Virginia Postrel says in the Atlantic that superheroes in today's movies provide the glamour we used to get from Fred Astaire and Greta Garbo.
Glamour isn’t beauty or luxury; those are only specific manifestations for specific audiences. Glamour is an imaginative process that creates a specific, emotional response: a sharp mixture of projection, longing, admiration, and aspiration. It evokes an audience’s hopes and dreams and makes them seem attainable, all the while maintaining enough distance to sustain the fantasy. The elements that create glamour are not specific styles—bias-cut gowns or lacquered furniture—but more general qualities: grace, mystery, transcendence. To the right audience, Halle Berry is more glamorous commanding the elements as Storm in the X-Men movies than she is walking the red carpet in a designer gown....
Superheroes are masters of their bodies and their physical environment. They often work in teams, providing an ideal of friendship based on competence, shared goals, and complementary talents. They’re special, and they know it. “Their true identities, the men in colorful tights, were so elemental, so universal, so transcendent of the worlds that made them wear masks that they carried with them an unprecedented optimism about the value of one’s inner reality,” writes Gerard Jones in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. “We all knew that Clark Kent was just a game played by Superman and that the only guy who mattered was that alien who showed up in Metropolis with no history and no parents.”
Comic-book heroes, like all glamorous icons, cater to “dreams of flight and transformation and escape.”
I am a big fan of superheroes and comics, and I agree with all of the above as an explanation for their appeal, but I am not sure I agree that Storm is the new Garbo. Other-ness evokes glamour, and the strange costumes may do for the Frantastic Four what white tie and peau de soie negligees did for Rita Hayworth and Jean Harlow. But I think that the definition of a movie star is the ability to project glamour in blue jeans, something of a super-power in itself.
For an interesting intellectual property aside about the publication of the article, see the author's blog.