Superman and Dehumanity Part VI — On Heroics

Continued from Previous.

Finally we reach the question: Why Superheroes? What is it about the Superheroic genre that makes supermovies better than modern mainstream movies?

The answer is threefold.

First, older mainstream movies, such as GONE WITH THE WIND and WIZARD OF OZ did not follow the modernist and postmodernist tastes which have ruined so many recent movies. Those mentally empty and morally corrupt philosophies had not yet reached mainstream popular entertainment in those days.

So the first part of the answer is not that superhero movies grew better than normal, just that mainstream movies grew worse. This happened as nonconformists of the 1960’s and 70’s became the establishment in Hollywood. Their world view, which I here have called dehumanism, when consistently portrayed, lacks sympathy, drama, purpose, point and meaning; and therefore the films that win acclaim by accurately reflecting the dehuman world-view lose the ability to tell a tale in a dramatically satisfying way.  Dehumanity and drama are mutually exclusive. More of one means less of another; and it is a rare genius who can reconcile the two.

The modern movies that most obviously defy these corroded modern conventions are deliberately nostalgic homages to serial cliffhangers: STAR WARS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. These are among the bestselling movies of all time, and they transformed the industry and the audience expectations: summer blockbuster tentpole movies spring from nostalgic roots.

Second, there have always been superhero movies, such as CAPTAIN MARVEL serial cliffhangers. Not until recently has the special effects been able to match what pen and ink portrays. The amount of suspension of disbelief needed to feel a real thrill untainted with cynicism when watching some feat of derring-do portrayed with cheesy special effects is rather high, and only small children have that much imagination to spare. We grown-ups need more realistic special effects before we will believe a man can actually fly. So technical advances, not any change in the manners and morals of the people, allow superheroics to appear on the silver screen in a fashion that they once upon a time could not.

Third, and most importantly, superhero movies, like homages to serial cliffhangers, are fundamentally nostalgic, fundamentally childlike. One of the conventions of nostalgia is that the audience is not allowed to scoff or look cynical at the simplistic purity of the drama. If someone says STAR WARS is simply too blatantly black-and-white, with its orphaned farmboy hero in a white gi, and evil warlock-knight villain in a black cape, black skull mask, black Nazi helmet, and black lung disease wheezing, that someone just does not “get” the film. The purity of the theme is not a bug, it is a feature.

The superhero movie, along with the crowd of science fiction and fantasy movies, was welcomed into the movie theaters only after STAR WARS made such genre films respectable (which it did by tallying up a respectable profit).

Now, mere nostalgia is not the selling point. GONE WITH THE WIND or MEET ME IN SAINT LOUIS or CINDERELLA MAN or SEABISCUIT are all nostalgic movies, historical period pieces taking place in periods still within living memory (at the time they were made) of the older members of the audience. No, the rise of cliffhanger serial movies and superhero movies are a particular type of nostalgia: a longing not for our childhood, but instead for the stories from serials and comics of our childhood.

And this is for the most practical and obvious reason imaginable: stories from the serials and comics of our childhood were more decent, more entertaining, and, in their simplistic way, a better reflection of the Great Tale of salvation and redemption which makes all great stories great.

Childhood tales of heroes and superheroes are not tainted with deconstructive postmodernism. Tales of heroes are about salvation, saving people in the most literal sense of the word.

The only superhero comic that is deconstructionist, ironically, is one of the most famous: WATCHMAN by Alan Moore. The point of this tale is how spooky and creepy real superheroes would be, vigilantes and supergeniuses who take the law into their own hands, and who therefore take our lives and all human destiny into their own hands. The one character who believes in the stark contrast of black and white, Rorschach, even while being portrayed as a filthy psychotic nutbag, and whose fate is to have his head blown off by God Himself (or God’s stand-in, Dr. Manhattan), nonetheless ends up as the most popular hero of this antiheroic story. Irony upon irony.

That exception aside, what is the dramatic appeal of such unrealistic tales? The short answer is that the realism innate in real drama has been exiled by the postrational postchristian postmodern elite, and therefore real drama can only sneak back into the theatre in disguise, wearing a spider-mask, so to speak. Disguised as harmless boyish adventure stories, really good stories about good and evil can slip past the watchmen.

