There are so many superhero movies being made recently, and although I find most of them entertaining, I just don’t get the same feeling of happiness watching them that I used to with older versions like the original Superman movies (1978-1983), Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997), or the Batman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman comics I read when I was younger. I’m not sure if that change is more out there in the world or inside myself, but as with so many things, I imagine it’s both.
Maybe it’s because I used to be able to take the idea that a superhero was good at face value and assume that meant they would be everything I thought of when I heard the word, “good.” Now I’m weighed down by the understanding that my perspective is limited based on my experience and identity in the world, and that what seems good to one person can be something quite different to another. I also see the ways that the structure of those things reflected only one experience (largely white and male, among other things) and that they sometimes verged on propaganda. But I think what I responded to was that at the heart of them, there was a desire to believe in goodness and see justice done.
In older movies and comics, evil was external and could be socked in the jaw, captured, and contained, but what I see in a lot of the superhero stories of the past decade is that the focus is on wrestling with personal demons and the evils within oneself and the people close to us. Everyone is compromised and contaminated, and the path to doing the right thing is convoluted. There’s a spotlight on internal turmoil and interpersonal relationships, and the villains are less clearly evil and sometimes seem to be fallen heroes themselves. As with the ancient Greek model, early 21st century heroes have tragic flaws they have to overcome in order to save the day, and it’s not always entirely clear whether the day has completely been saved.
Take the ambiguity of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012), where Bruce Wayne descends into a tortured, violent existence before he‘s able to return to Gotham and save the citizens and a bus full of orphans from the escaped inmates of Arkham asylum. It’s a fight fire with fire, ends justify the means kind of approach that explores the boundaries of how far across that line someone can go before they’re not the hero anymore. I sometimes wonder if it was like a twisted form of psychotherapy with Ra’s al Ghul, Psy.D. helping him come to terms with his parent’s deaths and the bizarre sense of isolation that comes from being both a masked superhero and a famous millionaire playboy.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier seemed to be driven largely by the angst between Bucky and Cap, where Bucky has been transformed into the villain against his will using painful experimental techniques and Cap is willing to risk failing to save the world in exchange for healing his friend’s trauma and assuaging his own guilt for having failed to save Bucky in the past. The definition of justice is hard to pin down in that context, and the extension of the storyline is the rift amongst the Avengers heroes over whether or not they should abide by a set of rules when using their powers. Cap refuses, in part out of a conviction that if he’s fighting for what he believes is right then he’s doing good and that the rules will tie his hands, but others view him as a vigilante as a result. He’s still an old-fashioned superhero that way, which makes sense since he was frozen for 70 years and is literally from the past, but he’s also missing the point that any one person who believes they are qualified to make unilateral decisions about other people’s lives is a potential danger to society.
Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) is another example of taking an iconic superhero and creating a narrative of inner conflict and ethical transgression, where Superman kills the villain in the end. One of the things I love about comics is that different people can write different versions of heroes and there are myriad facets to explore, but this was a film I walked out of feeling like that just wasn’t Superman. I think it’s fair to assume that Superman must have been tempted to use his power to really hurt people who did terrible things, but it’s a mistake to assume that just because he had the physical strength to kill someone it necessarily follows that he must have been tempted to do it or that the only way he would know it was wrong was if he’d experienced it himself. One of the central pillars of Superman’s hero identity is the idea that greater strength means a greater responsibility to avoid causing harm, so to kill someone fundamentally transgresses his core values. I think there are some things you can’t change without crossing the line where you’re actually writing a different character. It might be a great and interesting character, but you’ve bent the original out of shape beyond recognition.
One recent film that I did find gave me some of that same feeling I used to have about superheroes though, was Black Panther (2018). I think it’s because there’s such a clear message about the benefits and price of isolationism, and balancing the social responsibility to protect people who share one’s own identity with the ethical obligation to help anyone who is suffering. Wakanda has managed to stay peaceful and develop advanced technology only by hiding from the chaos, violence, and greed that plague the rest of the world. Opening their doors puts them in harm’s way, but turning their backs on other people’s suffering when they have the means to help compromises their values. The struggles T’Challa faces seem much more like the ones the iconic Superman had to contend with around how to use his strength and power responsibly and in the service of helping people while managing the risks to the people he loves.
Perhaps it’s an illusion to think that any single definition of good could be one size fits all, but I can’t help believing that if that definition was rooted in empathy, respect for the full range of human diversity, and the value of a decent quality of life for everyone, then it actually could. And maybe what we really need right now is heroes who we can uncomplicatedly believe are good. We’re drowning in shades of grey and injustices veiled in vague language and outright lies. I’d give a hell of a lot for an invincible superhero who could sock them in the jaw and lock them away where they can’t hurt anyone.
alex MacFadyen spends a lot of time lately thinking “Biff! Bam! Pow!”