Superheroes Are a Phase, but They Came When We Needed Them

Today I read Alison Herman “As Disney+ Looms, ‘The Boys’ Is Sweet Relief”, and I have a few issues with the points she tries to make. Her article falls into some of the common critical pitfalls that I have covered in other posts: mainly the idea that you’re somehow superior (and even kind of oppressed) if you don’t like the big, inescapable mainstream thing that’s really popular for whatever reason. She also tries to narrow the satire of Amazon’s The Boys into being just a critique of Disney’s acquisition of massive franchises in recent years, and she also makes brief generalizations about Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman without taking into account what their adaptations mean for female representation in blockbuster film.

Firstly, she portrays comedian Marc Maron’s recent comment about the MCU being for man children as “defending his right to a small, futile objection against a near omnipotent cultural force” on social media. However, I’d like to point out this Twitter thread of Maron’s is full of responses to his comment that aren’t people screaming at him for disliking the MCU. In fact, quite a few of them remind me of myself: functioning adults who like geeky and nerdy things and are tired of being labeled immature because they like a particular genre of fiction. One Twitter user, @kevinwmoore, pointed out that while there ARE immature man children in nerdy subcultures, there are also plenty of people in those subcultures that don’t fit that stereotype at all and have been discriminated against because of it by those immature man children. (Spend any time as a woman on any superhero-centric Facebook page, and you’ll find out how right he is. I know I have.)

Another user, @supermills, told Maron, “Just think of it this way, instead of cowboy movies we have superhero movies. It’s all the same thing.” Honestly, I completely agree with @supermills. In fact, I have compared the glut of superhero movies to the glut of westerns in the first few decades of Hollywood when I think about these genres’ popularity. I also think about how the popularity of superhero movies might be similar to the popularity of Old Hollywood musicals, too. Westerns and old-school musicals had their day in the sun, and then eventually died because cultural shifts. Westerns died because they were a massive mythos of a whitewashed West where there were only white people and Native Americans, and the white people had to take the land and settle it. In the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement and waves of Native American activism, this myth is easy to see through, so it’s no longer a viable path of escapism. On the other hand, musicals as a large box office force died out partly because of changing tastes in music and because the productions got larger while their box office returns diminished. My point is this: no genre lasts forever as a box office force. There will eventually be cultural shifts that reduce the impact of superhero films and TV shows.

Herman never mentions this, nor does she stop to wonder why or how superhero films became so popular over the past two decades. Now, the following ideas are mine, and they’re based on my own observations and thoughts, not research, but I do think observations are worth sharing. One big part of the superhero allure is that it’s a modern form of mythology, but it also contains some of the “what if?” fears of science fiction. Another important aspect of this genre’s rise is the fact that the majority of relatively good superhero films have come out after 9/11. Part of this is due to the rise in CGI special effects around that time, which have allowed for major leaps in the onscreen portrayal of speculative fiction. But you also have to consider that the majority of moviegoers are now people under 40. In fact, people ages 18-24 saw an average of 6.5 movies in 2016. Everyone under 40 has grown up and/or come of age in a world stoked by fear in the aftermath of 9/11. I was four days away from turning twelve when 9/11 happened, and I felt the gradual shift with the increase in security everywhere and the Bush administration’s fear-mongering that fueled two wars that we’re still in. Young people now are either shaped by the experience of witnessing 9/11 or growing up in the world after it, and when we are so aware that there are evil men with grandiose plans to enact their dogma on countries they don’t like, characters like Loki and Thanos don’t seem so ridiculous. With so many dark things constantly happening in our world, why is it so strange that we’d all line up to watch the fantasy of someone actually being able to stop terrible attacks on innocent people from happening?

I remember reading a Newsweek article around the time Spider-Man 2 came in out in 2004. I was 14, and I remember how the article talked about how Spider-Man could be read as a metaphor for Americans after 9/11: ultimately good and powerful, but not as strong as Superman. This phrase was definitely in that article: “Superman was who we wanted to be; Spider-Man was who we were.” While X-Men was released in 2000, many of the most memorable superhero films came after 2001, with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (2002-2007), Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012), and the birth of the MCU (Iron Man in 2008) making the biggest cultural splashes. I mention this because I got the impression from Herman’s article that Disney is the driving engine behind the superhero phenomenon. It may be the driving force behind the MCU’s merchandising efforts, but this genre’s ball was rolling pretty well before Disney threw their hat into the ring. The genre saturation has to do with both Disney and Warner Bros., which owns DC, taking advantage of a cultural shift to make massive amounts of money. The MCU is what happens when a massively cunning and successful mega-corporation tries to take control of a cultural zeitgeist.

When Herman summarizes The Boys she mentions that the show’s evil corporation, Vought, is “an entity that’s as much a stand-in for Disney as Lockheed Martin.” That’s true, and the show does allude many times to a Vought Cinematic Universe where the corrupt superheroes star as themselves. However, she seems to think that taking aim at Disney and the MCU is the only purpose of the satire in The Boys, especially when she says, “Squeezing the life out of Hollywood’s middle class and arming terrorists to create a demand for one’s product are hardly equivalent sins, but The Boys at times strains for multiple targets at once.” But The Boys isn’t just targeting Disney; it targets the military industrial complex, the Evangelical Christian subculture, and the recent cultural revelations about sexual abuse, among other things. It also deconstructs the idea of the crusading antihero who’s an asshole but is always right in the character of Billy Butcher (Karl Urban). Billy’s not always right, and everything he does ruins people’s lives, and he’s no more righteous or good than the corrupt superheroes he’s crusading against. In trying to narrow the targets of The Boys‘ satire, Herman ends up missing interesting aspects of that satire. This show satirizes great swaths of modern American culture, not just one mega-corporation.

