PBS unleashes 'Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle'

Christopher Reeve in 'Superman: The Movie,' 1978.

Courtesy Everett Collection

Christopher Reeve in "Superman: The Movie," 1978.

With the Marvel Universe show "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." debuting this fall on ABC and plans for The CW spinoff "The Flash" from "Arrow," it's fortuitous timing that PBS will give over all of its Tuesday prime-time schedule to the three-part documentary series "Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle" (8 p.m.).

That it will do battle with a new episode of "S.H.I.E.L.D." is somehow appropriate.

''We made this series so that no parent would ever throw out their kids' comic books again," said executive producer Michael Kantor, probably just half-joking.

Liev Schreiber hosts new show for PBS called 'Super Heroes.' The three-part show begins on Oct. 16, 2013.

Liev Schreiber hosts new show for PBS called "Super Heroes." The three-part show begins on Oct. 16, 2013.

Narrated by Liev Schreiber, the series is not intended just for comic-book geeks -- it's funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities -- as it attempts to contextualize the stories of comic-book superheroes within a greater history that includes the Great Depression, World War II, the congressional witch hunts of the 1950s, Watergate and more.

''Our aim is to explore how these characters came into creation and what they reflect about America," Kantor said at an August PBS press conference. "We built this series with a broad viewership in mind, from age 8 to 88, both men and women, for both nerds and folks like my parents, who I learned this weekend had never heard of 'The Avengers' movie."

Kantor said the series' title refers not only to superheroes' battles on the comic-book pages but also to the creative struggles behind the scenes.

The first hour, titled "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" (1938-58), looks at the rise of patriotism that played into the birth of superheroes. The second hour, "Great Power, Great Responsibility" (1959-77), explores the impact of atomic energy, space travel and relatable problems on superheroes. And the conclusion, "A Hero Can Be Anyone" (1978-present), chronicles the rise of darker, more sophisticated storytelling.

''The geeks have inherited the Earth," said Len Wein, who co-created the Wolverine character in "The X-Men" comic book. "We won in the long run. All of us who got picked on in high school now are the top of the heap as opposed to the bottom."

Comic-book movies, once marginalized, have become the predominant genre force at the box office. This summer's top-grossing films included "Iron Man 3" and "Superman" reboot "Man of Steel." It wasn't always that way.

''When I first started writing in film and television, I had to hide the fact that I had been working in comic books -- that was in the late '70s or early '80s -- because the people that I was talking to were people who had grown up when comics were a dismissible form of art," said longtime "Spider-Man" comic-book writer Gerry Conway. "Now, most of the people who are in the business, in the decision-making part of the business, grew up reading comic books. So I think the reason we are seeing more of this in the culture in general is that the people who are in a position to decide, people like President Obama, who read "Spider-Man" when he was a kid, they are the ones who are now influencing the decisions that get made for popular culture."

A young boy reading a Superman comic book, 1942.

Photo by Courtesy of Corbis

A young boy reading a Superman comic book, 1942.

Todd McFarlane, creator of "Spawn," said comic-book creators are happy to have their creations transfer to another medium, and not just for the monetary benefits.

''I think most of us are pretty proud of our creative children," he said. "We like to show the pictures of these children to as many people as possible. Comic-book people aren't, sort of, elitists. ... So I'm looking forward to selling as many things that people can see on as wide a range as possible."

Different companies have different guidelines for how the creators of comic-book characters get compensated when a studio makes a movie featuring one of their creations.

''When I work for DC, anything I create, I get a piece of," Wein said. "Lucius Fox, for example, who was in the last trilogy of 'Batman' movies played by Morgan Freeman, bought my new house."

But it's not always as profitable.

''The stuff at Marvel, I did see a check off 'The Wolverine,' the current film," Wein said. "But, as a rule, I don't see any of the ancillary money off of all of the toys and soaps and shampoos and skateboards and God knows what else that features the character."

As for the PBS show's ratings battle with "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," ''Superheroes" can probably give up on winning that one. Even Wein's attention may be elsewhere.

''Let's be honest. Most of the fanboy geeks, that's the thing we are most looking forward to this fall because (co-creator) Joss (Whedon) has found a way to keep it secret from everybody," Wein said of "S.H.I.E.L.D." before its premiere last month. "None of us know what's coming. But I'm looking forward to it. I can't tell you how much."

ON TV

"Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle"

■ Part 1: Truth, Justice, and the American Way (1938-1958)

When: 8 p.m. Oct. 15 on WGCU HD and 7 p.m. Oct. 18 on WGCU World

■ Part 2: Great Power, Great Responsibility (1959-1977)

When: 8 p.m. Oct. 18 on WGCU World and 5 p.m. Oct. 20 on WGCU HD

■ Part 3: A Hero Can Be Anyone (1978-Present)

When: 6 p.m. Oct. 20 on WGCU HD and 7 p.m. Oct. 25 on WGCU World

For more showtimes see: http://wgcu.org/tv-schedules

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