EDITORIAL: Are Superhero Stories Mindless, Violent Wish-Fulfillment?

With "comic book movies" now producing record box office numbers, Hollywood is taking sides over the potential for maturity and real depth in the up-and-coming genre. Where do you weigh in?

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By Oxbow - 8/18/2012
Batman running around in a cape. Spiderman beating the hell out bad guys even more colorfully dressed than he is. These were the things that people used to think of when they heard the words "comic book." And the jump to moving pictures didn’t help either. Batman dancing the batusi on TV. Superman going back in time by flying fast enough to reverse the earth’s spin! No wonder so many artists and producers once looked at the medium as juvenile!



Times have changed. The Marvel Cinematic Universe reigns triumphant, and is now galloping into phase 2. For their part, DC/Warner Bros. have mapped out their own islands of modest fame, the Dark Knight archipelago being the most striking (and recent) of their successes. Still, many directors do not view the genre positively. Christopher Nolan took the Dark Knight on a strange and unique journey that none of us could have imagined when we first heard about this “reboot.” He is, however, beginning to transition out of CBM’s with "Man of Steel", having stated his lack of interest in a Justice League motion picture. Others (most recently, David Cronenberg) have questioned the maturity of movies about superpowers and costumed vigilantism in general. Still others, including Joss Whedon, embrace the roots of comic book movies and show great enthusiasm for sticking with them! But as the superhero becomes a Hollywood icon, everybody is wondering: What is the deeper message, if any, to all this noise and thunder?

To understand, we must look at the roots of the thing. So much of our culture is action, crime and superhero titles, whose main premise is “good” violence versus the “bad” kind. It goes back to the fight for social justice in the 1920’s. Superman was a champion of the poor and the innocent against the big and corrupt. Then, World War II happened and the superheroes all came along. Captain America was the biggest thing to come out of this fictional draft into service. In that period, comics were printed using a 4-color process that worked best with bright plates of color. So, their outfits were often intense and garishly loud, in order to make a good impact on the page.



Now we have a much different world, but with the same characters still in it. They fight super-villains and terrorists, but the basic story remains the same. It’s like an Orwellian state of permanent war, which is sold as a necessary struggle for righteousness and self-preservation. Can you blame them? Peace is boring to read about …conflict is what pulls you into the story. It moves things forward and makes you really care about the stakes…all the better if it’s charged and bloody like nobody’s business!

Is it pure escapism though? Storytelling from a world of perfected fascism, where might not only makes right, but truly IS right? A desire to live through bad things vicariously…as vaccine against (or practice for) the real thing? Why do we love the endless fight and struggle so much in those moments of rest and relaxation in our lives? This is a question starkly illustrated in the recent tragic shooting at a midnight screening of Dark Knight Rises. Dozens of innocent people were in that theater to watch a war movie unfold before them, basically fictionalized violence on a massive scale. Instead, very real violence was brought into that place by a very disturbed man. It was one of those instances when both the great tragedy and absurdity of the human race stand naked in front of us. It has affected the victims and the nation. It was an unexpected shock to fans of comic book movies as well! It makes such questions seem even more important, as our own lives could have been forfeit on that night.

Thousands of years ago, people were telling stories about the adventures of Hercules, The battles of Zeus, about monsters and secret wars involving all manner of creatures. They were telling stories about Spirit, about their best (and worst) selves. We tell those stories in our culture as well. And like theirs, our stories say a lot about who we are, who we aren’t, and who we wish we could be. More of our stories are being told as superhero/comic book movies all the time. I would argue that this is due both to our values and our entertainment appetites (as well as the progress of our effects technology). Hollywood can disagree with the basic premise of superhero movies, but it can no longer ignore them. Likewise, we who are fans of these movies must begin to look deeper at the stories being told. Let us seek what is compelling and potent in them, what is truly good and beautiful within them. The success of the genre lies in its ability to be timely and pertinent to the culture we are living in. As long as that remains true, these stories will continue to be made.



Thanks for reading and please, share your thoughts below ☺
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jjk2814 - 8/18/2012, 4:42 AM
This really is a remarkable write-up. Especially in light of the last few dozen article. But...

Again, let me state that I appreciate this editorial. It is everything an editorial is supposed to be. A strong statement/question that should provoke enlightened discussion.

Here's my thoughts though:

"Is it pure escapism?"

Asking the very question in regards to an entire sub-genre(which is what we will one day, hopefully understand the comicbook movie to be if we are on this site) is a little redundant. We love comic book movies because we love comic books. I don't know about you, but I hope I'm not alone in having a precious moment every wednesday when I put everything aside and read my weeks collection.

Is is pure
escapism?

I sure hope so! Whether we are dealing with the family-friendly Avengers, or the darker, societally critical but ultimately still heroic and inspiring Dark Knight Rises, they both are perfect examples of escapism.

