As a film lover, and a critic, it has become impossible to ignore the ever-increasing presence of the comic book superhero on the screen. Of course this is not a new phenomenon, but it is obvious that in the last few years Hollywood has been making movies from the Marvel Comics catalogue at an unprecedented rate, along with other superhero and comic book characters.
I’m not going to take the position that comic books rot the minds of the young. I read them myself when I was a pre-teen, and occasionally even later. An industry expert might argue that the adolescent and “young adult” market is the primary targeted demographic of Hollywood, and that therefore it makes perfect sense that it would latch on to this genre, which also happens to involve a popular element from videogames: computer-generated imagery. In terms of cinema history, this is another example of the tension between film as commercial product and art form. Hollywood’s investment in a blockbuster strategy, in which huge sums are spent on a film in the hopes of massive profits, has meant that the creative aspect of cinema keeps getting pushed farther onto the margins. It also indicates a state of “mainstream” film craft that is increasingly out of touch with what I would call “literary” ideas. Industry filmmakers seem to live in a world without books—we witness instead a steady stream of TV show remakes and adaptations of comic books and graphic novels.
What I find more interesting is how film fans and reviewers manage to convince themselves that superheroes are invested with more significance or insight when they are adapted into films. The daily newspaper reviewers, and those for major magazines and media outlets (I don’t say critics, for that’s a different matter) are going to pay attention to these money-making films or else be out of a job. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight has gotten this treatment, and plenty of rave reviews. The film struck me as a repellent mélange of sadism, sensory over-stimulation, and traditional simplistic action-movie tropes.
What I call sadism in the movies is the exploitation of the “thrill” of witnessing immoral, amoral, or extremely taboo behavior—in short, brutal violence for its own sake, for the sake of excitement in the spectator rather than as an integral element in a story idea or theme. It took off in the horror genre, and has since migrated to the action/adventure and suspense films. This aspect has come to overshadow narrative itself in many cases. The amped-up “aesthetic” of a film like The Dark Knight reminds me of stronger, more potent forms of drugs that are made to provide a greater “hit” for the addict who has already developed a tolerance for previous forms. In any case, fans and reviewers praise the way Nolan (and the late brilliant actor Heath Ledger) invests this superhero story with “darkness.” I would argue, however, that the nature of the superhero genre itself resists any deeper meanings, either associated with dark themes, or any meaningful themes at all.
Superhero comic books express an adolescent fantasy that is a reaction against fear and powerlessness. A child is confronted with control and interference from adults and from the powerful influence of society. This becomes something of a conflict when the child reaches pre-teen age, about eleven years old, sometimes earlier. We crave autonomy, but we’re not old enough to exercise it wisely. Adolescent rebellion is in large part a striving for separation from the controlling adult forces.
In literary fiction, and in all forms of art that are meaningful and of high quality, the desires of human beings are portrayed and expressed in the context of real life realities. A primary reality is pain and mortality—in other words, the natural limitations of any sentient being or in fact any existing thing or condition. I don’t restrict this to realism or naturalism in the arts. Symbolist or mythic art engages with reality. Lewis Carroll’s playful fantasy, and even the best science or fantasy fiction, engages the human condition in some way that is meaningful.
With modern popular genres, however, we observe a steady flattening effect, a reduction of human reality to much smaller dimensions. In simplest form, genre becomes an expression of wish-fulfillment fantasy. The romance novel or the paperback western don’t give us the unexpected—what the reader wants is the same thing over and over. The good guy beats the bad guy. The woman meets and marries the prince. And so forth. The pleasure of repetitive genre is very crude, but effective. It feels good to see good triumph over evil because it’s a fantasy. In reality, things aren’t that clear cut. Art forms that seek to express the truth that is not “clear cut” are often rejected by the genre lover. The common aversion to the “unhappy” ending, for instance, is really the genre lover objecting to the wish fulfillment being frustrated.
There is a distinct pleasure involved in the literary or non-genre arts. It is the perception of truth. An increase in awareness, which usually involves an increase in emotional presence, is pleasurable, but it is a pleasure that needs to be learned. It is more complex than genre pleasure, and needs more time to develop. The fact, however, is that both elements are often blended together in works of art. Some filmmakers, for example, have employed genre structure while also expressing truth—the results can be very effective. Wishes, desires, are an important part of human nature, so it’s only natural that they should take a prominent place in art.
The superhero tale is a genre in which wish-fulfillment no longer tries to conceal itself within physical reality. H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man had a mythic precursor: the folklore hero with the magic cloak that makes him invisible. But then there’s The Time Machine. It’s curious that no author in all of recorded history ever conceived of time travel before. The scientific and industrial revolutions solidified a world-view in which magic no longer had a place. There’s a sense in which science fiction explored the possibilities within that world-view. But there was also a strong impulse to defy this new regime of thought.
