Saturday, June 2, 2018

A Marvelous World?: Toward an Understanding of our Superhero Age

I meant to write a review round up of three recent Marvel movies: Black PantherAvengers: Infinity War, and Deadpool 2.  I’ll have a bit to say about them in this post (with spoiler alerts as necessary), but they got me thinking of a deeper question – a meta-question if you will: why have superhero movies taken over genre films in the last decade or so?  What does this say about us as a culture?  (I'm speaking as an American here and mostly about movies, but I'd love to hear from people in other countries as well).

I set out to form a hypothesis to explain why superheroes have taken over science fiction and fantasy films in recent years.  I came up with at least four hypotheses.  If there's one thing philosophy has taught me, it's that everything is more complicated than you think it is.  So I think it's likely that the ascension of superheroes to total nerd domination is explained by more than one of these hypotheses, and just as likely, other hypotheses that didn't occur to me.  Maybe you can help.  Maybe we need an X-Men like force of cultural hypothesizers!  Anyway, here are my hypotheses for why we love superhero movies so much in this cultural moment.

Hypothesis 1: Superhero movies are fun. 

This seems like the most obvious hypothesis, and even a superhero skeptic like me can admit that superhero movies can be an awful lot of fun.  Okay, not all of them.  Suicide Squad was almost unwatchable, but let us speak of it no more.  I thought Avengers: Infinity War was a bloated mess of a film with too many characters and a lame story, but even that had a few fun moments.  Also, I think there's a spill over effect: the other Marvel movies are so much fun that people still find fun in a mess like Avengers: Infinity War every time their favorite character shows up for a minute or in the background or whatever. (I still don't at all understand why Infinity War is the fifth highest grossing film of all time while Solo: A Star Wars Story, which actually is a lot of fun, didn't do as well as projected so far, but there are many mysteries in this universe).

But for all the duds, you get movies like the Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, each with sequels just as fun, if not more so, than the first.  Maybe in a post-9/11, post-2008-financial-crisis America of corporate greed, political scandal, school shootings, police violence, and exhausting Culture Wars at every level, it's nice to go see a movie to relax and have a good time once in awhile.  Or maybe humans just like to have fun.

Hypothesis 2: Superhero stories can be relatively simple.  

This hypothesis veers into curmudgeon territory, I admit, but I don't necessarily mean that superhero stories can't have depth to them.  By analogy, there are different levels of Star Wars fans, all the way from casual fans who kinda like the action and the jokes but don't think of themselves as science fiction fans to ultra-obsessed Star Wars geeks who can (and usually will) tell you elaborate backstories of everybody standing in the background of every scene.  You can enjoy Star Wars at the most basic level as dumb action movies with some cool characters and special effects that you forget as soon as you finish your popcorn, or you can live your entire life according to the principles of fictional space wizards and spend a lifetime obsessing over details of the universe and collecting franchise memorabilia.

Likewise, you can enjoy most superhero stories as relatively simple stories of normal guy (or occasionally girl) gets some super powers, wouldn't it be cool to stick it to the bullies for once?  You can also read all the comics, collect all the action figures, and live your live according to the ethos of your favorite superhero.   

For example, you can watch Infinity War or Black Panther as straightforward good-versus-evil movies.  They work just fine that way.  Or you can try to understand why the villain Thanos does what he does in Infinity War, which makes the movie a deeper experience.  While he seems like a utilitarian and people who love to hate utilitarianism will point this out, I think he's actually a pretty bad utilitarian if he's trying to be one: Will his plan actually cause less suffering in the long run?  I don't think so and I think Thanos would see it if he weren't so busy trying so hard to be edgy (a friend told me that Thanos seemed like an angsty undergraduate philosophy major, which I think is pretty apt).  But that this ethical question is there if you look for it behind all the CGI and dozens of major characters shows that the film can be enjoyed at a deeper level.  

Likewise, Erik Killmonger in Black Panther is set up as the villain, but he's the most sympathetic villain in any superhero movie I can remember.  While he takes things a bit far (I don't want to give spoilers, but if you've seen it, you probably know what I mean), the audience can (if they bother to think about it) understand where he's coming from as the movie sheds light on the complicated relationship between African Americans and the African diaspora.  And because I can't resist, mild spoiler alert: his last scene is so intense, heartbreaking, and historically conscious, I wonder how Marvel let it happen.

