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A couple of newly released documentaries shine a light on our favorite heroes and the adversaries that make them the characters we look up to and cheer for.  Both are available for purchase this week in both blu-ray and DVD as well as through a number of digital portals and both are well worth adding to your collection.

PBS this week aired their three part Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle series, a sprawling history lesson that follows the comic book medium from it’s humble beginnings to their position today as the subject of summer movie blockbusters.   I have to laud PBS for doing a wonderful job of promoting the medium and assembling the most comprehensive documentary I think I’ve ever seen.  Everyone from Adam West to comic legends like Joe Simon and Jerry Robinson make an appearance (of course the ubiquitous Stan Lee can be found here, too!).

The series is broken into three one-hour “episodes”, each focusing on different eras.  Part one, “Truth, Justice and the American Way” focuses on the the Golden Age of comics from 1938-1958.  While this part of the series treads some very familiar ground that was covered in Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics and the History Channel’s Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked special, for anyone who missed either of those excellent programs the PBS program provides a good amount of information about the rise of the comic book art form and the real life origins behind some of the most iconic characters in comic history.

Behind the scenes with Denny O’Neill

“Great Power, Great Responsibility” is the series’ second chapter, highlight the Silver Age era from 1959-1977.  For Green Lantern fans there is a good section devoted to the Denny O’Neill / Neal Adams “Hard Travelling Heroes” run when they cover the late ’60’s exploration of social issues in comics.  If the first part leaned towards DC’s stable of characters, this middle chapter spends considerable time on the rise of Marvel Comics as Stan Lee emerges as the leading creative force in the medium.

The final chapter, “A Hero Can Be Anyone”, brings us from 1978 to today, putting much emphasis on the embracing of comics characters in television, movies and video games.  This episode also spends some time addressing the future of comics in digital form, a fitting bookend to the first episode when comics were found on nearly every street corner in town.

There’s some nice bonus material on the blu-ray, including some cover versions of classic Marvel cartoon themes.  Overall this series is a wonderful ode to the comics medium and the ups and downs the industry has had from a meteoric rise to the fall at the hands of government scrutiny to the struggle to return to the sales numbers of yesteryear – all while inspiring the imagination of the youth’s of the world.  I can’t recommend this enough and for a short time you can view the entire series for free at the special subsite that PBS has set up to promote the show which includes some exclusive to the web video clips and extras.    Amazon is currently selling the show for $19.99 on DVD and $24.99 on Blu-ray.

Timed perfectly with the DC Comics’ Forever Evil event comes Necessary Evil, Super-Villains of DC Comics, a one hundred minute exploration of the nature of the opposition and why we connect so closely to bad guys.  Warner Brothers brought in a number of people to talk about villains, including the familiar presences of Geoff Johns, Jim Lee and Dan DiDio, but also bringing in people like psychologists and film directors Zack Snyder and Guillermo del Toro.  However the real star of the show is film legend Christopher Lee who provides the perfect vocal tones for the narration.

What makes this film so interesting is that they really delve deeply in the motivations of villains and the necessary role they play in story telling.  Sure there’s time spent on telling us a little about the most iconic rogues galleries in comics, but it’s the thought provoking exploration of how they parallel and mirror the heroes and ourselves that makes the documentary more than what could have simply been a feature length commercial, although there’s certainly plenty of self promotion, too.

Johns’ love of villains is apparent

The documentary features a lot of video footage from various film, television and video games, including Green Lantern in a number of bits.  Sinestro, Black Hand and Larfleeze are each given a spotlight and there’s also a good bit of time devoted to Hal Jordan’s time as Parallax when they look at the notions of a hero falling from grace and what their eventual return to the light can say to all of us about human nature.  Geoff Johns uses the conclusion to his Green Lantern run and the nature of Hal and Sinestro’s relationship to show the bond between a hero and their adversary.  There’s also a nice bit about the Sinestro Corps War plus there’s a lot of Green Lantern imagery in the background during the interview segments including Atrocitus, Sinestro and the Third Army.

I particularly liked how this documentary explored how we are wrestle with our own inner villain and how we sometimes root for the villain because they can express their anger and frustration without concern for how they are viewed by the world at large.  Villains are some times painted as a plot device but you get the understanding from this film that DC really sees them as perhaps the most important part of the story and how they need to represent our own fears to be relevant.  It’s always been my opinion that DC’s greatest strength has been that their stable of adversaries is second to none and this documentary reinforces that notion to me.  While there’s a lot of fan debate on who has the World’s Greatest Heroes, there’s no doubt who has the best bad guys.

Necessary Evil will be released on October 25th, however it is available now on iTunes and the Xbox marketplace.  It can be ordered from Amazon on either DVD or Blu-ray.  Like Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, Necessary Evil comes with a high recommendation.

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