The 5 Ugly Lessons Hiding in Every Superhero Movie
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 ...
The Common Folk Are All Helpless and Incompetent
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.
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 ...
Only Raw Talent and Wealth Make Someone Fit to Be in Charge
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 ...
The Only Thing Preventing Justice Is This "Due Process" Bullshit
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 ...
Violence Has No Possible Negative Consequences... as Long as the Right People Do It
I want to pause here to make something clear: This article is not about superhero comics -- I know for a fact that there are comics that have explored these issues from every angle. I'm talking specifically about the movies that are suddenly dominating the box office and -- more importantly -- dominating the foreign box offices. So now let's talk about how you never see Bruce Wayne taking painful liquid shits in a hospital bed.
While sanitized, epic violence shows up in all PG and PG-13 movies (The Lord of the Rings never shows us a screaming Orc dying slowly due to a gangrenous arrow wound to the scrotum), superhero movies have it written into the reality of the universe: The protagonists simply can't be seriously wounded. In The Avengers, the second funniest scene comes after the credits, when it's revealed that the apocalyptic battle has left the good guys so utterly unscathed that they all go out to eat at a restaurant afterward. They don't even need to shower.
Even in the "gritty, realistic" Dark Knight, when Bruce suffers several falls that should have broken every bone in his body, he is shown to have (gasp!) several bruises on his back and a minor cut on his arm.
Hilariously, Alfred sees this and is taken aback in horror.
"My God ... your one-man war against an army of murderers has left you with the gruesome wounds of a man who has played one game of flag football."
So? What's Wrong With That?
Did you notice something about that scene? Bruce Wayne, at his most wounded and vulnerable, is still sexy as hell. Funny how we never see him suffer the kind of wound that requires him to piss through a catheter for the rest of his life, or have his wife wipe his ass for him because his arms don't work, or get skin grafts to fix oozing burn wounds on his face. The wounds don't in any way interfere with the fun.
"Oh, no, he wasn't fighting crime. That was just the injuries he sustained during routine training exercises."
Yes, The Dark Knight Rises puts Commissioner Gordon in the hospital, but when two of Bane's thugs come to kill him, he jumps out of his bed and effortlessly murders them both. The Iron Man movies make it clear that when made to fight without his suit, Tony Stark still absolutely kicks ass. And why wouldn't he? He's a 40-something billionaire whose life has been a steady stream of drunken parties and all-nighters spent troubleshooting circuitry schematics. Clearly no grizzled mercenary would stand a chance.
Hey, here's a question -- how many New Yorkers died in the devastating alien attack in The Avengers? We don't know -- the movie doesn't mention it. Of the ones who did, how many were due to friendly fire? You know, from all of those stray bullets Black Widow was firing at the skyscrapers, and all of the missiles/laser blasts of Tony's that missed? Oh, right -- superheroes never accidentally shoot the wrong person, thanks to their magical powers of certainty. Which means that in these films, violence is always the most responsible choice: It is absolutely painless for the heroes, and it comes with no possibility of collateral damage, injury to innocent bystanders, or unintended consequences.
"You son of a bitch. You will pay for this."
"What, so you're saying Joss Whedon is propagating some kind of devious pro-violence agenda?"
No, of course not. He's just telling stories in the same style in which they were told to him growing up. They're just giving us what we want, as demonstrated by ticket sales. That's why it bothers me when the one overwhelming lesson winds up being ...
"Screw the Underdog, Root for the Rich Kid!"
To demonstrate this, I'm going to show you the opposite. Star Wars grabs you from the first scene with the striking image of a tiny, fragile ship being pursued by a giant, terrifying behemoth that blots out the stars.
Shown here for the uncountable masses who have never seen Star Wars before.
As soon as we see it, we instinctively root for the little ship. Why? How do we know they're not criminals who kidnapped a bunch of orphans from the big ship and are trying to escape with them back to the infamous toddler fighting arenas of Alderaan?
It's because we instantly recognize it as the hero story we've been telling each other for thousands of years: A scrappy nobody takes on the powerful bad guys and rises to the challenge through sheer courage and hard work. The vulnerable hobbits walk barefoot to Mount Doom and destroy the ring, John McClane walks barefoot through broken glass to kill the terrorists, the Karate Kid practices barefoot on a tree stump in order to kick the evil karate master to death (note: most writers are foot fetishists).
Now let's look at the superhero vs. supervillain match-ups:
Superman vs. Lex Luthor. One is an utterly invincible, immortal god with infinite strength; the other is, uh ... a balding middle-aged man with the strength of one Gene Hackman.
If two cops can easily contain the bad guy, he's not a formidable opponent.
