Three hours of superhero history can be a lot to take in. PBS believes people are ready for it, so they’ve put together Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle. A documentary spanning, rather quickly, the entire history of comics. PBS uses the tried and true method of quick cuts, B-roll and talking heads to make their point. Putting the entire story on-air in a three-hour chunk is either PBS saying “People love comics,” or they’re afraid to give up three days of airtime to sequential art through pictures. So, is it an effective documentary? Sure, depending on how much you know about comics.
A long time ago, around the time the disastrous film version of Alan Moore’s League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen saw release, the History Channel televised a similar documentary titled Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked. Having been released just before pop culture exploded all over comics, it’s a much more in-depth look at the history of the medium. However, if you’re a peripheral comic book fan, or a young one, or your interest in the history of comics is passing at best, A Never-Ending Battle could be right up your alley.
Never-Ending Battle wastes no time in jumping into the history of Superman. Broken into three hour-long blocks, the doc begins with comics in their infancy. PBS interviews comic giants like Joe Simon, Joe Kubert and Gerry Conway, and uses stock footage for clips from Jack Kirby. The first block explores the rise of the comic book from the strip, and the arrival of Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster’s genre-altering hero from Krypton. From there, we see the rise of Batman and other heroes, plus the explosion of comic book popularity through World War II. Chapter One ends with the Comics Code Authority, brought about by Fredric Wertham and the McCarthy Era.
Chapter Two introduces Marvel, and the rise of their era via the cultures embracing of modern technology and science fiction. Stan Lee is the predominant interview here, though the filmmakers are kind enough to give a nod to Steve Ditko and Kirby, two men that built Marvel comics with Lee. PBS goes into depth on Fantastic Four, Hulk, and especially Spider-Man. There’s also a section dealing with feminism, which is interesting and also a great place to see that Lynda Carter is still beautiful. The tumultuous end of the '70s is showcased, including DC and Marvel using their comics to address racism and drug use.
For some reason, the '80s are almost completely skipped over. In Chapter Three PBS presents a cursory look at the era, mostly focusing on Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Never-Ending then moves into the '90s and the creation of Image Comics. I can’t stand Todd McFarlane, so this part of the show was hard to watch. PBS picks up the pace in the last half hour, speeding from Batman Begins through The Avengers and then dabbling a bit with the internet displacing paper comics in the future.
As I said, if you want a quick overview of the comics’ world, A Never-Ending Battle covers a lot of ground quickly. There’s also no shortage of interviews. Mark Waid, Walt Simonson, Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, Joe Quesada, and much more. PBS doesn’t bring in the Hollywood set; A Never-Ending Battle focuses purely on comic book creators. If I had to pick one problem with the project, it’s that the film doesn’t really cover any new ground. So much has happened over the last ten years and very little of it is explored. Brief mentions of the Marvel string of films, a blip on cosplay and then five minutes on the coming of the digital revolution. I think the documentary would have been better served, especially with the demographic PBS is trying to serve, with a deeper look at the future. Perhaps a full hour on that alone.
Overall, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle is a solid three hours of rapid-fire information that explains comic history to the YouTube generation.