Spectacle is more entertaining than substance and what better vehicle is there for delivering spectacle than the superhero movie?
When examining the wide world of entertainment - television, books, live theatre, internet and film – a great deal more spectacle can be found than substance. And yet every one of these mediums thrives. We can’t seem to help ourselves, drawn to spectacles like moths to a flame. It appears counterintuitive why this should be. Wouldn’t our lives be more fulfilled – our every waking moment more meaningful - if we spent our free time consuming works of substance instead? I’m not talking about deep thoughts by Jack Handy. I’m talking Aristotle, Archimedes, Aquinas, Confucius, Einstein, Newton, Plato, etc. Perhaps…but most of us don’t anyway.
The truth is, spectacle is more than mere entertainment. While we might be better served to read the works of the luminaries named above to lead more fulfilling modern lives, our biology trumps this sensibility. Before the first pen ever met paper we had to spend a good deal more time surviving saber-toothed cats and other wild and wooly things. I doubt anyone in caveman times went out looking for an adrenaline rush, but it served as a survival mechanism at the most trying moments when fleeing faster or fighting better was a matter of life and death.
These days, adrenaline has become somewhat of an anachronism. The average American can live a long life and never once require that primal adrenaline rush to survive, but oh how we crave it. The latest DC Comics entry, Batman versus Superman, delivers big-screen horror on so grand a scale our adrenal glands can’t help themselves but get charged up, especially when one of our childhood heroes is about to die. That’s not really a spoiler by the way. You know one of them has to die, don’t you?
I bring up Batman versus Superman in particular, because it is one of the most spectacular superhero films made to date (except possibly the latest X-Men and Avenger ensemble films) and while it pushes all the right buttons for spectacle – a profitable run at the box office attests to this – it fails miserably in another way.
You see, all that high thinking by philosophers and poets has worked its way into our way of life after all, and while we cannot help but be drawn to spectacles, we now also yearn for something more. A plot, characters we can relate to in spite of their awesome powers, and – ironic, given the setting is an impossible fictional world – resolutions that feel real.
When you look at the financial success of Batman versus Superman and then notice the latest Captain America entry has earned at least 30% more in theaters worldwide, you see a reflection of our desire for spectacle but also our want for substance. I can’t give the latest Captain America flick high marks on substance, the Dark Knight series wins my vote for that, but it is noticeably more substantive than Batman versus Superman. Movie goers are discerning enough to know the difference, which shows superhero movies remain a reflection of us.
In part three, I’ll discuss what is to me the most interesting of the four ways superhero movies reflect us: Flawed superheroes are more interesting than perfect ones.
Regards and happy reading,
Raymond M. Walshe