There are many ways to enjoy a superhero film, and I think this is a key to their success.  You don't have to have mastered an elaborate mythos or think very deeply to enjoy them at a surface level. (Parenthetical remark: the mythos in Marvel movies is getting so complex, I wonder if this aspect of the Marvel cinematic universe will last much longer; one weakness of Infinity War in my opinion is that the winking to the super fans is getting more foregrounded so that you have to have seen the 19 previous movies to know what's going on).

The problem here, however, is that the drive to simplicity can often efface the deeper complexities. For instance, I wrote a post a couple years ago on what I called the "superheroization of America politics."  That is, increasingly we look to our political leaders as cult-of-personality heroes who will solve all our problems (and then we blame them when, predictably, they fail to do so).  But this is a vast over-simplification of something as complex as politics.  Nobody, not Barack Obama, not Hillary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders, not Donald Trump, can single-handedly solve all our problems.  Politics is and always has been a messy, cooperative affair.  Our superheroization of political leadership allows us to forget that politics is about participation while we sit on the sidelines and wait for our heroes to do all the work.  (A parenthetical note for my fellow Americans: don't just wait for the 2020 Presidential election, be sure to get involved and vote in elections this year that actually matter even more).

Hypothesis 3: We are obsessed with power, individualism, and elitism. 

I originally developed this hypothesis in my second most visited post on this blog, which I wrote back in 2015: "Why I Don't Like Superheroes."  This hypothesis goes full curmudgeon, speculating that our obsession with superheroes reflects some of the more problematic aspects of our current culture.

One of the weird things about my identity as a nerd is that I've never been into comics.  As a kid I would occasionally pick up a Star Wars or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic at the convenience store and as an adult I've enjoyed a few graphic novels (like the Sandman series), but as much as I appreciate the art, I've always preferred the printed word.  Part of it is also that I've never been all that interested in superheroes, and while not all comics are about superheroes, that association is pretty strong.

What is it about superheroes that I don't like?  In that 2015 post I said it came down to three things: power, individualism, and elitism (I'm not sure I entirely agree with that post anymore, for reasons I'll get into in the next hypothesis).  Superheroes are pretty obviously (perhaps gauchely) about power.  Ironman and Batman don't have supernatural powers, but they have the greatest superpower of them all: being super rich.  And while Spider-Man's Uncle Ben and other characters teach us that with great power comes great responsibility, there's something about this obsession with power that rubs me the wrong way, especially seeing as how the line between superheroes and super villains is so thin.

While there are superhero teams, like the Avengers and the X-Men, a lot of superhero stories are focused on brooding individuals brooding about how special they are and how nobody understands them (exhibit A: Bruce Wayne).  This leads to the superheroization of politics mentioned earlier.  You also see it in the cult of personality in our current celebrity culture, which leads to the elitism bit: superhero stories feed into this very old (and very problematic) idea that some kinds of people are better than others, that some people's lives are more important than others.  We used to have the Divine Right of Kings.  Nowadays we have the Divine Right of Wealth and Fame.

Even the Avengers, who are ostensibly trying to protect the common folk, have collateral damage counts that would astound WWII generals.  But we're encouraged not to think about it, because those people don't really matter.  Granted, this point was addressed in last year's surprisingly good Spider-Man: Homecoming, but superheroes usually reinforce the idea that some people are better and more powerful than others and that this is on the whole a good thing, at least if the better kind of people deign to save us.

Hypothesis 4: Superheroes allow people to find their power.  

I’ve never felt like I’m all that special or important, but as a straight white dude in America I don’t have to: my society does this for me.  In the last couple years I’ve come to see how superheroes might appeal to people who don’t have the societal advantages I have.  In a society that tells you you're powerless, superheroes are subversive: they're a way to discover the power you're told you don't have.

I will be the first to admit that Black Panther speaks to African Americans and others in the African diaspora in a way I will never understand.  But it's still probably my favorite Marvel movie.  It's not perfect.  The emphasis on royalty is always weird, but nobody complains when the Thor movies dip into European mythological royalty in Asgard, so I don't see the point in dwelling on it in Wakanda.

