Flash forward (pun intended) fifty years (!), and there’s a glut of superhero films from DC and Marvel. This reality was forcefully brought home (quite literally) over Christmas, when my 20-something son managed to convince his mother she needed to see all the Avengers films. If one views the entire series, complete with side trips to marginally related stories, it’s somewhere in the vicinity of 1000 films. Well… okay, 14 or 15, really… it just feels like 1000 to me. Some of these films, I watched with my wife and son --- whom I privately started thinking of as the Dynamic Duo (I know… wrong comic franchise); others, I found too silly for words and decided I just couldn’t sit through, realizing each meant giving up two hours of my life that I’d never get back. But perhaps I shouldn’t be too dismissive/sarcastic, because here’s my own admission: for reasons still unclear to me, I decided I finally wanted to see Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot. I did, enjoying it immensely --- in fact, parts of it deeply moved me, and I wrote of that experience in my last post (I’d include a hyperlink to it, but since you’re already at my blog, just scroll down one entry to read it).
But these films got me wondering: why is the superhero genre Such A Big Thing right now? Why are there so many of them? With more to come? Including Sequels Galore, not to mention Sequels Gadot? (Sorry. Awful pun.)
Well, the facile answer is because they’re making money for the studios. Serious money --- enough to pay Robert Downey’s exorbitant salary and still make a profit. Even today, movie studios appear to like perpetuating the myth that filmmaking is Ars Gratia Artis, but most of us stopped believing that when we stopped believing in the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny. So, yeah, these films wouldn’t be made if they weren’t making money. The demand is obviously there, seemingly insatiable, and apparently not limited just to 12-year-old boys (no comments on my maturity, please). So, again: why are these films so popular? I think there are three main reasons:
First, we look to fantasy to take our minds off the awful reality we commonly face, especially when things are extremely rough in real life. (Like alcohol and drugs, stories are escapism, but generally less self-destructive.) Even without the current crop of hell’s own herd of turkeys now running the planet, most of us live what Thoreau depressingly but accurately called ‘lives of quiet desperation,’ and fantasy takes our minds off our cares, at least for a while, from the safety of an easy chair at home or in the theatre.
Second, they’re generally straight-forward, simple morality tales: good defeats evil. Period. Yes, nowadays, most superhero films feature protagonists dealing with private angst, but it’s not enough to paralyze them into inaction the way it frequently does with ordinary folk. And yes, superheroes usually have to endure pain on their way to the climax (some more than others), but it’s a comfortingly foregone conclusion they’ll defeat the villain. Biff! Kapow! Take that, Ares!
Finally, superheroes are effective. They kick ass in a way we desperately want to… but most of the time, most of us can’t. They’re what I call “traditional heroes” as opposed to “non-traditional heroes,” meaning they’re larger than life and instinctively inclined towards heroic acts, either because of natural factors imbuing them with supernatural abilities (it’s easy to be Wonder Woman when your dad is Zeus, the head Greek god), or because their intellectual/scientific/spiritual prowess allows them to develop marvels (pun intended) like an Iron Man suit --- without it, Tony Stark is just another arrogant rich guy with a talent for snappy one-liners. In other words, they’re not Frodo Baggins or Katniss Everdeen, ordinary schleppes forced into situations they would never, in their wildest dreams, undertake if given the choice. But when Wonder Woman/Diana Prince decides she’s going to do something about those nasty ol’ Germans on the other side of no-man’s-land, she does so with justifiable confidence she’s not going to be cut to shreds two seconds after she climbs out of the trench… which would be the fate of pathetically normal wanna-be heroes like you and me.
So, despite the occasional --- sometimes constant --- silliness in these stories/films causing me to roll my eyes, there are redemptive qualities to them.
Which, I guess, in the end, is all that really matters. Biff! Kapow!