Then Herman talks about a superhero in the show, Starlight, who speaks out about a sexual assault she suffered at the hands of another superhero: “When Starlight goes public with her experience being harassed by a coworker, her story is immediately co-opted into a defanged parable of feminist empowerment. It’s an efficient illustration of the uniquely alienating experience that is having your own identity sold back to you in the diluted form of blockbuster fare like Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman.”

Oh boy. There is a lot to unload in those sentences. For starters, I’d like to say that I sympathized with Starlight because the most memorable case of sexual harassment that’s happened in my life involved a Wonder Woman statue. Basically, 60-something grandfathers shouldn’t be able to tell twentysomething women, “Let’s touch her (Wonder Woman’s) boob and then touch yours and see which one’s bigger.” That’s a real thing that happened to me when I worked in retail at Six Flags, and I’m not sure I’ll ever fully be over it, even though it was only verbal harassment, mostly because I didn’t report the guy to security.

Same, Starlight. Same.

While I agree that you can compare the way Vought tries to repackage Starlight’s assault into a film called Citizen Starlight to Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, that reading greatly discounts that many women enjoyed those two films precisely because they wanted to see more female representation on the big screen. In fact, I know a group of brilliant ladies who loved both films. They’re the Jeopardesses. That is, they’re women who’ve been on Jeopardy!. A new Jeopardesses called this group of ladies “feminist battle nerds,” which we all are. And quite a few of us enjoy superhero movies. We also enjoy cozy mystery novels, crafting, and many other things that cultural elites might give the side-eye.

When some of the Jeopardesses discussed Captain Marvel, one woman pointed out that the film showed that it’s important to show women being mentored for reasons other than a guy trying to get her in the sack (as happens in many other films and other film genres). Another woman said she could sense a woman’s presence in how the film was directed (and it was directed by a team of one woman and one man). Then I interjected that when I saw Wonder Woman, I saw an aspect of my childhood represented onscreen. The second woman pointed out that that’s what happens when women and minority directors are behind the screen: many more experiences get represented.

What aspect of my childhood was I talking about? Well, my mom is a now-retired high school volleyball coach. She coached grade school volleyball in her teens and then when I was a toddler, but transitioned to coaching at the high school level when I was about four. She coached girls and boys over the years, and I had to attend her practices when I was young. So the first sequence on Themyscira, where little Diana runs away from her tutor to watch the warriors practice, felt very personal for me. Watch that sequence and notice how General Antiope (Robin Wright) observes and directs the Amazon warriors in practice. My mom directed her players that way. And see how little Diana watches the warriors with a sense of admiration and awe? My sister and I did that, too, when our mother coached high school girls. I had my own opinions on the players, and there were definitely players that I wished I could be friends with. And when little Diana launches herself off that ledge? I did something similar when I was ten–I launched myself off the bleachers into an old ball cart made from a metal frame and a net. My mom got babysitters to watch us in an upstairs classroom after that.

What I mean by this tangent is that just because the corporation and the executives are trying to dilute and package the female experience doesn’t mean that the director, writers, actors, or anyone else in the film has the exact same goal. Of the two films, Captain Marvel has the more inventive plot (woman fights gaslighting and remembers that she gave herself superpowers through a decision that she made). However, both films have ended up being more than a diluted version of the female experience that Alison Herman claims they are. They are myths about female experiences, and myths are always broad tales about societal values. These films have begun to give moviegoers female-centric adventures stories that the big screen mostly lacked until now. Yes, female protagonists existed, but Diana and Carol exist for people far beyond the typical fanboys who bought their comics. While Disney and Warner Bros. are certainly cashing in on female empowerment and their intentions are far from pure, I don’t think that means that people who enjoy these two films are immoral, immature, stupid, or bad. I think when these films and other tentpole films with female and/or minority directors are analyzed, we should try to separate the corporate entities that reap the profits from the artists making them. Why? Well, I think of the interviews with Patty Jenkins that I read and watched. When she was on The Daily Show recently, she pointed out that she had to consider “What’s exciting to me?” and that “Head butt! Wonder Woman would never head-butt!” While the DC and Warner Bros. execs probably didn’t put that much thought into a Wonder Woman film (which is admittedly flawed but fun), but she did. Similarly, Ryan Coogler worked his hometown of Oakland into the plot of Black Panther, and Taika Waititi cast himself as a rock creature whose high-pitched voice was based on Maori bouncers in Auckland. Yes, these directors are working with massive corporations that want to make a buck, but one could argue that these female and minority filmmakers are using those opportunities to tell stories that they couldn’t tell without those tentpole budgets.

Oh, wow. This post covers a lot of ground. Like, at least two football fields of ground. I’ll wrap things up by saying that I’m getting some superhero fatigue because the genre is so saturated right now. But I have faith that there will be a cultural shift that will allow us to move one. For now, let’s look at the different works in this genre and how they affect audiences, not just how much money they make. Because we should consider the cultural reasons for this genre’s dominance. Those reasons are there, and we should analyze them.

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