By the time you read this, Iron Man 3 will have grossed a billion dollars at the box office, with Man of Steel and The Wolverine ready to beat the piss out of more flamboyantly mentally ill villains for our amusement. In 2012, superhero movies took No. 1 and No. 2 at the box office, and it will probably happen again in 2013 (in 2014 there are, by my rough count, about 600 superhero movies scheduled). Nothing stops this train.
So I know what you're asking: Is the sudden, raging success of this genre a sign of a toxic corruption in the collective soul of our society?
Probably! Specifically, it seems to imply that deep down, we are all Sylvester Stallones. Confused? Well, it will make perfect sense once you realize the moral of these movies always boils down to ...
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Superman's awesome crystal fortress in the arctic isn't called Fort CrystalPunch or Castle SuperPenis or Superman's Ice Hole. It's called the freaking Fortress of Solitude. Yes, you're immortal and impossibly strong and can shoot lasers from your eyes, clearly you need a place to be alone, where you can quietly weep and write your poetry about how the world is a cruel, frozen wasteland.
But solitude is a requirement in these stories. Tony Stark literally has to have his secretary perform heart gadget surgery because, in his own words, "I don't have anyone but you."
"Not even, like, a medical professional you could hire, or ...?"
Bruce Wayne travels the world as a loner, becomes a lone vigilante for a while, then retreats into his empty home as a lone hermit ...
"I'm thinking of starting a band."
Spider-Man's Peter Parker is a friendless nerd who can't share his Spider-Man secret with anyone ...
"My God, who smells like spider in here?"
Even when you do get a bunch of heroes together like in X-Men, the fan favorite is always the loner, antisocial Wolverine (and the first thing they do is spin him off into his own franchise, where he can work alone). They even have him turn up in another movie, purely to tell the people recruiting him to fuck off.
And of course the X-Men mutants are collectively a hated minority, cast out from society just because they are different. Shit, even after the Avengers agree to work together, as a group they are alone: They find out they can't trust the large organization who hired them (S.H.I.E.L.D.), and when that alien force attacks New York, there is absolutely no one to help, aside from random cops helplessly shooting up at the invaders with their tiny little pistols.
"Aim away from that portal to the heavens or you'll accidentally shoot God!"
And that's all fine, we like loner heroes (hell, Star Wars even named theirs Han Solo). But here's where it gets weird. In the above-referenced scene, this exchange takes place:
COP 1: "It's gonna be an hour before they can scramble the National Guard!"
COP 2: "National Guard? Do they even know what's happening here?"
COP 1: "Do we?"
At this point, Captain America jumps down in front of them and starts issuing orders.
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CAPTAIN AMERICA: "You need men in these buildings. There are people inside and they're going to be running right into the line of fire. You take them to the basement, or to the subway, you keep them off the streets. I need a perimeter as far back as 39th."
See, because without Cap to tell them, these professional law enforcement officers would have had no concept of "evacuating civilians away from where violence is occurring." These people have had no training at all for what to do in the case of, say, a terrorist attack. Why would they? They're just cops working in post-9/11 New York, while Captain America is an unfrozen science experiment from 1942.
And that's when you realize how hard the film is having to work to justify their "trust no one" policy. Because you know who could have stopped that alien invasion? One division of U.S. Marines. Seriously, it's a few hundred shirtless aliens riding fragile skycycles. Like one AC-130 gunship and a couple of anti-aircraft batteries would have taken them down. "But the cop just said it would take an hour to scramble the National Guard!" Oh, right. If only they had known the aliens were coming, they could have been ready. Like if, say, the Avengers had called them when they themselves found out.
Superhero universe version of the armed forces.
And while I won't get into Iron Man 3 spoilers here, you know from the ads that it involves a battle with an international terrorist wreaking havoc in the U.S. And absolutely no one in the government takes active involvement -- a fact that, as the movie goes on, becomes downright bizarre. My point is, time and time again, superheroes make the decision to keep everyone else who could help out of the loop.
