EVILDOERS, beware! You cannot hide from the modern-day superhero! And neither can anyone else heading to the movies this summer. “Marvel’s The Avengers” which opened on May 4, reached $300 million in domestic ticket revenue faster than any other movie in history and tied the record for fastest $1 billion worldwide gross. On Tuesday, Sony will unleash the newest version of another venerable Marvel property, “The Amazing Spider-Man,” followed later in the month by “The Dark Knight Rises,” a Warner Brothers release and the third (and possibly the last) of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. The summer of 2012 is hardly unusual. The current superhero boom dates to the dawn of the century — Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” came out in 2000, Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” in 2002 — and shows no sign of abating. The New York Times’s chief movie critics, A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, ponder the meaning of an apparently invincible genre.
Our superheroes have been around for a very long time — Superman and Batman were born in the ’30s; Spidey and many of his Marvel brethren are children of the ’60s — but they appear to be more powerful than ever. That is partly the result of corporate strategy and canny marketing, but it’s also clear that these serial narratives about regular folks gifted (or cursed) with extraordinary abilities and menaced by diabolical enemies exercise a powerful hold on the popular imagination. Some of the movie world’s most talented actors, directors and writers have succumbed in the past decade to the pulpy, allegorical allure of comic books. Critics have too.
On one level the allure of comic book movies is obvious, because, among other attractions, they tap into deeply rooted national myths, including that of American Eden (Superman’s Smallville); the Western hero (who’s separate from the world and also its savior); and American exceptionalism (that this country is different from all others because of its mission to make “the world safe for democracy,” as Woodrow Wilson and, I believe, Iron Man, both put it). Both Depression babies, Superman and Batman, were initially hard-boiled types, and it’s worth remembering that the DC in DC Comics was for Detective Comics. Since then the suits have largely remained the same even as the figures wearing them have changed with their times. Every age has the superhero it wants, needs or deserves.
Comic book movies are also fun (except when they’re not) and often easy viewing (except when they make your head hurt). They’re also blunt: A guy in a unitard pummels another guy — pow! — and saves the day, the girl and the studio. I like some comic-book movies very much, dislike others. But as a film lover I am frustrated by how the current system of flooding theaters with the same handful of titles limits my choices. (According to boxofficemojo.com “The Avengers” opened on 4,349 screens in the United States and Canada, close to 1 in 10.) The success of these movies also shores up a false market rationale that’s used to justify blockbusters in general: that is, these movies make money, therefore people like them; people like them, therefore these movies are made.
And yet these stories do have some appeal, beyond the familiarity of the characters and the relentlessness of the marketing campaigns. As you suggest, they strike mythic, archetypal chords, and cater to a persistent hunger for large-scale, accessible narratives of good and evil.
It’s telling that Hollywood placed a big bet on superheroes at a time when two of its traditional heroic genres — the western and the war movie — were in eclipse, partly because they seemed ideologically out of kilter with the times. The studios turned to fantasy, science fiction and a kind of filmmaking that was at once technologically advanced and charmingly old-fashioned. Along with “Star Wars” and Indiana Jones there was Superman, played, starting in 1978, by the square-jawed, relatively unknown Christopher Reeve.
The four “Superman” movies with Reeve vary in quality, but I still have a soft spot for their blend of sincere romanticism, swashbuckling action and unabashed silliness. The Batman series that began in 1989 and continued (or rather rapidly declined) into the ’90s was campier, kinkier and more self-conscious, but both of those franchises were playful in a way that seems to have gone out of fashion lately. The Joker’s mocking question from “The Dark Knight” — why so serious? — echoes through the past 10 years, when, with a few exceptions, there has been very little that is comic in comic book movies. Instead these movies have mostly been angry, anxious and obsessed with the idea of revenge.
Perhaps this is a reflection of the state of the world after Sept. 11, 2001. Certainly the superhero movies of today are, like the gangster pictures of the Depression and the westerns of the ’50s, a screen onto which our society projects its fears and dreams. But I also think that the grimness arises from another source. When hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, it is never a laughing matter.
