CONSIDER the roll call of superheroes to have leapt or flown across the big screen recently : Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, those other two Avengers whose names no one ever remembers. And then, of course, there's the new Batman brouhaha - already at a cinema and a Facebook forum near you. Even before a book about bondage and S&M became the world's fastest-selling novel, it was a pretty good year for Spandex.
The improbable popularity of superheroes over the past decade-and-a-half has prompted many attempts at explanation. Are we in desperate need of modern, secular mythologies, or is consumerism just turning us into perpetual teenagers?
Of the more crackpot cultural theories, one idea is starting to look a little more credible. In his book Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero, comics writer Grant Morrison suggests it is no accident that the genre's recent resurgence has coincided with developments in digital media. "In a time of Facebook and Twitter, where everyone has a fan page, when the concept of 'genius' has been extended to include anyone . where is there left to go but all the way?" he writes. "We have online secret identities, other lives . everyone is special, everyone is a superhero now."
While cultural theorising might sound spurious when directed at comic book characters, when it is applied to the way people behave on digital media platforms, businesses cannot afford to dismiss it.
After all, Web 3.0 is a user-generated medium. This makes traditional models of consumer culture and market research methods redundant. Using a focus group to understand digital media users is like using a nutcracker to break open a boulder. Even the notion of a hybrid "consumer-content creator" has started to look too simplistic. Facebook users now have a third role to play as the company's revenue generating product - and the more personal information we upload, the more valuable we become for sites to sell to advertisers.
So let's take Morrison's superhero thesis as seriously as Warner Brothers takes the business of selling Batman. Anyone who has used mobile internet access to cheat at Trivial Pursuit will know you no longer need to come from Krypton to tap a seemingly infinite bank of knowledge. Meanwhile, two of the most successful comic book franchises, Batman and Iron Man, are not actually about beings endowed with superpowers, but technologically souped-up billionaires.
In 64 Things You Need to Know for Then, tech guru Ben Hammersley suggests that smartphones and other digital devices are slowly merging with our selves: "It is almost as if we have all acquired superpowers . because of the ever-increasing ubiquity and intimacy of our usage of these devices, we absorb their powers." He defines the "cloud" as "the place where your mind is augmented by faster sources of information".
However, writer and technology entrepreneur Andrew Keen casts a different, darker light on this in Digital Vertigo, a sobering analysis of social media behaviour published last month.
Keen argues that geo-location services such as FourSquare, Facebook Places and Google Latitude make a dangerous state of "hypervisibility" worse by giving us the power to spy on our friends that is almost like having X-ray vision.
Just as today's Hollywood comic book adaptations have tended to dwell on the murkier aspects of the superhero's profession, Keen examines the thin lines between digital media use and abuse, and between technological empowerment and enslavement. While personal technology may give us near-omnipotence, it also means our real, private selves are increasingly locked behind so many social media masks.
Ultimately, cultural theory matters because pop culture matters. Many features of digital life - such as user-generated mash-ups and a disregard for copyright - were hallmarks of the hip-hop movement long before the internet arrived. In this regard, Keen is not afraid to roll out the big theoretical guns, referencing Jean Baudrillard, Marshall McLuhan and even Jeremy Bentham. Marketing departments should take note: these are the kind of superheroes you need.
© 2012 The Financial Times Limited