Another summer done, another summer of good and bad and mostly forgettable popcorn flicks.
Though it seems like just another summer, our summers have changed over the last decade or so; on the occasion of this end-of-summer it occurs to me that movies featuring superheroes – though we now expect their regular release – were invented as we know them almost entirely in my lifetime. Put it this way: While you and I can still recall a time when superhero movies were produced only sporadically, the child born today will probably think of the genre as a given. At some point, it’s likely the elements of a superhero movie will be taken for granted, the way film noir, screwball comedies, and action films are now so fundamental to the culture it’s hard to imagine they were ever a new phenomenon.
I hadn’t thought about this until the other day, and it got me thinking about the legacy of superhero movies and what defines this emerging genre. Of course, there are the more obvious conventions, but what I’m thinking about is how superhero movies are reliably character-driven these days, so much so that it’s part of the genre itself.
One of the most common traits of this crop of movies is that heroes now confront their deepest fears and anxieties as a regular part of their super-heroing. The examples are easy to find: The struggle of Christopher Nolan’s Batman was, for example, often about whether Bruce Wayne would ever allow himself a private life. The Avengers — in their eponymous movie and in the gradually accreting heap of related films — each come with their own torments, from Iron Man’s guilt at being complicit in the military-industrial complex to Captain America’s failure to fit in to modern America and the Hulk’s anger management issues. In the world of the X-Men, Professor Xavier and Magneto do some battle but mostly spend their time together in moral argument about the use and abuse of power. Speaking of Magneto, even villains in this genre are sketched in far more depth than any of those from the Steven Seagal movies of my youth, and the baddies of today are played by respected actors who in other films might play the lead: Heath Ledger, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Foxx, Sir Ian McKellen.
These (quite probably unoriginal) observations made, a few things strike me.
First, these heroes are essentially unrelatable, despite the ample time spent on personal issues in these movies. Even with the ironic tone of Joss Whedon, the Avengers’ lives are almost inevitably divorced from anything approaching a real concern. Indeed, one of the most common super-issues is whether and how to shoulder the responsibility imposed by being a demigod, not exactly a relatable problem, but this question comes up again and again when we consider the heroes individually. When you get mad, you break your keyboard; when the Hulk gets mad, he levels a town. It’s not just in the Avenger films that this is true: In his most recent movie, Superman lies to conceal how exceptional he is, but regular schmoes lie just to conceal how ordinary they are. Wolverine wrestles with his past not so much out of regret — an understandable emotion — but because he suffers from amnesia and can’t figure out why his fists spring claws. Sound like the troubles of anyone you know?
Not that I’m giving up on making sense of the genre. For me, one of the most compelling conceptions of what superheroes can mean to us as a culture comes from Unbreakable, where Samuel L. Jackson describes a simple and intriguing theory: With the comic-book likes of Superman, the X-Men, etc., we are in the realm of myths. That is, these superbeings, like heroes of yore, represent the great clash of good vs. evil. It’s a perspective that makes a lot of sense: Superheroes have powers that, for all the scientific hand-waving of the films, might as well be magic, and they take on big, iconic roles as protectors and champions. If we’re going to find any greater, more significant way to look at superhero films than as eye candy, I think this might be the best I’ve heard yet.
And yet, the superhero genre works hard to convince us that superheroes are just like us. Superman has been given the strength of Hercules, but the self-assurance of Woody Allen. The X-Men’s biggest problem is that nobody likes them and they feel bad about it. The most recent incarnation of Batman is an obsessive who could use a love life. The genre goes to great pains to establish these heroes as humans, even if the other half of their issues are about filling huge, iconic shoes.
This all leaves the superhero movie in an odd position. On the one hand, its heroes are mythic, symbolic, avenging. They wear colorful suits and have supernatural powers and come close to becoming pure abstractions of heroism. At the same time, the movies of the past 15 years have painted them as only slightly better than average humans, and at least as psychologically damaged.
In other words, they are the myths of the world they inhabit, but, perversely, they reveal their personal faces to us. These heroes are supposed to be worth our time because they inspire, but the movie itself undermines them as icons and presents them to us as piddling mortals.
Which, come to think of it, is a good metaphor for the Internet’s effect on celebrity. Alas, this needs to go to print, so perhaps more on that later.