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