The current superhero glut may have something to do with the human appetite for tales of good and evil, but there’s no question that the corporate appetite for bigger returns is insatiable. And one thing we do know is that superhero movies sell not just theater tickets but also generate multiple revenue streams (pay-per-view, toys, video games, international distribution). People were excited to see “The Avengers,” but how could they not be? We were bombarded with the movie for years in advance. As a Marvel executive told Forbes, “Every Marvel movie since 2008 was created with the full intention of this super franchise.” And then there’s the 24/7 advertising and Marvel’s corporate “partnerships” with Walmart (which is peddling some 600 “Avengers” products), Acura, Harley-Davidson, Hasbro, Target — I mean, there was no escaping it.
There is something paradoxical about the modern ascendance of the superhero: world domination is what these guys were born to fight, and here they are chasing after it in a fairly literal way. Their rise is partly, like the rise of Hollywood itself, a great American success story. Back in the 1930s a bunch of writers, illustrators and entrepreneurs discovered a fertile and profitable intersection between the old pulps and the emerging youth culture. The creators of the first superheroes were outsiders — the children of immigrants or Jewish refugees from Europe — and their creations were marginal to everything respectable in the culture. Elite opinion regarded comic books as juvenile, disreputable, even dangerous, according to Dr. Fredric Wertham’s influential “Seduction of the Innocent,” which inspired Senate hearings in 1954.
But the audience for comics continued to grow through the 1960s — what fans call the silver age of Marvel — and beyond, and the form has shed most of its bad reputation. Comics studies is now a legitimate academic field, and comic books may be weathering the collapse of print better than most of their paper-based kin. The musclebound paladins with their special capabilities still anchor the form. They inspire creative labor and fan loyalty as almost nothing else does. The movies have, as it were, supersized all of this, turning a cabal of fans into a mighty planetary army.
And yet … I have to say that the hegemony of the superheroes leaves an increasingly sour taste in my mouth, and that their commercial ascendance has produced, with a few exceptions, diminishing creative returns. The scrappy underdogs and pulpy tales have turned into something else, and I wonder if some of the fun, and much of the soul, has been lost.
There was a time when motion pictures were considered disreputable too, bad for the moral and psychological health of not just (vulnerable) children but also (weak) women. Just like movies, comic books have undergone cycles of popularity, denunciation and legitimization that reflect larger shifts in mass and popular culture. Wertham’s anti-comic message was one facet in the high culture versus popular culture debates, one that was also expressed by a series of essays Edmund Wilson wrote, beginning in 1944, for The New Yorker, the first being “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” He was focusing on a popular genre, which he characterized as a waste of time but also, amusingly, did read himself. “Friends, we represent a minority, but Literature is on our side,” Wilson wrote. “There is no need to bore ourselves with this rubbish.”
Wilson’s second line, by the way, pretty much sums up my take on “The Avengers,” a movie that I thought was almost unrelievedly dull.
Don’t tell Samuel L. Jackson!
But the kind of condescending dismissal practiced by Wilson and the cultural panic expressed by Wertham exist nowadays almost entirely as straw men. A critic who voices skepticism about a comic book movie — or any other expensive, large-scale, boy-targeted entertainment — is likely to be called out for snobbery or priggishness, to be accused of clinging to snobbish, irrelevant standards and trying to spoil everyone else’s fun.
What the defensive fans fail or refuse to grasp is that they have won the argument. Far from being an underdog genre defended by a scrappy band of cultural renegades, the superhero spectacle represents a staggering concentration of commercial, corporate power. The ideology supporting this power is a familiar kind of disingenuous populism. The studios are just giving the people what they want! Foolproof evidence can be found in the box office returns: a billion dollars! Who can argue with that? Nobody really does. Superhero movies are taken seriously, reviewed respectfully and enjoyed by plenty of Edmund Wilson types.
DARGIS One problem is that public intellectuals like Wilson no longer have the forums they once did. There are oppositional voices, yes, yet they can be difficult to hear in the contemporary media context, with everyone always selling the exact same thing at the exact same moment. A recent editorial in The Columbia Journalism Review points to a reason: “Six companies dominate TV news, radio, online, movies, and publishing. Another eight or nine control most of the nation’s newspapers.” The media consolidation that traces back to the Reagan years has had enormous deleterious consequences on American movies. We’re at a paradoxical moment when new digital technologies have created more and more stuff, movies included, even as the consolidation of the media gives us fewer real choices.