So? What's Wrong With That?
It always turns out they're right. In that universe, it's insane to be anything but a mistrustful loner.
The decision to cut everyone else out of the process never blows up in their face. Their decision to open up to others -- meaning non-superhero folk -- always blows up in their face. Batman trusts Harvey Dent, and it gets his girlfriend killed and Dent turned into a deformed madman. Batman trusts the Catwoman, and she stabs him in the back. He trusts Miranda Tate, then she stabs him in the back (literally!). In these movies, the message is always the same: Everyone sucks but the superhuman hero, no matter their experience or background. Which, while already being a fairly cynical lesson, starts to become kind of disturbing when you combine it with the message that ...
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Tell me if you can spot what is similar about each of these hero-vs.-villain match-ups:
Superman vs. Lex Luthor
Batman vs. The Joker
Batman vs. Bane
Tony Stark vs. Obadiah Stane
Tony Stark vs. Whiplash
In each of those instances, the match-up is between a person who inherited his wealth and/or abilities and a self-made man who came up from nothing. And each time, we're rooting for the former.
"Dr. Douche ... your comments on your enemy's demise?"
"What?" you say, "You want us to root for the Joker, you sick bastard?"
No. I'm saying the movie made it so that that was your only other choice.
I realize that in lots of classic hero stories, the good guy has some kind of special power that makes him or her superhuman -- Harry Potter was born with wizard genes, Luke was born with the Force. But in both cases, they had to train their ass off to have a chance.
Superman, on the other hand, had superhuman strength from infancy -- he did not have to lift a bunch of asteroids to build those muscles. Tony Stark inherited his money, and whatever he's done to keep it, the films go out of their way to make it clear that his life is easy -- he has tons of spare time and lots of fun hobbies. Yeah, Bruce Wayne spent a few scenes training with mountain ninjas, but everything he accomplishes as Batman is done purely with his wealth -- his multimillion-dollar car, a state-of-the-art cape that lets him fly, expensive surveillance technology -- right up until he rides off into the sunset in his military-grade flying machine.
The sunset that he also owns.
So? What's Wrong With That?
You can tell a lot about people by what they fantasize about -- they're literally telling you what, deep down, they wish the world was like. And the seductive fantasy behind underdog stories like Rocky, Braveheart, or Major League is that if you are brave and persistent, you can and will overcome the arrogant, wealthy, and powerful assholes at the top. We like that fantasy, because it lets us believe that our own hard work will eventually pay off (note: in the real world, this often is not true).
But there are three fantasies that a franchise like Iron Man fulfills, and none of them paints us in a very good light. For instance, you might say the fantasy is nothing more than how awesome it would be to live like Tony Stark. But that's not something you can aspire to -- he inherited both his fortune and his genius brain. All you can do is sit around and wish you were dealt a different hand at birth.
If instead the fantasy is "This is what I would do if I had a billion dollars -- I'd do awesome hero stuff!" ... well, that's even worse. Your fantasy is that the only thing stopping you from doing heroic things is that you don't have a billion dollars? You're not really telling yourself that, right?
"Hey, man, I heroically snapped this photo while giggling."
Or maybe it just reflects our wish that there was a billionaire like Stark out there to protect us? And we're wishing for that instead of ... what? The laws and government we have now? You wish that, instead of a government elected by voters, you were protected by one very wealthy, powerful person who operated purely according to his own urges? That's ... kind of weird, isn't it?
"But both The Dark Knight and Iron Man 2 dealt with this issue! Tony was even made to testify before Congress!" Right, and in both movies the wealthy superhero was judged to be right to give himself total autonomy, purely by virtue of the fact that he can. They do not have to answer to the people specifically because of their wealth and talent. Which is why these movies also continually tell us that ...