The appeal of superheroics is merely the appeal of heroics write large.

Satisfying drama stars a sympathetic protagonist with a dream or need or mission, who is facing an obstacle that presents a real challenge. Facing this challenge initiates the plot, whose resolution not only makes intellectual sense but also makes moral and emotional sense, and shows the cosmos the way it is or the way it should be. Characters, plot, setting, style and theme are the basic elements.

Comic books usually have quite sympathetic heroes. Keep in mind that nearly all the superheroes to appear on the silver screen were invented during or after World War Two, back when the nation still had some sense of decency and normalcy. In those days, writers were not embarrassed by patriots dressed in red, white, and blue.

Superheroes are never supermen in the Nietzschean sense of the term, creatures beyond good and evil. (Only Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan of Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN fall into this category, a villain and an antihero respectively).  The main point of superheroes is that they are masked men, and therefore they get no reward, not even thanks, for their deeds of derring-do: when Superman saves the planet from an asteroid or an invasion of robots or something, usually he gets is a snub from the alluring Lois Lane, or a browbeating from his irate boss Perry White.  Peter Parker’s boss J. Jonah Jameson is even more irate and beat his brows even more completely. Bruce Wayne might be a wealthy playboy, or Diana Prince an Amazon Princess, but even they are orphans or exiles. The more famous superheroes are the ones who, despite their strange powers or strange backgrounds, have human aches and pains all humans can sympathize with, and the power they have is never self-serving. Superheroes go masked for the same reason knights of old painted their shields blank before tourney: so that he deeds would be done for their own sake, not for praise or reward.

While it is true that Superman in costume might get a ticker tape parade, or a nod of thanks from the Warden, Clark Kent out of costume gets nothing; and Spiderman in or out of costume gets even less, since he gets blamed and called a menace even while he is saving people. Were it not for this meekness, superheroes would be insufferable.

This description does not describe the Fantastic Four, who, in a breach with convention, have no secret identities; nonetheless, the appeal of the Fantastic Four is that, in a second breach with convention, squabble among themselves, and have problems with neighbors complaining about superexperiments exploding in Reed’s lab, or with the ghastly Ben Grimm he seeks only the return of his human face and form, and regards his distorted super-strength as a curse. The Fantastic Four have other means to retain their essential humanity and human appeal aside from disguises.

Superheroes face challenges commensurate with their powers. If heroes with superpowers fought mere crooks and gangsters, the tales would indeed be the merely adolescent power fantasies they started as. But Superman discovered kryptonite and Batman faces the Joker in order that the obstacles be proportional to their powers. For this reason, in many a superhero tale, the supervillain is as grandiose and memorable as the hero, or more so.

The plots tend to be refreshingly straightforward: the hero fights for truth, justice, and the American Way, or learns that with great power comes great responsibility, or hunts down criminals, who are a cowardly and superstitious lot, in an endless vendetta for parents slain before the hero’s eyes as a child. The supervillains seek wealth through crime or world power or merely want to see the world burn, because they are evil, or insane, or both. Even those supervillains who have an arguably noble motive, such as Magneto, the mutant master of magnetism, are placed clearly beyond the pale by the remorselessly evil means employed. The conflict is about as stark as can be, and this stark simplicity allows for a sharply dramatic plot.

The stakes are always high. Supervillains do not knock over curbside newsstands: all of Metropolis, all of Gotham City, the entire West Coast, the entire world, the universe, the multiverse, everything is at stake.

The setting is our real world, or something close to it, with the exception that, for some reason, lots of men tend to wear hats.

Such a setting places less of a burden on the imagination of the audience, because the expectations of a strange world need not be imposed nor explained.

The style is suited to the subject matter: superheroes rarely speak in poetry, and often speak in the direct, manly, laconic fashion of movie cowboys and action heroes, sometimes tinged with wit or wisecracks, sometimes with patriotic sentiment.

The theme is about as close to the great themes of myth, pagan epics of heroes in their agony, of even the self-sacrifice of Christ in His passion, as anything produced in this morbidly decadent modern age.

