I, Superhero

By Don Hall

“To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence. It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.” — Alan Moore

The past few summers have set the stage for what some call "too many superhero movies." I just this week, went to Spider-Man: Homecoming with Ray (I loved it) and am looking forward to Justice League as well as The Defenders on Netflix, Thor: Ragnarok,  Black Panther, Gotham City Sirens, etc. I love these multiverses for a variety of reasons.

But Moore, the cracked genius behind WatchmenV for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, cannot be easily dismissed.

I disagree that the resurgence of superhero/vigilante movies is a sign that the public has "given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in" as I see a deeper meaning culturally in these stories. The reality we are actually living in is overrun by news of the horrors we bring upon one another—whether it is the (now, sadly) standard list of shootings per weekend in major cities to the almost non-stop litany of local police simply killing black men and women to the tales of the Robber Barons, Oil Companies, Banks, Wall Street routinely destroying the lives and livelihoods of regular Americans—our reality is that which screams the individual has no control or power over the events that shape us and our world.

It is not accidental that many of my black male friends completely dig Batman. A guy who watched his parents killed in front of him who has a shit ton of money and wants revenge for the inequities unaddressed by the traditional authorities? A badass, angry vigilante dressed in black? Kicking the shit out of bad guys and then living the playboy life in his off time? C'mon!

The X-Men were an allegory, stemming from the 1960s, of teenagers growing up different than everyone else and imbued with freakish powers they couldn't control. Sound like A) adolescence, B) a struggle of black and brown-skinned kids in a world that favors white-skin and C) a sense of unity in that struggle with others just like you? Charles Xavier is MLK; Magneto is Malcolm X. Is it any wonder people love these heroes? #MutantLivesMatter, anyone?

Many superheroes in the collective canon (Marvel/DC) are created out of a desire for revenge or a need for redemption. Tony Stark is an arms manufacturer and has a life changing experience that causes him to disavow his creation of killing machines and redeem himself by creating a machine that allows him to protect the world. Spider-Man wants revenge against the petty criminal who kills his uncle. Ant-Man needs to "be the hero his daughter already thinks he is."

Who among us doesn't feel the desire for revenge or the need for redemption from time to time? And, honestly, who wouldn't want to somehow be bestowed amazing powers that help us facilitate these desires and needs, in a big fucking way, that involves an incredible uniform and iconic status?

What do Flash Gordon, Superman, Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and the Human Torch have in common? A world in turmoil, an impending war with the Nazis, a less than stellar economy, a cultural shift in politics. What do The Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Daredevil, Spider-Man and the Justice League of America have in common? A world in civil rights turmoil, a war against Communism in Vietnam, a depreciating economy, a cultural shift in politics. (Also, both gestational periods for both companies were populated with mostly white characters but that's changing in the 21st century).

Today, we're having another resurgence of popularity of these characters and stories with a modern twist: we now have a black, Mexican Spider-Man, a Pakastani American teenage girl as the new Ms. Marvel, gay X-Men, Nick Fury (a white character in the 40's) played by Samuel L. Jackson in the Marvel Universe films—and re-presented to reflect Jackson in all other areas—and huge arguments online about the sexist nature of Wonder Woman's costume. A world in turmoil, a constant state of a War on Terror, a shit economy, a cultural shift in politics.

The thing to consider is that superheroes, in order to be relevant and interesting, adapt to the landscape of the world. The stories of the powerless becoming powerful, of the desire for revenge or the need for redemption, of having someone outside of authority to help those in need are timeless. Superheroes become popular when we need them to be. Far from giving up trying to cope with the world as it is, our love for these characters comes from our attempt to cope with it.

Do we lose some complexity in the thrust onto the Silver Screen? You bet, but even fucking Hamlet becomes less than when put on film. Dumbing things down a bit is what Hollywood (except for Pixar and Lars Von Trier) does because selling tickets and online streaming is the name and nature of that particular commercial enterprise.

We need heroes. And our flesh and blood, larger than life  heroes are often found wanting. So we look to fiction for something bigger and broader than the weaknesses of the heroes we have in real life: sports heroes who beat their wives and flash guns, political heroes who end up bought and paid for, military heroes engaged in torture. We look for something we humans can't really attain but can certainly strive for.

I love this period of superheroes. I've been waiting since I was ten years old to see these characters interact on film in a cool, spectacular way. I believe that everyone can find at least one story and character he or she can connect with and mine is Bruce Banner. Granted, I'm no genius and when I'm angry, I don't grow in size and become green, but the struggle with rage has been mine as well. I also identify with Wolverine on some level. And isn't that what stories do? Give us characters we can see ourselves within and watch them live through adventures we'd like to live?