Is it just me or is everything coming up superheroes these days?
Just about every time I turn on the telly, open up a magazine or go online I come across news about some new superhero movie that’s been released, soon to be released or about to go into production. The list seems endless. X-men, The Avengers, Spider Man, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Wolverine, Ant-Man, Fantastic Four, Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, Batman vs. Superman!
It’s as if most of the planet has succumbed to childlike hero worship.
There’s no denying that the superhero movie genre has grown into a multi-billion dollar behemoth. Since 2000 we’ve been inundated with scores of films featuring just about every character from the Marvel and DC comic catalogue. In fact, superhero movies have claimed the top spots at the box office in recent years – which explains why the big studios are churning them out at such a fast and furious pace, with seemingly endless sequels, prequels, reboots, spin-offs and merchandise to ensure that the revenue stream ‘springs eternal’.
But it got me wondering : what’s behind our voracious appetite for these kind of films – and what does it say about us, our state of mind and the state of our world?
Let me start by exploring my relationship with the superhero genre…
Richard Donner’s Superman : The Movie, released in 1978, is widely credited with kickstarting the whole superhero movie genre that has become so omnipresent today. I was 7 years old when the film came out and I could barely contain my excitement as my dad held my hand and led me into the darkened movie theatre to watch it for the first time – because, of all the comic book superheroes of the time, Superman was by far my favourite.
Like so many other gawky young boys I was in awe of his muscled physique and handsome, chiselled face. I loved his bright, colourful costume and cape, that perfect split curl hairstyle and the fact that he had an unassuming, nerdy alter ego. And with so many awesome powers, he was pretty much at the top of the superhero food chain!
But most of all, I loved ol’ benevolent Sups because he was wholesome, honourable and honest. He stood for all that was ‘good’ and ‘right’.
Yup, the ‘bad guys’ (by my rather simplistic estimation at age 7) didn’t stand a chance as long as Superman was around. He could always be trusted to swoop down from the skies and save the day – proving over and over again that good always triumphs over evil and truth and justice always win the day.
This was, of course, the main, reassuring thrust of most of those early comic books – and purveyors of today’s mega-budget action, fantasy and superhero movies would have us believe that this is the underlying message behind their films as well.
But is it really?
There’s a charming scene in Superman : The Movie, where Lois Lane (played by the perfectly cast Margot Kidder) asks Christopher Reeve’s Superman why he’s here – on earth and on U.S. soil (well, at least some of the time)…
“There must be a reason for you to be here.” she says.
“I’m here to fight for truth and justice and the American way.” he replies, prompting the plucky lady reporter to blurt out in disbelief, “You’re gonna end up fighting every elected official in this country!”
It’s a line of dialogue that was lost on me at age 7, but today the import of that statement hits home because it raises questions about just how good the ‘good’ guys are – and makes the black-and-white distinction between the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys seem a little grey.
That the film was frank and self aware enough to nod to corruption and failings within the political system in America and elsewhere around the world (Superman is after all a global hero who takes in more territory than the United States) is promising, but that’s all it was : a nod.
Okay, so this was a movie made in the 70’s, that was intended as wholesome entertainment for the entire family, so you can forgive the film’s scant acknowledgment of a really big problem – but how has the superhero movie genre evolved since then?
And by ‘evolved’ I mean, how have they matured, if at all, to reflect the real world, front page issues that affect us all?
So let’s for the moment overlook the remarkable advances in technology that have made it so much easier for audiences to suspend disbelief when presented with the hypothetical of a man of steel who can fly and emit laser-like beams from his eyes.
The answer is…not much.
I know what you’re thinking.
“They’re only movies. It’s just harmless, escapist entertainment, so lighten up!”
“…and pass the popcorn.”
Of course, I’ve enjoyed watching these films on occasion – and there’s no denying that they’re slick, well put together and extremely immersive (I would expect nothing less from big budget bonanzas that recruit the industry’s finest).
But I outgrew superhero movies when I stopped being a child – so why are we (and I don’t mean just the fanboys) lapping them up with such gusto, to the extent that the market is becoming saturated with them? Is it just a phase or is it reflective of a deeper malaise?
And are these films really all that “harmless”?