The reason why Luke turns off his targeting computer before making the thousand-to-one shot in the plasma exhaust basketball hoop that blows the armored battlestation to smithereens is because this is an act of faith. In the real cosmos, the real world the agnostics do not believe in, faith with eyes shut sees farther and more clearly than skeptical squinting. This kind of faith is by no means restricted to Christian faith, or even the sci-fi flavored Taoism of the Star Wars galaxy ; it is also the faith in oneself preached by the dominant religion of our times, pop-psychology, and witnessed in those holy books of our times, self-help manuals. Similar scenes and themes in superhero movies reflect similar values admired and loved by the audience, without being too obvious so as to drive away the customers.

There was many a ticket buying customer who enjoyed AVATAR for the same reason that I enjoyed LORD OF THE RINGS: the underdog were the weak and innocent and nice little hobbits being menaced by the scary mechanized might of Mordor. This was a film I did not get around to seeing only because several persons whose judgment I trust warned me that Mordor was me and mine, more or less. But the film did very well, not just for its dazzling special effects, but for the purity of the theme, where the meek (in this case, the Blue-skinned redskins) fend off the White Man and inherit the Earth. He is not to my personal taste, but Captain Planet is still a superhero, and films made by those in his camp have the strengths of superheroic films.

I notice I am talking about superhero films, but I used two examples from best selling science fiction films. I trust that where these genres overlap is clear enough. Heroes can use the Force or use the mystical bio-cybernetic unity of all life on Pandora to accomplish their Herculean labors or conclude their desperate wars against  overwhelming powers of darkness for the same reason capes can use their superpowers or super bat-gizmos attached to their utility belts: the theme is that nature, or supernature, or the fairy godmother will favor those who fight in the side of right.

The reason why supernatural or superhuman power always arrives to aid the hero, whereas merely a natural power is not quite as satisfying, is that supernatural powers have a hint that moral goodness or purity of heart is being rewarded.

When the Jedi were discovered in the first prequel to derive their fantastic powers from micro-organisms in their bloodstream, a collective groan went up from fandom. Why? While this made Jedi powers something more clearly science fictional, it robbed those powers of the dignity the moral virtue bestows. If the Force is just an energy field produced by mitochondria (or whatever) then there is no especial reason why the Dark Side of the Force is a Mordorian temptation that will always an inevitably dominate your destiny and consume your soul. If the Force is a biotechnological machine, there is no reason not to use it in wrath, or for selfish reasons.  An archangel might care if you pray, and try to use angelic powers for evil ends, but an arcwelder does not care. Power tools do not mind if you use their power for wickedness.

It is the moral component of the superpowers that makes the superhero dramatic. With great power comes great responsibility; For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.

To be sure, there are superhero movies that either failed in their execution (how can anyone manage to make a Catwoman movie unwatchable? That takes perverse genius) or intruded some modern and relevant theme (such as making Superman, of all people, a deadbeat Dad, who knocked up a girl without putting a ring on her finger) or just did not get what superheroes are really all about (Fantastic Four springs to mind) or so changed the character so as to rob the tale of point or appeal (I am not the only one who winces at the memory of the Cathy Lee Crosby version of Wonder Woman, or who recoiled with dismay at the trailer for the remake of Green Hornet).

Not to worry. There are bad versions of Hercules brought to film and cartoon also: but the essential mythic grandeur of the genre allows, despite our rather cynical and unheroic age, for larger than life heroes still to win the day.

It order to make a bad superhero film, the modernist writer or film-maker must sweat and work to intrude the cynical anti-heroic postmodern characters, senseless plots, ugly styles and nihilist themes which confirm the modern view of life.

It is easy to make a Western into an Anti-Western, where the Cowboys are the bad guys and the Indians the good guys, because the Indian were indeed the underdogs, outnumbered and outgunned; and it is easy to make a war picture into an Anti-War picture, because of the innate horror and inhumanity of war.

But it is hard to make a superhero film into an anti-hero film without violating so many conventions of the genre as to merely make it a horror film, or a film about vigilante revenge, or just some other type of story altogether.

Dehumanizing moral relativism, for the reasons given above, robs tales of drama and interest.  Superheroism lends itself easily to stories with drama and moral clarity. This is the moral clarity so utterly lacking in the modern world. It lends itself with difficulty to the dehumanizing moral relativism beloved of the elite.

And that is why superhero films are better than modern mainstream films.