In a popular form of the superhero tale, the main character is a nebbish, a loser who is often bullied by stronger people. Somehow this loser gains supernatural powers. He puts on a costume and fights crime—a hero in disguise. Meanwhile he maintains his old identity as a loser, continuing to be slighted and ignored while secretly knowing that he is a super-powered hero. This isn’t the only form, though. Batman is a rich playboy in “real” life, and he has no supernatural powers, only far-advanced technology and fighting skills. Still, in most cases there’s a “secret” identity (the ordinary identity he was born with) and a separate superhero identity.
Why would this genre originally be aimed at pre-teens and adolescents? Because the peculiar frustration of this group is that they are prevented from exercising autonomy in the world even though they feel the need to express it somehow. And the forces arrayed against their autonomy are so powerful that there is no hope for the child to prevail. The fantasy, then, requires extraordinary powers, powers that defy physical reality, in order for the hero to triumph over the forces that oppose him. The ordinary frustrating life, the real life of the child, is preserved in the story by a secret identity, with the superhero identity expressing the wish for power. (With time, when the readers became thoroughly accustomed to the genre, it became impossible to abandon the “secret identity” altogether. The reader could still identify with the superhero without having to keep a foot in reality.)
I no longer read superhero comic books, for a few reasons. The main reason is that as an adult I have developed a need for the awareness of truth, an engagement with reality through the transforming power of art. I haven’t lost all my wish-fulfillment tendencies—they’ve simply taken a less central role. As a critic, I now view genre fiction and other pure forms of genre narrative, as less interesting, less vital, less important. Therefore I get accused of being a snob, which I’ve co-opted in a humorous way as part of my identity as a critic. Personally, I can’t do much about this. It’s as if I’ve dined regularly on filet mignon and can therefore no longer find the appetite for a Burger King “whopper,” to which the whopper lovers respond by calling me an elitist. But the truth is that I don’t consider the pleasures of genre to be worthless, and I even partake of them sometimes, though less often. I simply think that they are less meaningful and less important than art forms that engage with the truth of human life in an honest and uncompromising fashion, and that an art form that becomes dominated by genre to the point where reality becomes a dirty word is an art form that is in poor health. In terms of film, then, I don’t see anything wrong with superhero films per se. But when the film industry devotes a huge percentage of its resources to the creation of superhero films, I sense something wrong, in fact something dishonest.
I don’t refer to graphic novels in general, but only to the superhero narrative. The notion of the super-powered individual as hero is based, I believe, on a fantasy, and it’s a fantasy of the impossible. When this story emerges from its adolescent origins into the cultural mainstream, what it tells me is that frustration and powerlessness are expanding elements of our experience. The only form of wish-fulfillment that can remedy this is an impossible infusion of power. There is no balance between the autonomy and capabilities of the individual and the powers that restrict him. In social terms, the national security state and the advanced technical power of destruction achieved by the armed forces reduces the powers of the individual protagonist to insignificant proportions. Even the non-superpower action heroes, such as Jason Bourne in the Bourne movies, regularly perform and endure things that are beyond belief. The demands of wish-fulfillment, in short, become more and more exaggerated as our actual powerlessness increases.
The pretensions of a film like The Dark Knight are insurmountable, simply put, because the hero, wearing tights and a cape, is an adolescent fantasy that cannot be transformed into meaningful content since it defies the core human reality of death and limitation. For the same reason, the exaltation of violence in Hollywood cinema, not just in superhero or action films but in almost every genre, is meaningless because it is intended as an addictive hit for a powerless spectator rather than as a truth that actually engages us.
A vital art, a vital literature or cinema of the future, would need to explore the actual power and capabilities of human beings without giving way to nihilism and despair. The superhero narrative reduces all power to the physical—it’s the counterpart to the doctrine of pure force and domination that is destroying the world. Higher art forms present wisdom, intelligence, love, emotion, presence, connection, and engagement as forms of true power and meaning in the world. The hero himself, or herself, has long ago lost relevance to the degree that he or she has lost human fallibility, and with it human depth and complexity. The story that Joyce tried to tell in Ulysses, that the mythic hero was a lie that needed to be transcended in favor of the “ordinary” (yet marvelous) narrative of real life, has not yet been absorbed into mass culture. Perhaps it is an adjustment that must come from social conditions as a whole. When the fantasy bubble bursts, there is a chance for light to come in. One of the tasks of art nowadays is to burst the bubble. And it doesn’t take superpowers to do it—just a commitment to honesty.