And when everyone is selling the same thing — one week Spider-Man, the next Batman — who, as you put it, can argue with that, especially when everyone is making so much money? One complicating factor is the corporate appropriation of fan culture. In a March article on how Lionsgate promoted “The Hunger Games,” our colleague Brooks Barnes reported that the studio had assigned a publicist to cultivate fan blogs. It also sponsored a sweepstakes to bring five fans to the set, but it didn’t invite reporters, because it didn’t want fans to think, as Mr. Barnes wrote, that they were being fed something through professional filters. “People used to be O.K. with studios telling them what to like,” Danielle DePalma, the company’s senior vice president for digital marketing, said. “Not anymore. Now it’s ‘You don’t tell us, we tell you.’ ” I don’t know if she said this with a straight face, but it made me laugh.
But comic book fans need to feel perpetually beleaguered and disenfranchised, marginalized by phantom elites who want to confiscate their hard-won pleasures. And this resentment — which I have a feeling I’m provoking more of here — finds its way into the stories themselves, expressed either as glowering self-pity or bullying machismo. There are exceptions: Mark Ruffalo’s soulful Hulk (though not Eric Bana’s or Edward Norton’s); most of the X-Men. But even that crew of mutant misfits turned protectors of humanity exists in a circumscribed imaginative space. As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out in a New York Times Op-Ed article last summer about “X-Men: First Class,” that film noticeably refrained from connecting its chronicle of prejudice and outsider-dom in postwar America to the contemporaneous drama of the civil rights movement.
To do so would have been too risky. And much as they may fetishize courage and individualism, these movies are above all devoted to the protection of a status quo only tangentially (or tendentiously) related to truth, justice and the American Way. The DC and Marvel superheroes, champions of democracy in the ’40s and ’50s and pop rebels in the ’60s and ’70s, have become, in the 21st century, avatars of reaction.
They’re certainly avatars of reaction in how they justify and perpetuate the industry’s entrenched sexism. You just have to scan the spandex bulges in “The Avengers” to see that superhero movies remain a big boys’ club, with few women and girls allowed. Yes, there are female superheroes on screen, like Jean Grey from the “X-Men” series, but they tend not to drive the stories, while female superheroes with their own movies never dominate the box office. Most women in superhero movies exist to smile indulgently at the super-hunk, to be rescued and to flaunt their assets, like Scarlett Johansson’s character in “The Avengers,” whose biggest superpower, to judge by the on- and off-screen attention lavished on it, was her super-rump.
Historically the comic book industry survived partly because its superheroes changed. In the early 1960s Stan Lee helped come up with a new kind of long-underwear character, Spider-Man, an imperfect super-teenager whose failings helped bring young-adult readers and turn Marvel into a powerhouse. In 1986 Frank Miller created “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns,” which ushered in a new, grittier bat-freak that influenced Mr. Nolan’s resurrection of the Batman movies. Yet, like the movie industry, the comic industry remains staggeringly male dominated. As Laura Hudson wrote in December on the online site ComicsAlliance, both DC and Marvel “illustrate two different but interrelated problems: the lack of women playing major roles in the comics, and the lack of women playing major roles in creating them.”
The movie industry has also adapted to survive, yet it persists in recycling maddeningly troglodytic representations of women that its embrace of superheroes has only perpetuated and maybe exacerbated. For all the technological innovations, the groovy new Bat cycles and codpieces, superhero movies just recycle variations on gender stereotypes that were in circulation back in the late 1930s, when Superman and Batman first hit. The world has moved on — there’s an African-American man in the Oval Office, a woman is the secretary of state — but the movie superhero remains stuck in a pre-feminist, pre-civil rights logic that dictates that a bunch of white dudes, as in “The Avengers,” will save the world for the grateful multiracial, multicultural multitudes. What a bunch of super-nonsense.