Looking back at some of the highest-grossing films last year, one can certainly see a pattern: Spider-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, Wonder Woman. And it’s no blip – box office returns from the decade so far have all but ensured superhero flicks are not only here to stay, but will continue to arrive with a certainty typically reserved for taxes and death. With this kind of forecast, one can be forgiven the occasional bout of superhero fatigue.
But, putting aside a sense of is-the-world-really-in-crisis-for-the-third-time-this-month and the impressive speed at which New York gets demolished/rebuilt, there’s something superhero films do that makes them unique: they’re obsessed with virtue. Instead of settling for merely being an occasional slice of escapism, these movies construct one of the few public spaces we have left dedicated, at heart, to exploring our collective moral fantasies.
The interesting thing about fantasy, whether our tastes are drawn to comic books or pop music or Middle-Earth, is that it says more about desire than about our lives as they are. Magic powers appeal to the powerless, particularly to children. Love stories provide comfort for those navigating the complexities and aches of relationship. Superheroes, with their innate goodness, have a moral fibre that comes as easily to them as backsliding tends to come to us – they embody ideals and a degree of integrity that exists infrequently, if at all, in the people we know. For some, these are grounds enough to dismiss Marvel blockbusters as naive fluff (which, in a way, they are), but they also give us an opportunity to take our common moral pulse. And our moral pulse, as we know, can change quite dramatically.
If we look at the trajectory comics have taken over the past century, it’s hard not to notice how they reflect the sharp turns in our public conversations around virtue. Coming out of the Second World War, figures like Superman represented an uncomplicated sense of goodness, an embodiment of the hope that good conquers evil and that civic engagement (or even foreign intervention) results in an unambiguously better world. But slow disenchantment followed, gradually emerging as heroes themselves were allowed their flaws and doubts. The mass disillusionment of the 1970s and 1980s, stemming from failures in both government and the counterculture, broke ground for violent antiheroes like Wolverine, Daredevil and the Punisher to take centre stage – all cultural responses to a world slowly acclimatizing to moral shifts into decidedly grey territory. Even Batman, in a now-famous turn, drifted from a campy do-gooder into the brooding Dark Knight himself.
For anyone invested in the importance of role models, or convinced of their influence on young people, this could be a source of anxiety. Which is more than understandable – if kids see Deadpool waterboarding someone, or watch Harry Potter use the unforgivable curses, are they really getting the best message? And questions like these only intensify when one is a parent, activist or educator – but they also force us to recognize that our heroes, themselves, are human. This doesn’t stop at caped crusaders either: people are learning, at a young age, that its okay to know that people of influence are themselves imperfect, even compromised at times. Taking things from a healthy perspective, it can help equip us, no matter our age, to look at our leaders and major cultural figures, recognize their humanity, and realize that at times they’re antiheroes at best. From there, we can critically respond to agendas and proposals and avoid slipping into black-or-white frameworks – which, in the end, only enriches our public engagement.
Today’s landscape of superpowered adventure, like ours, is pointed and diverse and engages with charged issues like race, government surveillance, veteran affairs, nuclear war, consent, interventionism, and populism. None of these themes are groundbreaking, but the fact that they’ve leaked into pop-culture conscious shows they’ve become questions we’re unable to ignore. But if we can’t forget what we’ve learned about the world (and about ourselves), neither can we let go of our need for moral fantasy, inspiration, role models, or our collective hunger for a richer vision for the world – superhero movies, for all their flaws and compromises, boldly straddle these deep needs we have, as humans, without losing complete sight of reality. They reject an either-or model that would force us to pick between naivety and cynicism, and instead they’re able to inspire a more rigorous line of inquiry: how do we reconcile a desire for the good with the reality of failure? What does wanting progress or development mean in a pluralistic society? What does patriotism mean as we reconcile with our nation’s controversial history? How do we process words like ‘virtue’ when we become aware of how the word’s been appropriated to sow abuse, silence or division?
While some might be nostalgic for days when the cineplex was far less mopey, the way superhero movies touch on these broader issues is a fascinating opportunity to eavesdrop on the conversation our culture’s having with itself. The genre, or course, may never take itself as seriously as other, more nuanced explorations of power structures and conflict, and neither will it ever completely abandon its taste for colourful spandex and archetypal brawls, but we can admire, when they appear, those moments when, peeking from between the velvet curtains of fantasy and reality, we see something that resonates in a very necessary corner of the human person.