What I'm printing in this section is a slightly rewritten response to a letter. Suffice to say, I wrote a piece for my apa talking about the fact that of all superheroic types, only Tarzan enjoyed long-running serial success as a cinematic hero. A correspondent pointed out that Tarzan wasn't perceived as an "A-list" character. What I wrote in response may not be entirely easy to follow without the correspondent's words, but some of the commentary does bear on the question of legitimacy in pop culture.
Re: my remarks on Tarzan—I wasn’t speaking of the studios’ attitude toward Tarzan, as to whether he was viewed as “A-list” or lower, but merely that audiences in the Classic Hollywood era were willing to accept him as a hero despite his lack of naturalistic normality. It would be fair to regard Tarzan as one of many well-made B-film serial franchises, including Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan. Yet, while some series-franchises flirted with metaphenomenal antagonists, the heroes themselves were ordinary if exceptional-in-some-way human beings. Other attempts to feature extraordinary protagonists in cheap feature films—the Shadow, Chandu the Magician—didn’t last long for whatever reasons, and for twenty-something years the only consistent cinematic source for “superheroes” was what I choose to call the “C-list”—that is, the serials, firmly aimed at kids. Only there did Hollywood choose to address the popularity of comic-book superheroes, whether they were adapting comic-book characters or coming up with their own versions, like “the Masked Marvel.”
But the American A-list actors only rarely went near extraordinary protagonists, with the exception of Douglas Fairbanks Sr,, who created one of the first in American cinema, the Thief of Baghdad, and provided the first film-adaptation of Zorro, which alone probably kept that hero from falling into obscurity along with other Johnson McCulley characters. John Wayne, whom you mention, did in his early years perform in three serials, one of which, THE HURRICANE EXPRESS, might qualify for meta-status, though of course Wayne wasn’t an A-lister at the time. Once an actor moved into the A-list, he or she might appear in any number of realistic adventure-stories, in the genres of westerns, war, or mysteries—but not often science fiction or fantasy. Horror-films were something of an exception: they offered such opportunities for barnstorming performances that you could get an A-lister to do one, like Claude Rains in THE INVISIBLE MAN or Charles Laughton in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. But then, these were also adaptations of novels that had some strong critical repute, which is more than one could say for TARZAN OF THE APES or most other novels featuring metaphenomenal heroes.
BTW, to support the A-list distinction even more—in a TCM interview William Wellman said that he was brought in to provide uncredited direction on a Tarzan picture-- specifically, TARZAN ESCAPES-- because the studio was short-handed. He didn’t want to do it, but was surprised when he enjoyed the experience. Supposedly he asked the studio heads to let him do another, and was told, “Are you crazy? You’re an A-lister, bringing in the big money; we can’t have you waste your talents on Tarzan!”