Illustration: Adeline Pericart
Paul Lynch explores why superheroes movies are no longer films for our times. – continuing Film Ireland‘s ‘Sounding Off‘ section – the place for debate and discussion on the topics that you find most compelling.
The long winter is almost over. Jack Frost is retreating his icy fingers. And the superhero movie is coming out of hibernation. If only it would stay there for good. For after 70 years of thump and thunder, crash and clamour, the superhero movie has outstayed its welcome.
Since the start of the 2000s, superhero fan boys and the cinema-going public have never had it so good. The era of incredible CGI ushered in a decade of superhero movies in a way that just wasn’t possible before. Mostly it’s been a run of diminishing returns, but there have been some classics: from Sam Raimi’s takes on Spider-Man to the juggernauts that were Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, the genre has hinted at adolescence.
These films have built upon the foundations of superhero films from the 1940s. Those old serials laid down the names we know and love today — Batman, Superman and lesser favourites such as Captain America. What marked those films out was that they were films made for kids.
And there lies the rub: today’s superhero movies might prowl on the surface like more sophisticated beasts, but underneath they are still the same: they operate within a simple world of black versus white, good versus evil. Despite their largely adult following, they are still movies that see the world like children.
The rebirth of the modern superhero movie goes hand-in-hand with the era of the Republican Neo-Cons. George W. Bush made their credo simple: it was ‘us versus them’. Their good versus evil approach to foreign policy was disastrous. It failed to see the world as a vastly complex place, and looked upon the Middle East with the naivety of a child. The repercussions have been enormous. America’s heavy borrowing to fund two wars has helped prolong the world economic crash. And in this more challenging era, it’s not hard to see that superhero movies are no longer films for our times.
If the superhero genre has a forefather, it is the western. The genre began in the silent era and spent a good three decades providing moral comfort food: good guys faced off against bad guys and civilization was allowed to thrive. Wholesome morality was the only game in town.
But after World War Two, the western had to rise to the challenge of meeting a new, hard-bitten cynicism. Watch the development of Anthony Mann’s westerns over the 1950s: beginning with Winchester ‘73, Mann darkened the genre, roiling it with moral ambiguity and psychological complexity. He blurred the boundaries of who was good and who was bad.
Those films paved the way for John Ford in 1956 to make The Searchers — a John Wayne vehicle with an unambiguous racist as a hero. By the 1970s, the genre was a different animal: heroes weren’t heroes at all; westerns were populated by amoral assholes. The terrain had become a lawless, evolutionary plain of moral relativism where good and evil did not exist. Much like the real world then.
As the dominant Hollywood genre, can superhero films rise to the challenge of representing these complex times? I doubt it. Rewatching the genre’s greatest achievement, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, you can sense Nolan pushing at the boundaries. He gave Batman very dark shades, but in the end, darkness was something Batman had to shake off.
For there is a code governing the form of superhero movies. And there are rules the viewer brings to it, built on the belief that our heroes, unlike ourselves, cannot be corrupt and that good must always remain strong and true over evil. You can shade character, you can make heroes into temporary outlaws, but the outcome must remain the same.
Can a superhero film transcend genre under such strictures? It seems unlikely. After 70 years of doing battle with evil, the superhero genre remains the Peter Pan of the movies: it is incapable of growing up.
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