You get the Afrofuturism aesthetic, which Black Panther takes up and now almost defines, but I also love the imagined history of a part of Africa that never suffered the cultural and economic devastation of European colonialism, that never had its natural resources stolen by imperialists.  The way things are is not the way they had to be; the contingency of the past can help us realize the contingency of the future.  It's up to us.  One of my favorite parts is when Shuri (a 17 year old African girl who is a tech genius, total smart ass, and my favorite) shows a white American man (one of the Tolkien white dudes in the film) a hover-board.  He responds, "You guys have hover-boards?"  Why wouldn't Wakanda have hover-boards?  Black Panther not only defies our expectations, it makes us question why we had them in the first place.

Likewise, there are definitely elements of Wonder Woman that I am missing as a man.  But Diana shows us what a woman raised in a non-misogynist society could be.  Here's how I put it in my review last summer.
... Wonder Woman made me think about my previous criticism of super heroes as unduly focused on individual power.  I think this is a problem insofar as the world doesn't need more fantasies of domination over others.  But maybe for people who internalize the poisonous idea that they are inherently less powerful than others, super hero stories are an ennobling antidote.  If girls and women (and boys and men) can learn from Wonder Woman that they're as good as anyone else, maybe the super hero genre isn't so bad, after all.
While all of the above is the real point of this hypothesis and I don't want to make this about white dudes, this hypothesis might address people like me, too.  I admit to being puzzled by why other white dudes love superheroes so much, but maybe good old Uncle Ben can help: with the great power of privilege comes the great responsibility of using it to undo itself.  Why should cis-het white men get all the superpowers?  I'd personally like to live in a world where everybody starts with the same baseline of self-worth that I started with.  So, fellow white dudes, let's use our powers for good, but also remember: it's not all about us.

While watching Deadpool 2 recently, it occurred to me that some straight white dudes like Deadpool so much because he allows us to play with and mock the very things that give us our straight white dude powers.  Normally the mores of straight white dude-dom are about as tight as Deadpool's red and black suit.  I'm in no way saying people should feel sorry for us.  Toxic masculinity is a price many men willingly pay in exchange for privilege.  But Deadpool shows that you can be a man who likes unicorns and non-standard sex and still be a superhero that everybody loves.  This transgression is a big part of why he's so funny, but if you're willing to penetrate deeper (yeah, I said that on purpose -- I'm talking about Deadpool here), maybe Deadpool shows how men might be freed from limiting notions of masculinity.

Of course, I should introduce a large caveat that all of the points in this hypothesis occur in the context of movies produced by huge corporations designed to make money in global capitalism, so maybe there's a limit to how subversive they can really be.  Case in point: I watched Doctor Strange the other day and, like many people, I thought it was strange that a story allegedly (and Orientalistically) based on "Eastern wisdom," much of which takes place in Kathmandu and Hong Kong, would have exactly one speaking part for an Asian actor.  The situation, as always, is more complicated than any single hypothesis could explain.

So those are my hypotheses so far.  What do you think?  Do you have another hypothesis?  Please feel free to share in the comments so we can form our own superhero team of hypothesis makers!

PS: If you were hoping for reviews, here are some brief ones.  I loved Black Panther for its Afrofuturist aesthetic and my favorite character: Shuri.  Deadpool 2 is hilarious as always and surprisingly deep.  Avengers: Infinity War was a mess of a movie, and I have no idea why it has done so well with so many critics and fans.


  1. I'm not at all a fan of comic book movies and have only seen a few of the ones that have come out over the past decade and a half. I saw the last Thor movie, though, and I enjoyed it way more than I expected to. The longer it stayed away from the whole plot of Cate Blanchett and whatever she was doing, the more I liked it.

    I would never put these films among my faves and, well, it's doubtful I would ever come close to saying one changed me a single iota, but... sure, people can get more out of them than I do.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I used to try to avoid comic book movies (I've probably only seen about 50% of the Marvel movies), but I like seeing science fiction and fantasy on the big screen and that's mainly what's on offer these days so I've relaxed in the last couple years. And a lot of them are, despite all my criticisms of the superhero genre, actually pretty good.