychological one.

He's basically
coping with things

that happened to him as a child.

And he's driven to try and
make sense of his life.

And for me, that's what
moviemaking is, right?

You go and you try to tell
stories because, in doing so,

you're kind of making order
and sense of the world.

♪ ♪

narrator: The America of
1968 fell into turmoil.

In a society plagued
by the Vietnam War,

civil rights unrest
and social injustice,

the DC characters
seemed tone-deaf.

They faced their
own real danger:

becoming a relic.

[apprehensive music]

- The money is being
made from licensing,

the money is being
made off toys.

The money is not in the comics.

It's a loss leader
for the merchandising.

Narrator: DC cashed
in $75 million worth

of Batmania merchandising,

a whopping amount for the time,

and a number that
business savvy president

Jack Liebowitz seized upon.

In 1969, a corporate
takeover targeted DC

for its licensing
potential, not its comics.

- It was a whole other
ballgame that was coming,

and people were afraid,
they really were.

They didn't know what
their jobs were going

to be as a result of that.

Narrator: Liebowitz forced
out a number of DC legends,

including Batman
co-creator Bill Finger,

who died destitute in 1974.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster

no longer worked at the company.

Several acrimonious lawsuits
over rights and credit

for Superman soured
the relationship.

The family atmosphere
surrendered

to corporate structure.

The power once held
by the superheroes

shifted to the new
executives in charge,

Warner Communications.

- The reason they bought
DC Comics was very simple:

they wanted the
rights to Superman.

They felt that was the
only comic book character

capable of sustaining
a blockbuster movie

and the merchandising that
would go along with it.

Only if you look at it
through the lens of the times

can anything
possibly make sense.

Nobody understood the
value of these characters

or thought they had any worth.

They looked down their
nose at the creators,

generally speaking, and
saw no value, saw no value.

Narrator: The days of
DC Comics were numbered,

and the fate of its universe
hung in the balance.

If America could land
a man on the moon,

how hard could it be to make
superheroes relevant again?

This looked like a job for...

Fans.

[dramatic music]

♪ ♪