As an avid consumer of comic books while growing up in the UK, I have known for some time that, while Britain is blessed with many great things, an abundance of superheroes is not among them. Even a casual reader of DC and Marvel legends would agree that the UK gene pool for super-charged crime fighters is pretty dry (you’ll be forgiven for overlooking, the perennially-overlooked Captain Britain). Even in the non-super powered world of comic lore (à la Batman), Brits are seriously underrepresented. Superhero origin stories beginning “Born in Britain” are as rare as surviving copies of Action Comics #1.
This is not to say that kids in Britain don’t agonize over which superpowers, given the choice, they would most liked to be blessed with (I was always partial to the ability to fly); it’s just that we are conditioned to deal with the disappointment much earlier than our American cousins. But while Americans can celebrate a star-studded cast of the comic world’s finest—Spiderman, Superman, and Batman, to name just those with whom the film industry frequently reacquaints us—Brits can take comfort in the fact that, more often than not, it is a British actor whose name appears in the credits of their cinematic representations.
Take the three movie franchises I’ve mentioned here. Christian Bale, born in Wales, has been cracking heads for three installments of the hugely successful Dark Knight series. And let’s not forget the less-gadget-laden, but no less impressive Sir Michael Caine, who plays Batman’s sagacious, long-suffering butler Alfred. And let’s not forget the only-good-cop-in-town Jim Gordon, played by the outstanding Gary Oldman. In the latest episode of the Spiderman series, Andrew Garfield (born in LA, but raised in England) sports the red-and-blue of Marvel’s friendly neighborhood Spiderman. And in the latest Superman reboot, Henry Cavill, a native of Jersey (in the Channel Islands) will don the red cape to take down Kryptonian villainy (Christopher Nolan, the Brit who directed and wrote the screenplay for the Dark Knight series, is following up that success as writer on Man of Steel).
It’s not just in the good-guy category where British actors represent; we have our share of villains too. Tom Hardy (English) plays the sinister-looking Bane in the latest Dark Knight installment. He follows in the footsteps of Tom Wilkinson (English), who played Carmine Falcone in the first film in the franchise. In The Amazing Spiderman, Rhys Ifans (Welsh) suits up as the Lizard, while Tom Hiddleston (English) reprised his portrayal of Norse God of Mischief Loki for The Avengers summer blockbuster.
Aside from consoling British comic book fans for the dearth of UK superhero talent, what is the point of all this? Simply put, it illustrates just some of what is GREAT about the British film industry. In the first decade of this century, ten of the top 20 global box-office successes are based on novels by UK writers, and more than half of the top 200 films released worldwide since 2001 have featured UK actors in lead or prominent supporting roles, while 21 have had UK directors. And it’s not just exports of acting talent for which Britain can be proud: in 2009 (the latest year for which data is available) UK film exports came to an all-time high of just under £1.5 billion, up from £1.3 billion in 2008. Exports in 2009 were 111 per cent higher than in 2001. These exports serve Britain well: films depicting the UK are responsible for attracting about one in 10 overseas tourists to the country, spending around £1.9 billion a year. This is worth somewhere in the region of £950 million to UK GDP. So while the comic universe may be light on British alter-egos, British movie talent continues to super-charge the global film industry.
Finally, in a week when London readies itself to host some of the fastest, strongest, and most skilful among us for the Olympic and Paralympics Games, it’s worth taking time out to get acquainted with some real-life superheroes.
PS. I hope you will forgive the licence I have taken with the accompanying image to this blog; it’s likely as close as I’ll come to ever having my own comic!