0.1 A Warning
This article is going to be a little different than the stuff here. You might say I’ve gone off the deep end. It’s a culmination of a line of thinking that I’ve been working on for a while now. That means this is going to a long one. And a dense one. That’s your first warning.
But these posts have all been about individual film and the problem goes way beyond individual films being bad.
Simply put: The genre is rotten at the core and at a fundamental level incapable of telling complex, interesting stories for serious adults (to be fair, not a category I consider myself a part of).
More than that, the stories superhero films do tell aren’t just bad, they’re actively evil. Unintentionally or not, they promote a worldview that is toxic and hinders social change. So yeah, if you like superheroes, maybe, uh, this post will make you feel something. That’s your second warning.
A quick heads up: I’m going to do this annoying thing where I differentiate between superhero films and Superhero films. Yes, I realize it’s pretentious, no, that’s not going to stop me.
1. I put on my robe and hipster glasses.
So the first – and maybe the most important thing – about Superhero films is that they’re super mainstream. I don’t mean mainstream in the sense that lots of people watch them and the make tons of money, though the certainly do both of those thing.
So what do I mean? Well, If you recall my discussion on Mass Effect 3, you’ll remember that I somehow arrived at a definition of mainstream as being about agency and clarity. The characters control events and everything is super clear. I, uh, don’t know where I actually got this definition from, probably film studies, but it feels like a good definition to me.
From this definition it seems obvious to me that super hero films embody both of these concepts. The Superhero (capital S, keep up) narrative is about an exceptional, usually super-powered individual fighting for the cause of Justice (yeah, I’m going to keep going with these unnecessary capitalizations) against a Villain. Importantly, stopping the Villain is what brings about Justice. Obviously, what Justice is varies a lot, but just substitute in “the greater good” or whatever. This narrative is mainstream, because the whole film hinges on the exceptional individual (agency) and we know that he – usually he, anyway – is the good guy (clarity). As literal superhumans, superheroes have more agency than anyone and it’s almost always a given that they’re the Good Guys. Agency and clarity. I’m not so contrarian that I think that’s automatically a bad thing. In the case of Superhero films, it is a bad thing, but I’ll get to why later on.
Also, fine, I’m going to stop this needless capitalization thing.
First, let’s take a look at why this mainstream-ness makes makes Superhero films attractive.
2. Super agent man
Obviously, the concepts of agency and clarity are intertwined, but I’m just for the moment going to pretend that they’re not. So. The reason agency is appealing is the same reason it’s unrealistic. It’s a power fantasy. Obviously, super heroes have superpowers, but more specifically, they have the power to solve their problems. Consistently.
If a problem isn’t solved now, we can be pretty sure it’s going to be solved later in the film or in a later film. This is the promise of the superhero film. In our real lives, we don’t have this power, and we don’t have the same amount of agency. This doesn’t make Superhero films categorically different from other mainstream films, just hyper charged.
It’s not realistic, but it’s not meant to be on any level. As audiences, we know and accept that. But we still revel in the power fantasy. However, The consequence is essentially an elevation of the individual, or (ugh) the Individual, who is capable of (double ugh) Saving the Day.
What’s interesting about this intense heightening of agency and individualism is that it actually ends up minimizing agency. I’m talking specifically about the agency of everyone else.
Because the narrative requires the hero to be the hinge around which everything revolves, everyone else become essentially bumbling idiots. Henchmen, police, people like that, are just there two show how good the bad guys or the hero is. They’re there to be mowed down.
This is actually even worse when you consider how the genre treats bystanders. Essentially, the films, in their relentless elevation of “the innocents” actually devalue them. Protecting innocents is something that every true Superhero values above all else. It’s hard-wired into the DNA of the genre. You can see it in Superman, Wonder Woman and all of the Avengers.
And this is good! I mean, I don’t think that innocent people deserve to die. But especially in the large scale, “the innocents” start becoming a thing rather than a people. Because you don’t really get a sense of them, aside from as a part of large crowds. The bigger the budget, the more the “innocents” become abstracted. And in abstraction, we lose the very thing that makes them worth saving – their humanity. Instead of individuals, they are just large mass of “innocents”.
This especially troubling when we consider that for a lot of these films, the heroes aren’t all that successful. There is no way that no one died in those scenes in Man of Steel and Age of Ultron. But we don’t see it and because we don’t see it, we don’t feel it. This makes them even more abstract and makes the actions of the heroes oddly decoupled from consequence. This is troubling on a very deep moral level, but more importantly, it robs the films of their emotional resonance, because if wan’t feel it, why does it matter? (And, y’know, bad morals are important, but bad aesthetics is even worse.)
If the films are fantasies that invite viewers to picture themselves in the role of superheroes, what the films are saying is “you matter” and “you can make a difference” and “other people kind of matter too, but not as much, and they only matter in this vague abstract kind of way.”
3. Punching problems
The real world doesn’t need superheroes. Seriously, what are the problems facing the world? Global warming, systemic inequality. What can a superhero do to save us from those problems? Nothing. Real world problems are vague and do not easily fit into the Superhero narrative. So, to have something for the hero to do, the films need to invent new problems, or seriously simplify existing problems.