I doubt that…
For starters, these movies are exceedingly violent and dark. The latest crop of hyper-violent superhero movies are a far cry from the red and blue boy scout, goodie two shoes portrayal of Superman that I grew up with. What does it say about our culture that there is so much violence in our films, TV shows and computer games? Some would argue that they provide us with a safe environment to experience fear and aggression, but I think they anaesthetise us to the real, grave consequences of actual violence. Anyone who’s actually witnessed a shooting, explosion or naked physical aggression in real life will tell you that it’s vile and deeply upsetting, yet we watch it on screen with thrilled rapture, seemingly numbed to its brutality (as we munch our popcorn).
Then, why aren’t more people asking why all the main players in these movies are invariably white and male? Surely there are black, Hispanic, Asian and leading female heroes too? If these comic book characters were created in a ‘different era’ where ethnic diversity and gender equality were not considered important or valuable, then why do we allow them to exert such an influence on of our present-day aspirations? What kind of message are we leaving younger audiences with, when women and ethnic minorities are relegated to supporting roles and that of extras?
Beyond some of their more disturbing underlying messages and lessons – which are insightfully explored and unpacked here and here – a lot of these films seem to me to be tools of mass distraction, diverting our attention away from the real threats to humanity and our precious planet.
Every year filmmakers do their damnedest to scare the hell out of us with an endless parade of mythical and fictional supervillains and creatures that seek to destroy our world – alien invasions through wormholes, megalomaniacal demigods, gamma-radiation monsters, genocidal robots, intergalactic eaters of worlds or acid faced anarchists – when the real threats to earth and all its living creatures are not nearly as preposterous or far-fetched – but are no less dangerous and terrifying!
Poverty and social inequality, wanton environmental destruction and climate change, fracking, corruption, the ever widening wealth gap between the wealthy elite and middle and bottom earners, terrorism, religious extremism, the unregulated growth of big business and government power, human trafficking, racism, misogyny and bigotry.
I would love to see the supers take these real evils on!
But, of course, that’s not going to happen.
The causes that need championing just aren’t sexy enough I suppose. Or maybe they’re too political for comic book characters.
And so the movie heroes and superheroes beloved by so many will continue to kick imaginary ‘bad guy’ butt – or why not even each other’s?
In the upcoming instalment in the Superman and Batman franchise – with the typically grandiose title of Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice – the Hollywood fantasy machine will pit two of the biggest ‘good’ guys against each other for our amusement and viewing pleasure. We’ll be expected to suspend disbelief, yet again, when it’s discovered that Superman, that messianic figure and most humble of heroes, has allowed power to go to his head and needs to be taken down by Batman. I wonder if the fanboys will manage to keep at bay the nagging reminder that Batman, a mere mortal who got the crap kicked out of him by a dude on steroids, has very little hope of defeating the invincible god-like Superman. I know you’re vehemently opposed to guns Batman, so I hope you’re packing lots of that other exhausted Superman movie plot device : Kryptonite!
How convenient to have the two quintessential champions of truth and justice be made to turn on each other, so the ‘bad’ guys of the world can go about their daily business unfettered!
Despite how it sounds this isn’t a bitch about Hollywood. When they’re not bombarding us with big-budget fantasy spectacles, hackneyed rom-coms and animated parables, they do still make brilliant, meaningful and important films from time to time. Plus they’ve got Meryl! And at least their films have irony. The same cannot be said for that other cinematic giant, the Indian film industry, which sells a different brand of self-deluding escapism (but that’s another article for another time).
I have no major problem with the fact that these films are made (there is, after all, a time and a place for them) – but it’s their sudden proliferation that has me intrigued.
I think that our seemingly insatiable appetite for these kind of films speaks of our need to not only escape the confronting reality of real-world problems and pretend that they aren’t there for a couple of hours, but also to immerse ourselves in a high-tech, but ultimately juvenile genre where we’re offered imaginary solutions to those problems. It’s as if we’re medicating ourselves with an ongoing diet of escapist entertainment and fantasy fare to take the edge off. That’s why the superhero concept is so seductive I think. Not only does it offer us an opportunity to live out our childhood fantasy of being a hero, but watching the ‘good’ guys win on screen brings about feelings of comfort and gives us a vicarious thrill that leaves us with a false sense that all is right in the universe again.
And all this leaves me with the nagging feeling that humanity needs saving alright!
But not from super villains, monsters, aliens, wizards, vampires or dinosaurs…
But from itself.