What one sadly deranged individual did at a particular comic book movie premiere should not reflect on the sub-genre as a whole. I appreciate oxbowArchers reverence towards that tragic event but we can not let it effect our opinions, beliefs, or love of these movies.

Thats my thoughts on the matter.
jjk2814 - 8/18/2012, 4:53 AM
And Honestly, to hell with Cronenberg. If Warner Brother offered him Metamorpho,Animal Man, Swamp Thing, or Plastic Man with a big enough pay check we'de be seeing interviews where he "brilliantly" explained how his approach to the character "transcended" the comic book source material and "spoke" to him. Thats more bitter then I wanted to be, but c'mon, the guy is the 80's version of Roland Emmerich(post Independence Day) or Paul W.S. Anderson(Pre or post almost anything he's everdone) so who really cares???
G3n3r4lzZoD9 - 8/18/2012, 5:51 AM
breakUbatman - 8/18/2012, 7:42 AM
Nice article I agree. Though I think first and foremost the success of the genre lies in having a good story and making that story relevant to the character. Mindlessness only comes in when the parties involved focus solely on the visuals of the 'comic' and ignore the narrative of the book.

Iron Man was about a turning point in a man's life and his subsequent change of heart.

Batman Begins was about the return of a prodigal son and his war on crime.

X-Men 1 and 2 were stories about discrimination and acceptance.

Thor was about self discovery and humility

Avengers was about a group of misfits learning to work together for the greater good.

TDK was about falling from grace while trying to do good

All of those stories could have been told without Superheroes and have been, but are made richer because of the colourful characters.

On the other hand you have your Wolverine, Ghost Rider SOV and Green Lantern (which should have been about overcoming fear) that focus on spectacle but lack a story to support them.


CBM's might suffer due to the similarity of characters and stories if movie makers stick to the same formula. Avengers, TASM and TDKR all had the injury/death of someone close to the heroes serve as a catalyst for action and all featured 'near death' moments. Spidey had his moment with the crane, Iron Man had his space moment and Batman had the bomb.

It's less about maturity in the genre and more to do with the director, if martial arts movies like Crouching Tiger and Kill Bill can be critically acclaimed why not comic book movies?
SimyJo - 8/18/2012, 9:57 AM
If they are, they still appeal.
Before anyone can even start to judge and evaluate the question you pose you have to accept that even now in this the 21st century, Mankind is still a violent creature at its instinctive core.

Paradoxically we love war in that we love fighting to overcome, and the things we aspire to as being more sophisticated and civilised are just that - what we aspire to.
Just look around the world and see how much conflict is (unfortunately) going on still.

Don't hold Mankind up as a paragon of virtue that CBMs are dragging down to a baser nature because we are not.
GoILL - 8/18/2012, 10:16 AM
This is good stuff, we need more of this and less of the bullshit articles that have been posted lately.
GrootTerMight - 8/18/2012, 7:11 PM
For those of you who don't remember, they leveled the same sort of criticism at Star Wars. We'll only know in full retrospect how these movies will be viewed over time. Lets be honest with the success of the Dark Knight Trilogy and MCU, is there anyone here who is lacking confidence that these movies will leave their mark on our culture?
Oxbow - 8/18/2012, 8:58 PM
It's not that comics are corrupting, or the real world is bad at heart. They are mirrors of each other. The power to destory/save the world is in the hands of the Supers and likewise, it is in OUR hands. As the dominant species on this planet, we have enough power to destroy the earth dozens of times over. We also have the capacity to fix the many problems that are so apparent around us. The Supers walk a tight-rope between their human frailty and immense power, between the need to take care of their own house and a greater responsibility to the world-at-large. So while there is escapism, there is also some deep issues that are being dealt with in the comics/movies.

The heroes are ever trying to rise above violence and the use of force, and more often than not failing! This is also the struggle of man: to evolve beyond his instinctual love of war and let go of ancestral patterns of responding to conflict in ways that aren't working anymore. At their best, these stories show us the best parts of ourselves, the parts that refuse to give up, that fight yet again for equality, hope and all that good stuff :D
CoulsonLives - 8/18/2012, 11:54 PM
I love the fact that this is original
MisterFixit - 8/19/2012, 12:50 AM
There was a film that could have perfectly balance all aspects of social values, while remaining faithful to the source material. A movie where a guy finally decides that it is time to unite all under the same mantle in peace. He then decides to set an example by taking the disarmament of nuclear weapons around the world. At the same time must guard against the super human dude created by his greatest enemy. It was a Chris Reeve idea. He wished with all his strength the realization of that specific plot, otherwise it would not be back in the shoes of the character. I always thought that if superman really existed would try to act just like that.
It's a shame that the film was
produced on a shoestring, rushed
plot, various absurdities, etc. Try to
imagine that product today, by a
director capable, with good special effects .. This would be a perfect example of a film that contains no mindless violence.

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