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The Fourth Wall

The Fourth Wall: Not plane, nor bird, nor even frog ...

When it comes to the modern-day fascination with all things superhero, I fit in as comfortably as George Gobel.

Gobel was a deadpan humorist during a time when deadpan humorists made a living working the TV talk show circuit — which, in those days, meant appearing on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.”

One evening in 1969, Johnny’s first two guests — entertainment legends Bob Hope and Dean Martin — slid down the couch to make room so that “Lonesome George” could have the five-minute spot reserved for the show’s final guest.

Gobel came onto the stage, surveyed the stars surrounding him, looked over at Johnny and asked: “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo … and you were a pair of brown shoes?”

So here, in the week leading up to Medford’s version of Comic Con no less, I find myself walking in my old brown shoes through a superheroic landscape that I simply don’t understand.

The who, what, when and where are pretty obvious. It’s the why that has me as stumped as I was as a pre-teen — trying to figure out how Bruce and Dick changed into their crimefighting outfits while sliding down the Batpoles.

It’s been 10 years since the release of the first “Iron Man” film gave birth to what is now referred to as the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” — a movie-making Colossus that has grossed an estimated $14,800,000,000 (that’s billion with a b) and shows absolutely no signs of stopping.

“Comic book characters never grow old,” Bernie Taupin once wrote. “Evergreen heroes whose stories were told.”

(Taupin was writing about the cowboy star Roy Rogers who — with his rhinestone attire and faithful companions — could easily be a founding father to today’s superhero family.)

“Superman” is turning 80 Earth-years old, with a new TV series (called “Krypton”) about to launch on SyFy that details life on Kal-El’s birth planet 200 years before his birth. It’ll be one of more than 30 live action and animated series set within superhero storylines that you can watch.

At the movie theaters, of course, “Black Panther” became a massive hit — conquering worldwide box offices and becoming (at this moment, in this universe) the third-highest grossing domestic film of all-time.

Depending on release dates, another eight to 10 movies in the genre are scheduled to hit the megaplex near you this year — as such heroes as Aquaman, Dark Phoenix, Venom, Deadpool and yet another incarnation of Spiderman (excuse me, Spider-Man) invade theaters.

There’s also something called “Ant Man and the Wasp” on its way … and I was saddened to discover that it has nothing to do with the “up and at’em … Atom Ant” cartoon hero of my youth.

The latest batch starts this weekend with the release of “Avengers: Infinity War” — a movie that gloms together a legion (nope, wait … that’s the DC Comics universe; although you have to admit, it’s difficult to keep them straight); it gathers a whole bunch of Marvel heroes to fight one of an endless series of Big Bads who want to destroy the world.

This brings us to a couple of problems I have with the current depiction of superhero culture.

First, and this is true of James Bond villains as well, why do the bad guys seem intent on destroying the world? Who’d be left to gloat to about your achievement? Even that bar filled with captains wouldn’t be able to raise a toast to you. Seems like a useless goal, if you ask me.

Then there’s the entire “let’s get everyone a royalty check” aspect of bringing all these evergreen heroes together again as though it were a remake of “Hollywood Canteen.” Don’t these stars have something (anything?) better to do than to run around in Spandex and fight villains who are too stupid to come up with a better investment strategy?

Robert Downey Jr. … aka Iron Man … aka Tony Stark … has suited up 10 times now — and only three times has it been in an actual “Iron Man” movie. It’s been speculated that (SPOILER ALERT) “Infinity War” might be the last time he dawns the iron-clad underwear … although the Marvel folks have movies planned out to as far as 2025, and it’s not as though any superheroes ever really die when there’s evil afoot and money to be made.

“Reality is overrated,” Patti Smith writes in the Forward to Sam Shepard’s final published writing, “The One Inside.” She also could have added that it doesn’t seem to pay as well these days — when on-screen heroes look less like Carter Nash or Ralph Hinkley and more like demigods.

I’ve seen only one of these Marvel movies, “Dr. Strange” … and that was only because of my wife’s unhealthy fascination with the lead actor — Humperdinck Cummerbund, or whatever his name is. It was what they call an “origin story” film — which details a great tragedy leading to self-discovery, the protection of newfound friends and the disposal of a villain.

Given those criteria, I determined that “Bambi” was a superhero.

Still, I don’t mean to stand in the way of those planning on attending the local Comic Con or spending time and money on “Infinity War.” I don’t even begrudge (much) Marvel’s $14.8 billion — although, with that kind of money, you’d think they’d rebuild the cities that get destroyed in their films.

Mail Tribune senior designer Robert Galvin can’t afford a Bat-Signal, so you’ll have to reach him at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com

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