How about Batman vs. the Joker? A muscle-bound martial artist equipped with body armor and a billion dollars' worth of weapons versus a thin homeless man in clown makeup with several crippling mental illnesses.
"Wait, how about the Avengers vs. Loki! Loki is a demigod!"
Yes ... and the good guys merely have a much stronger demigod, and an infinitely strong, invincible monster, and an invincible, genetically engineered supersoldier, and a billionaire wearing a weapon of mass destruction, and the backing of an organization with unlimited wealth, weapons, and resources at its disposal. They even give themselves a massive handicap just to make the odds a little less laughable by letting Hawkeye tag along. It's not like the movie tries to cover for this -- the best comedy scene in the film is when the Hulk grabs the main villain and whips him around like a rag doll.
Don't get me wrong -- I laughed my ass off at that scene. But then I realized that I had paid money to watch the New York Yankees blow out the Toledo Mud Hens 26-0. The outcome is never in doubt; the whole movie is just seeing how much the good guys would win by. Hell, the only lethal threat is a missile launched by their own team.
So? What's Wrong With That?
First, just from a storytelling point of view, look at how the writers have to bend over backward to create some kind of drama for the superhuman heroes. The only challenge to the Avengers is their internal bickering. The only thing stopping Batman, Spider-Man, or the Hulk is angst over how hard it is to be awesome on a godly level. The challenge always has to come from inside, because, you know, their abilities let them laugh in the face of anything their enemies can come up with.
But then there is the uneasy sense of what this says about us as a culture.
That we are untouchable, baby.
Because we used to root for the underdog -- we had a whole decade of movies in the Die Hard genre that all featured a lone, scared, outmanned commoner taking on a well-armed opponent through sheer heart and determination. Those underdog stories have been replaced at the top of the box office by tales of unstoppable forces of nature beating the piss out of laughably outmatched opponents (even the Die Hard series is like this now, as of Part 4). Sure, you still get stories like The Hunger Games, but they're handily outnumbered by both superhero franchises and other films that follow the same "invincible badasses who answer to no one" template (RDJ's Sherlock Holmes franchise, James Bond, The Fast and Furious movies, anything made by Michael Bay).
And that makes me think of this quote from the Dark Knight, where Harvey Dent says:
"You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain."
Of course he's right -- in real life, Apple Computer goes from the scrappy underdog to the arrogant giant everyone is trying to take down. George Lucas goes from the hungry indie filmmaker to the unfeeling corporate billionaire who only cares about merchandising dollars. In the real world, the Rebels don't beat the Empire; they become the Empire. They build their own Death Star but remember to name it something else and close the exhaust port.
Maybe something like "Happy Space Ball."
And I can guarantee you that each and every person in that situation finds that they no longer enjoy underdog stories -- they know that if they root for the underdog, they're rooting against themselves. When Sylvester Stallone got rich, suddenly the Rocky movies were all about the millionaire hero retaining his title against scrappy newcomers, and eventually we all started laughing at him. But now, we're all on board with that idea. In 2013, we are all Stallones.
"Come on! These movies are supposed to be light-hearted, exciting escapism! It's fun to watch the Hulk punch monsters out of the sky!" I know it is, I've seen The Avengers seven times (thank you, Amazon Instant Streaming!). But here's the thing: After every article like this that we publish, we're bombarded with fans screaming, "Why do you have to shit on every movie? Why can't you just sit back and enjoy it? WHY DO YOU HAVE TO OVERTHINK EVERYTHING?!?!"
OK, first off, familiarize yourself with the keyboard. Specifically this part of it.
But ask yourself: Why is there that knee-jerk rejection of any effort to "overthink" pop culture? Why would you ever be afraid that looking too hard at something will ruin it? If the government built a huge, mysterious device in the middle of your town and immediately surrounded it with a fence that said, "NOTHING TO SEE HERE!" I'm pretty damned sure you wouldn't rest until you knew what the hell that was -- the fact that they don't want you to know means it can't be good.
Well, when any idea in your brain defends itself with "Just relax! Don't look too close!" you should immediately be just as suspicious. It usually means something ugly is hiding there. Here's a video of a bunch of baby animals struggling to stay awake.
David Wong has written a New York Times best-seller that is also one of the all time best-reviewed books on Amazon. Also, his movie about dong monsters starring Paul Giamatti IS AVAILABLE FOR DOWNLOAD NOW ON iTUNES, AMAZON INSTANT VIDEO, YouTube, and any other streaming service you can think of.
For more of David Wong's musings, check out 9 Types of Job that Will Destroy Your Soul and The 6 Most Ominous Trends in Video Games.