Four Ways Superhero Movies Reflect Us – Part 3
It is anyone’s guess who first said “Art imitates life.” Aristotle recorded this reflection in his treatise Poetics, but it was likely a well worn saying even in that time. Oscar Wilde is widely credited with being the first to insist “Life imitates art.”
When looking at superheroes from the beginning as art imitating life, or life imitating art, we can see evidence of both. Superman appeared on the scene in 1938. When you think about the conditions that brought superman to life, our country was just beginning to emerge from the Great Depression. It was a time when people were struggling to make ends meet and foreign threats were rising all around us. We needed heroes to lead us out of the dark times so we raised them up in track and field, boxing, horse racing, politics and industry. When an imaginative pair of teenagers growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, gave us Superman, he became the template all other superheroes were to be measured against.
It was a time when people had grown tired of being reminded of their daily lives and turned to movies and television as a means of escape from the ordinary. The advances in filmmaking at the time were well suited to this desire, allowing us to step into a room and be instantly transported to another time, another place, even another world where we could watch fascinating people living in extraordinary times. Most of it romanticized and idealized to ensure audiences wouldn’t be reminded of the struggles of the real world.
The superheroes of the 40s and 50s were cut from a simple cloth. We were reminded at the beginning of every television episode of Superman that he fought for truth, justice and the American way. The very phrase “American way” was itself an ideal notion for working hard and doing right by ourselves and others. Batman, though he started out as a killer, didn’t gain widespread popularity until the editor of DC Comics decided he should not kill or use a gun. On television, while Adam West’s version of Batman was always willing to beat up the bad guys, he didn’t have an ignoble bone in his body.
In the years after World War II there was a collective cultural effort to idealize things in movies and especially on television. Our superheroes were a part of that movement; always good, always willing to risk their own lives to protect the innocent, just like our soldiers in WWII. In that sense we saw life begin to imitate art, as average people strived to present idealized versions of themselves and anything less than that was quietly – for better or worse – dealt with behind closed doors.
Television coverage of the Vietnam War changed all of that. It served as a turning point in the perceptions of the American public. While it was hardly the first war where both sides engaged in deplorable acts (if you doubt this, read the Iliad), it was the first time the American public learned it wasn’t just the bad guys doing deplorable things. It was our fathers, sons, brothers and buddies. The comfortable distance between our idealized world and reality crashed into one another and suddenly, to a majority of the populace, the idealized world felt like a lie.
No longer would audiences buy into even the fictional idea of the perfect man or woman. Such characters were now deemed unrealistic, flat, and worse, boring. With the curtain lifted on our failings as a nation and a people, we began to demand more truth in our fictional characters. It was long understood that every superhero had to have a weakness to be interesting, but beginning in the 70s, in addition to a weakness, some superheroes had personality flaws too, making them more relatable. Some drank, others were square pegs that couldn’t quite fit in (X-Men nearly cornered this market), still others had tragic pasts often tied to their superpowers. Many of this new breed were reluctant heroes, but when called upon, they would respond and fight the good fight for the good of us all, which, through the turn of the century, aligned with the government’s desires.
Another pivotal change emerged: Many Americans started to doubt their government had their best interests in mind. It’s a complex set of factors that have led to this including a string of political scandals, Wall Street scandals and being locked into a forever war with radical jihadists. The movement cemented itself shortly after the financial crisis of 2008. While some believe the collapse was due to the nefarious dealings of a deep state operating above the law, others ascribe these troubles a rampant incompetence at every level of elected office. Either way, after 2008 the highest percentage of Americans ever decided our government was no longer looking out for the “99 percent.” This loss of faith wasn’t limited to the US, but extended overseas to Europe, Japan and parts of Asia as well.
How would the superhero universe respond to this growing distrust? None other than Captain America, the super-soldier superhero created by the US government, possibly the staunchest defender of America against her enemies, has lost faith in his own government and those other world governments that would seek to have the world’s superheroes submit to their authority. See, Cap remembers what the American Way was supposed to be, and though some of it turned out to be smoke and mirrors, some of it was very real. Like the rest of us he’s lost faith, but he’s bound and determined to find the way back to that ideal. Hopefully we’ll follow his lead and instead of art imitating life, life will imitate art once again.
On deck, part four of the series: Our growing sense of doom.