Let’s be honest. At this point, there’s nothing secret about the history of comics. There have been countless documentaries exploring the rise of characters like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, as well as the progression of comic books from their Depression-era beginnings to the billion dollar Hollywood-bait they are now. What’s different about Secret Origin: The History of DC Comics? I’m not entirely sure. It’s very well made and enjoyable, with some really great interview moments with various creators and publishers, but there’s not much new information within it.
Narrated by the star of next year's Green Lantern, Ryan Reynolds, the doc is officially endorsed by DC Comics, made to celebrate the company’s 75 years in business, and distributed by Warner Bros, which is a double-edged sword (I hate that phrase… all swords have two edges) because it means easy access to artworks, people and archive footage, but it also means it can’t go too deep into the true “secrets”—the more fascinating incidents in DC’s history. Worse, the prominent displaying of books like Human Target, The Losers and Red reeks of cross-promotion.
There’s a great documentary to be made about the Comics Code Authority, which here is touched upon effectively but only briefly. It brings up the hearing that threatened publications like EC Comics for its graphic depictions of horror, which led to the creation of a governing group that keeps content in check, an entity that crippled the comic industry’s creativity. As Neal Adams puts it in the doc, “The worst kind of censorship is self-censorship.” Mainly, they mention this to pat themselves in the back for ignoring the Code’s “no drugs” rule when they made Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy a junkie to tackle the issue of teenage drug use. Shhh, nobody mention that Stan Lee did it first on The Amazing Spider-Man.
That’s the problem. There’s way too much back-patting, preventing the doc from reaching its full potential. It boasts about Captain Marvel’s popularity at one point eclipsing Superman’s, but tightlipped about the lawsuit that followed. The rivalry with Marvel Comics is mentioned only in that Julius Schwartz’s publishing of JLA led to Stan Lee creating Fantastic Four. There’s a whole segment on Alan Moore being a genius who created this groundbreaking thing called Watchmen and DC’s purchase of WildStorm, without any mention of the ugly sordid history behind that. A spotlight on Frank Miller being an anti-establishment punk who challenged patriotic conservatism in the 80’s doesn’t go into the fact that Miller went crazy neocon after 9/11. Basically, Secret Origin is an unfortunate title for this documentary.
That’s not to say there aren’t any self-criticism. The doc is surprisingly candid about William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman, being a polygamist who bafflingly equated feminism with submission and was obsessed with putting women in bondage situations in every page of Wonder Woman. It runs through the mistakes they’ve made with their characters over the years, including Denny O’Neill apologizing for his 70’s Wonder Woman mod reboot that caused an uproar with the women’s lib movement. It reveals that the much ballyhooed Death of Superman storyline was conceived as a stunt that originated as a joke. My personal favorite is how it admits that the success of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns shoehorned the awful comics of the 90’s that celebrated pointless grim-grittiness, even naming Lobo as an example.
Once you understand that it is what it is and that there’s no hope for an unbiased view, it is a pretty neat documentary. What it does very well is putting many of DC’s most famous stories in the cultural context of the time and making them sound extremely relevant to the period. Superman as a cypher for the Depression-era immigrant experience, Batman as a response to the relative newness of urban crime, sci-fi Flash/Green Lantern revamps as a movement into the atomic age, Watchmen as a reaction to the nuclear threat and The Dark Knight Returns as a middle finger to Ronald Reagan.
As a puff-piece to introduce the masses to the rich history of DC superheroes, it’s great. It goes into certain things that a TV special or DVD extra can’t or won’t. For the hardcore comic fans, it’s still worth watching just to see the expanding community that has developed over three quarters of a century, to feel good about how important these creations truly are to fostering the next generation’s creativity and imagination, and to celebrate the longevity of these characters.
In the closing moments of the film, Sandman author Neil Gaiman muses that he doesn’t know how people will be reading comics in the future, be it things you can stack in a treehouse or a diamond-sized electronic device that beams holograms into your retinas.
“But I do know that,” Gaiman asserts. “A hundred years from now, kids will still want to know what’s going to happen to Superman.”