I am about to confess to an opinion so heretical, at such cross-purposes with the prevailing popular culture, that it may get my critic’s card revoked. Superheroes are dumb.
Not just some superheroes — all of them. The entire concept of grown men and women fighting evil while wearing highly technical pajamas fills me with boredom and thoughts of the laundry I’d rather be doing. I realize this renders me un-American and out of step with everything that is holy and profitable in the ruling zeitgeist. The theatrical release this coming Friday of “Marvel’s The Avengers,” an all-star superhero ramalama that stands as the culmination of several preliminary movies (“Thor,” “Iron Man,” “Captain America”) and a half-decade of pulverizing hype, will prove how wrong I am when it grosses more than the GDP of South America.
Indeed, it may seem useless to resist in a landscape where Comic-Con has become our chief cultural tent-pole event. The ascension of Marvel Entertainment to the top ranks of corporate content providers (the company became a subsidiary of Disney in 2009) only underscores how the costumed-crusader meme has conquered the entertainment industry. A new, improved “Spider-Man” arrives this summer starring Andrew Garfield — Tobey Maguire having been shipped out on the ice floe of aging youth stars — as does “The Dark Knight Rises,” the latest iteration of the Batman franchise. A new Superman movie, “Man of Steel,” is due in 2013. Jessica Chastain, the acting discovery of 2011, is in talks to play opposite Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man 3,” because you haven’t really made it in Hollywood until you’ve kowtowed before the 3-D IMAX fantasy universe that is the movie studios’ primary order of business nowadays.
I remain unimpressed. All a movie has to do is put some spandex and a silly helmet on an actor — even one as charismatic as Christian Bale or as dear to my heart as Downey Jr. — and it has lost me. And, honestly, Hollywood, I don’t think I’m alone in this. Not that you care, since grown-ups don’t bother to go to the movies anymore, nor are they asked. But allow a doubter — one who views superhero movies as delightful diversions at best and profoundly beside the point at worst — to stake out a position on the margins.
I can already hear the millions of fan-boys (and girls) gathering with torches outside my remote mountaintop mansion, so let me introduce some nuance into the argument. This much is agreed: The superhero genre is far from the enjoyably simple-minded entertainment it was when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster debuted Superman in the pages of “Action Comics #1” in April 1938. (There are countless ancestors and influences, but the Man of Steel is the acknowledged starting point for the modern archetype.) As early as Jack Cole’s “Plastic Man” and Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” in the 1940s, the field was opened up for stylistic experimentation and parody, and with the appearance of Marvel’s tormented teen Spider-Man in 1962, the writing and artwork started to attain psychological complexity.
(Speaking personally, I admit to having been into the “Spider-Man” comics when I was about 13. They were well-drawn and really cool, and I got sucked into the biff-bam soap opera of Green Goblin and Gwen and Uncle Ben and Doc Ock. Had brief flings, too, with Marvel’s “Conan” comics and (gulp) “Man-Thing.” Excelsior, and all that. But then I got waylaid by the underground comics of the early 1970s, discovering in the work of Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Spain, Justin Green, Kim Deitch, and dozens of others a freedom of expression, mastery of line, and breadth of subject matter that made the superhero comics seem like, well, kids’ stuff. Granted, many of the undergrounds were only slightly more evolved, given their predilection for sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, and a misogyny that’s impossible to countenance today. But a series like Shelton’s deliriously funny “Wonder Wart-Hog” satirized the costumed crimefighter genre so ruthlessly that one just couldn’t take it seriously anymore.)
Recent decades have seen superhero comics and their spinoffs address all sorts of meta-meanings in an effort to mature. When, in the late 1980s, Frank Miller reimagined Batman as a brooding vigilante in “The Dark Knight Returns” and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created the epic “Watchmen,” the whole concept got a smart, ironic revamp. These titles wondered what kind of people would dress up to fight crime and what it would do to their psyches. How damaged would you have to be to get in the game in the first place?
It took a while, but the movies picked up the theme. Where Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” was a stylish, candy-colored exercise in pop meaninglessness, 2005’s “Batman Begins,” directed by Christopher Nolan, was serious business: dark and depressive, weighed down with the paradox of trying to fight evil without turning evil. The many superhero properties of the past decade or so — from 2000’s “Unbreakable” to the 2006 TV series “Heroes” to 2010’s “Kick-Ass” (based on a 2008 comic) to this year’s “Chronicle” — have deconstructed the genre with knowing fondness and postmodern cool and repackaged it for an audience wary of taking anything straight up.
Here’s the thing, though: All of these developments are defensive actions designed to shore up a genre of fiction that is, at its core, immature — that reacts to real-world issues of conflict and corruption with power fantasies that solve nothing. This extends even to Nolan’s 2008 “The Dark Knight,” possibly the genre’s high-water mark. Can any movie truly be hailed as the Greatest Film of All Time, as its fans would have it, when it traffics in costumed villainy and requires the Batpod to make things right? Don’t really great movies address how things are rather than how we would like them to be? Isn’t that what growing up is about? Or is that a foolish hope in an entertainment culture that profits by keeping us in suspended adolescence?
I know, I know, my own supervillain name should be Captain Bringdown. And, actually, I don’t mind one superhero movie, or even a few. But when a genre this fundamentally built upon daydreams and wish-fulfillment becomes the motor of a billion-dollar industry, one worries about the things we’re not paying attention to. Is there evil in the world? Sure. Can it be dealt with by Superman spinning the planet backward? Uh, not really, and why waste time thinking so?
Superhero fiction is meant to be entertainment. But, like all entertainment, it offers a vision of the world. That vision is now sold to us at all hours of the day and on all media platforms by a handful of corporate oligarchies. The vision says if you put on a costume, adopt a catchy moniker, and dedicate yourself to avenging the downtrodden, you will make the world a better place. More crucial, you will be a better person, more special, more seen, instead of an unnoticed blur in the crowd. Those people who actually choose to become real-life “superheroes,” such as Atlanta’s Crimson Fist and Florida’s Mr. Xtreme, obviously believe they are making a difference, and when they help the homeless and engage in other acts of altruism, they probably are. But as soon as the PJs go on, they’re the stars of their own private fantasy-action franchise. A costume may not even be necessary. Did George Zimmerman think of himself as a crime-fighting Avenger whenever he went out to patrol his gated community in Sanford, Fla.?
The truth is that the business of fixing the world is pretty boring, and it necessitates not self-aggrandizement but self-abnegation. It calls for humility rather than a utility belt. It means you have to walk rather than fly. It’s not very dramatic and it doesn’t sell as well as “The Avengers,” which will make many multiple millions for Disney and Marvel that, if the world were truly to become a better place, would probably be better spent elsewhere. (How about starting with the schools?) In other words, being an un-super hero requires being awake, rather than submitting once more to Hollywood’s beautiful popcorn dreams.