After some false starts in previous decades, the Marvel comic book-based movie franchise has hit upon its formula of combining groups of its copyrighted superheroes into several movies a year, still adding new characters from its comics to the mix (most recently Dr. Strange.)
The other comic book franchise, DC Comics, is trying to do the same with its formidable stable of superheroes, including the very first: Superman. Though its attempts to apply the Marvel formula have met with mixed results, it continues to stir fan interest as it adds more of its characters to its movies. Both franchises are expanding their demographic reach by transforming formerly white male characters into women and people of color.
Moreover the superhero movies are of a piece with other “tent pole” movie “franchises,” notably Star Wars and Star Trek. They also combine visual effects action on a huge scale with character repartee. At a recent screening of Dr. Strange, the trailer for the next Star Wars movie show it to be indistinguishable from past Star Wars movies. Meanwhile the music for Dr. Strange is almost indistinguishable from the music for the Abrams’ Star Trek films (particularly the first), by the same composer.
But in their escalating scale, the superheroes are losing their reason for being, apart from visual thrills and commerce. Superheroes now exclusively battle super villains, when they aren’t fighting each other. They are gods fighting other gods. They fight ostensibly to save humanity, but they are completely detached from people.
That’s not how they started, or what first endeared them to readers and made them heroic.
Siegel was also reading about crusading heroes and seeing them in the movies. He wondered how he could help these victims of the 30s. “How could I help them, when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer.”
Strikingly unlike today’s superheroes, Superman’s first exploits were saving an unjustly condemned woman from the electric chair, and stopping a wife-beater. In his 1930s adventures, he rescued miners in a cave-in, battled stock market manipulators and munitions manufacturers fomenting wars to sell their wares. He fought crime, but also poverty and unsafe labor conditions. He came to the aid of individuals in trouble, and was devoted to the common good. He was a selfless, high-spirited and humorous hero of the people.
Later superheroes, like Batman and Spider-Man, were motivated by a sense of justice, partly because of past trauma involving crime committed against parents or parental figures. These days some superheroes (like Batman) and action movie villains tend more towards elaborate revenge fantasies.
Today’s superhero movies are almost completely detached from recognizable people in individual trouble, or even groups of people in specific situations of danger and tyranny. With the violent abstraction of video games, they battle across interchangeable urban landscapes that are little more than visual Lego constructions to twist and destroy. This is not to say they are without value, or do not offer some ethical and philosophical points of view. But for all their manipulated excitement and cleverness, there is an emptiness at their center.
In some sense, movies like a lot else that depends on technology, do what they do because they are capable of doing it. I counted at least a dozen visual effects companies in the credits to Dr. Strange.
Beyond delivering new and more elaborate effects, it could be that this turn in superhero movies speaks to our sense of powerlessness over the forces that confront us. Perhaps when the climate itself seems to be turning against humanity, it seems too large to be addressed by the civilization that is thoughtlessly causing the climate to deform. It’s apparently a matter for cosmic forces, for the gods and their evil counterparts. But in these movies their battles are meaningless—just elaborate versions of fistfights and wars, that reveal nothing and accomplish only wish fulfillment victories.
But the dangers that confront us may not be beyond human capabilities to address. It even seems that soberly dealing with the climate crisis should be a fairly ordinary extension of current civilization, even if it requires heroic measures.
But perhaps it’s felt to be beyond ordinary, and beyond us altogether. That may be partly because as a culture we’ve avoided talking about it. It requires more: a vision of what is possible, and models that realize those possibilities. Some versions of the hero—of the original superhero-- might help. But that’s not what we’re getting in today’s popular culture.