Four Ways Superhero Movies Reflect Us – Part 1
In 1978 the first Superman starring Christopher Reeves was released and promised us “You will believe a man can fly.” Long lines formed at theaters around the country as moviegoers agreed, and, for the first time, a superhero movie had achieved blockbuster status.
Since Superman, there have been no less than forty movies in this genre to earn over $100 million in gross receipts each with total earnings in excess of $12 billion dollars in the US alone. Safe to say we Americans have a love affair with superheroes, and it is a trend that has more recently become a worldwide affair.
So what is it about superhero movies that suck us into theaters more efficiently than a high-end vacuum cleaner?
I suspect our attraction to these movies comes from them being such an apt reflection of us. Not just “us” as Americans, but increasingly “us” as in all of humanity, which may explain how their popularity has exploded worldwide. The most recent Captain America movie has grossed nearly twice as much in receipts outside the US (more on that later).
There are four ways I see these movies being a reflection of the global modern culture:
Every hero is somebody else’s villain.
Spectacle is more entertaining than substance
Flawed heroes are more interesting than perfect ones
The growing sense that global doom is inevitable
Item 4 is a doozy, I know. While I’m only tackling the first of these today, I promise to make a compelling case for all four over the next couple of weeks, but let’s start at the beginning: Every hero is somebody else’s villain.
If you went to school in the US much before the 1990s you learned about the heroes and key moments of American history: Christopher Columbus, the Pilgrims, John Smith, our Founding Fathers, Manifest Destiny, etc. They were profiles in courage, determination and sacrifice. At some time in the 90s (perhaps earlier in some places) the narrative changed and suddenly most of the people we had learned were heroes and good guys were recast villains who pillaged, enslaved and/or murdered tens or hundreds of thousands of indigenous people.
That narrative has continued not only in the examination of American history, world history and nearly every conflict that has happened in modern history, but in fiction as well. The Wicked Witch of the West, it turns out, was not wicked at all, but misunderstood and feared – primarily due to her green skin – and made an easy mark to be framed for the Wizard of Oz’s misdeeds. And then there’s the universe of superheroes where misunderstood characters are the norm. It wasn’t always this way. Superman used to always be a “good guy” unless somehow framed or coerced by a super villain wielding kryptonite into doing otherwise.
Today no kryptonite, or its relative equivalent, is needed to recast superheroes as super villains. All that is needed is a change in perspective.
[Spoiler Alert – If you haven’t seen the movie Captain America: Civil War and plan to, skip down to the first paragraph after the “Unspoiler Alert”].
In the latest installment of Captain America: Civil War, we have Bucky Barnes, a soviet era soldier turned programmable mass murderer, who has been framed for a heinous crime against a gathering of world leaders. The reason for the gathering is the ratification of a treaty to bring the superheroes under the command and direction of the United Nations. It is a treaty opposed by Captain America, the most equanimous man in the world (and, arguably, his real superpower). He distrusts what those world leaders would have them do once the heroes had submitted to their control.
A manhunt is launched and everybody wants a piece of Barnes. Only Captain America, understanding Barnes’s plight as a programmable killer, sees this situation (mostly) for what it is, and moves to save Barnes from certain death or eternal imprisonment. As the story progresses, the web becomes more tangled as Tony Stark discovers Barnes is the man who killed his parents while under mind control, which – naturally – sends hotheaded Stark in to a murderous rage bent on revenge. All the while, the real villain of this story is slowly transformed into a sympathetic character, which, it turns out, was an unfortunate victim of an earlier superhero intervention. His aim is to kill a clutch of superheroes to make the world a safer place (think nuclear disarmament – I mean what could be more noble, right?).
[Unspoiler Alert – Okay, it’s safe to read on from here.]
The global popularity of Captain America: Civil War, despite the central hero being as American as apple pie (possibly more), is likely rooted in the grown up, ostensibly balanced view of what defines someone as bad versus merely misunderstood. Cap is able to look past the propaganda and demagoguery and embrace the truth because it is the right thing to do. Who wouldn’t want that? What could be more Christian in what remains a nation that most identifies with Christianity? Could a secular humanist ask for anything more than a clear headed recognition of multiple perspectives being in play in every situation?
There is a danger, however, in this grown-up balanced-perspective story telling: Identifying the bad guys becomes a whole lot more difficult. I’m not suggesting they don’t eventually get found out, but in our efforts to understand the villain as victim, we give them a sort of power, and worse, permission to forge ahead, their actions justified by what came before. This applies not only to individuals, but to entire groups who identify as victims and by virtue of that consider themselves justified in actions that, when placed between a set of absolute value bars would be reprehensible. The Nazis and their justification for persecuting the Jews is a well known example. The French Revolution, the Yugoslov Wars, the Bolshevik Revolution; other historical examples abound, whether they be driven by racial, religious, financial or political reasons (often several apply). All are driven by the same latent notion of the justified victim, and, increasingly, in superhero movies and real life, this is how villains are being portrayed.
While I never ever liked hearing it as a kid, as an adult I have grown very fond of the saying “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Captain America: Civil War dances all around this idea without arriving at any clear conclusions. Superhero movies today in general spend most of their time fretting over what most regard as grown-up reflections about who is right and who is wrong instead of delivering straightforward, hard-charging good meets evil, good battles evil, good-defeats-evil-with-minimal-loss-of-life-and-property storylines.
Is that bad? It certainly muddies the waters for impressionable young viewers and society has a history of swinging from gray to black and white and back to gray again. Only time will tell, but muddy waters are the norm in today’s political, economic and religious narratives, and, in that sense, superhero movies are a reflection of us.
In my next blog entry I’ll tackle issue 2: Spectacle is more entertaining than substance.
Regards and happy writing,
Raymond M. Walshe