There is a strange superpower that every hero in these films is endowed with, but that is never explicitly mentioned. Here's a typical example:
Early in the 1989 Batman movie, we see an innocent woman walking down an alley at night with her child. A pair of Gotham thugs jump out and demand her money at gunpoint:
"I demand your money at gunpoint!"
We cut to a shot of Batman watching them from a rooftop. The bad guys leave and find a spot to count their money and gloat. Batman sneaks up on them, kicks one of them so hard that he smashes through a door, and grabs the other one and hangs him off a ledge, high above the street:
"You shall pay for your crimes in pants-shit."
He threatens the guy, then flies away. That's the end of it. It's a pretty routine superhero street crime encounter -- you've seen Spider-Man and Superman do it the same way. Did you spot his secret superpower there?
The power is certainty.
Specifically, it's the magical ability to know with 100 percent certainty all of the following:
A) That a crime was going to occur in that spot where he could personally witness it;
B) That he did not misinterpret what he saw and heard from his vantage point a hundred feet in the air, at night;
C) That the guys he tracked down later were the same guys he saw commit the crime; and
D) That there would be no negative repercussions from beating and humiliating two violent, armed men, like them deciding to track down the woman they just mugged and take revenge on her.
Color Me Badd style.
This magic power is never discussed, but it's by far the most important, as it's the only power that makes any superhero superior to the criminal justice system. The cops don't get to see the crime happen in front of them -- they have to hear about it secondhand, via the witness or victim who calls it in (and they don't magically know if the caller is telling the truth). That's why in the real world suspects have these annoying "rights," because real cops are not in fact omniscient. But that's what's awesome about superheroes, right?
So? What's Wrong With That?
Batman isn't omniscient either. He's just ... somehow always right, no matter how reckless the decision.
Actually, considering his track record for judging personalities ...
As a result, we're made to root for Batman to take over even when the cops are on the scene. In The Dark Knight, the Joker has a bunch of hostages in a building. Three SWAT teams are ready to burst in, but Batman shows up and says, "It's not that simple. With the Joker, it never is. I need five minutes alone with him."
He doesn't explain, because as viewers we already agree with him (since it's his face on the poster), and we just accept the utter insanity that unfolds. Batman charges in, and shortly after, the SWAT teams move in.
Batman's mission at that point is to first beat the shit out of the cops ...
... wrap them in ropes, and dangle them out of the window of the skyscraper (where one frayed rope means five police officers plummet to their deaths).
Why are we more confident that Bruce Wayne -- who is acting alone, with minimal law enforcement or investigation experience -- has a better chance of containing this situation than dozens of police officers who have spent their whole lives training for this exact thing? Why do we, as the audience, get annoyed at Commissioner Gordon for questioning/opposing him? Because the movie trained us that no one questions Bruce Wayne.
I mean, you don't have to think too hard to see how this could go disastrously wrong. Forget about the random thugs Batman roughs up -- what background does Tony Stark have in military strategy? Which nation's rules of engagement does he follow? Do his Iron Man weapons conform to the Geneva Conventions? If a wrist missile goes astray and explodes a dozen Pakistani children in a whimsically tank-shaped school bus, who does he answer to? Think about that moment in The Avengers when Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk and effortlessly destroys the bad guys' biggest, baddest weapon with one casual punch ...
That means the Hulk is a far more destructive weapon than anything the aliens brought with them ... but the team that unleashed him in a city of 8 million people had no goddamned idea if he could be controlled. That decision was made by three unelected people (specifically, an unfrozen supersoldier experiment from World War II, a busty spy-slash-assassin, and an alcoholic inventor). Why do they get to make that call?
And we fantasize about a world where this happens because ... why? We're sitting here saying, "Man, I only wish there was a race of superhumans so strong and wealthy and talented that I could feel secure knowing they are making decisions that affect my life without consulting me. Oh, to live in a world where the people in charge didn't have to worry about those stupid 'laws' and 'politicians' I voted for!"
Again ... this is weird, right? It's not just me?
But it gets worse ...