Well, I care. And also, let’s talk about violenc. Because the thing that Superheroes are good at is some version of fighting. To be “super” is to be “super good at fighting”. This sweeping generalization is something of a sweeping generalization, but not by that much. This means the kind of obstacles superheroes face are the kind of obstacles that can be overcome by punching. This means for the films to work they have to invent new villains or making real-world problems punchable. Let’s get bogged down in some specifics.
Wonder Woman’s portrayal of trench warfare is basically nonsense. It probably got me more worked up than it should have, but I want to reiterate how little this is the fault of the film, it’s the fault of the film genre. My reservations about this are stupid, even if they are accurate, but they stem from the fact that the film is forced to twist an incredibly difficult and complex problem, to an injustice that can be solved by punching. In this case, she punches enough germans and “liberates” the village. Evil punched, justice achieved.
The genre needs there to be a clear good guy and a clear bad guy and a clear problem that can be solved. Some superhero films want to tackle morally complex and difficult questions, but the form won’t let them. This problem is easily sidestepped by making up fake problems. As I discussed, Christopher Nolan creates tons of false Dilemma’s in the Dark Knight. He makes the heroes choose between mass incarceration and lawlessness, as if those are the only two options. Zack Snyder asks is it ok to kill if we know that the person is evil and will never stop killing others? Never mind the fact in real life, we can’t know for sure that a person is evil, that they will never stop killing others and “evil” as a thing doesn’t really exist. But at least Man of Steel pretended this was a dilemma, Age of Ulton just took this as a given. Snyder upset the fans, but his solution is actually the logical conclusion of the worldview the superhero genre invites. Too bad, it’s a messed up worldview.
Wonder Woman poses a similar pseudodilemma. Diana Prince has the view that people are good, but they are corrupted by the spirit of Ares driving them to war. Later we find that, indeed, it’s not so simple, and people can sometimes do terrible things. The film creates a dichotomy. Either people are good and being driven to do terrible things because of Ares or maybe there are just bad people. Diana chooses to accept them even if they are sometimes bad, and that’s one of the films chest-thumping moments of triumphs.
What’s completely missing from the story is the institutional and structural forces, building up, leading inexorably to the war. For example, the geopolitical pressure put on Germany, being squeezed in between two superpowers, which dictated certain strategies and actions, like going through belgium and being extra creative (read: cruel) with their weaponry. Of course this is too much for a super-hero film to get into, but that is precisely my point.
More than that, the superhero genre prevents the film from being really, truly, subversive. I’m not trying to take away from the triumph of Wonder Woman. It deserves it’s moment in the spotlight and it matters that non-men have someone like them they can look up to, someone like them beating up the bad guys. Representation matters, and if we are to have superhero films, I would rather that they are equal, with all genders and colors and sexual orientations represented. Representation is a great step forward, but it is not enough. To analogize, it would be better if all fossil fuel companies were run by an equal mix of genders and colors and sexual representations, but they would still be spewing out fossil fuels that mess up the planet.
Superhero films are like fossil fuel companies in this analogy, and because of the limitations I’ve outlined, they cannot be truly subversive of the status quo. And that’s the point. Because everything has to be clear
All right, hold on to your hard hats now, because shit’s about to get real. What I’m saying is, I’m about to drop some Gramsci on y’all. That’s right, everyone’s favorite italian neo-marxist Antonio Gramsci.
Gramsci had a whole bunch of ideas, but what I’m going to talk about is the idea of the cultural hegemony. Basically, it’s an attempt to explain why the oppressed masses don’t rise up against a ruling class that is obviously oppressing them. The answer, to Gramsci, is the cultural hegemony. A set of ideas present in our culture which prompt the oppressed masses to act against their interest.
I’m not saying that Superhero films are the one thing standing in the way of the socialist revolution. Buuuut. I am saying that the Superhero narrative is the latest and greatest invention of the cultural hegemony. The ideas expressed in the superhero form, the ideas I’ve outlined precisely align with the neo-liberal, military industrial status quo.
In the section 2, my point was that Superhero films flatten other people and invite us to see the world as one where we matter and other people are kind of, sort of, in the background, and matter, but kind of not really. The point of my third section was that superhero films invite us to consider the world as one where problems are solved in a very specific way, mostly by punching.
And this is exactly what the system wants. It wants us to believe that we matter, and not other people, that we don’t need help and if someone does need help, it’s not up to the government to do anything. If problems can be solved on an individual scale then we don’t need to change the system. We don’t need to work together on a larger scale, we don’t need to change the world.
Ok, yeah, obviously there isn’t some massive conspiracy by Marvel and DC to enslave the proletariat. They just want to make kick-ass films with cool explosions. But the ideas are swirling around in a capitalist culture. These ideas and the films promoting this message caught on because they are seductive, and probably because of accident and a whole bunch of reasons that I can’t explain. Now they’re out and they are bad ideas.