The Cliffs of Insanity: What's the Point of Superhero Movies?

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I’m going to mix it up this week and only focus on one subject because it seems appropriate for the opening weekend of Man of Steel—a movie already creating controversy—and it’s a topic I’ve thought about a great deal:

Why do we love superheroes?

I consider the question important enough that “Why Superheroes Matter,” became the opening essay in the first chapter of GeekMom: Projects, Tips and Adventures for Moms and Their 21st Century Families.

Naturally, when I read “Does Hollywood Need Saving From Superhero Movies by movie commentator Joe Queenan for The Guardian,” I knew I had to respond, because Queenan completely misses the core of the appeal of superheroes. He claims the current crop of superhero movies are beloved only because they offer a wish-fulfillment fantasy.

He could not not be more wrong.

Some of his assertions and my responses:

“The Avengers (Iron Man 2½) an aimless hodgepodge and The Dark Knight Rises a pretentious, incoherent mess.”

An interesting way to begin, by slamming the best live action superhero movie ever made. It’s not a “hodgepodge.”

Act One, gather heroes; Act Two, the heroes are uneasy and threatened by the villain and each other; Act Three, they work together to save the world from the overall threat foreshadowed in Act One. It’s a classic movie structure.

What this quote says to me is that Queenan flat-out doesn’t like the superhero genre. And that’s cool. I don’t like horror and go out of my way to avoid it but I’m not going to claim Hollywood needs saving from horror movies.

Maybe he and I could agree Hollywood needs saving from bad movies?

I agree that Dark Knight Rises is a pretentious, incoherent mess. It has plot holes upon plot holes. However, it does have two elements that make it worthwhile, elements that Queenan later says in his essay don’t exist in current superhero movies, so I object to his overall logic.

“As Steven Soderbergh recently complained, these films are sucking the life out of motion pictures, diverting virtually all of the industry’s resources into insanely expensive ‘tentpole’ films that supposedly prop up other projects.”

It is valid to say that superhero movies require huge resources in actors, writers, directors, special effects, and marketing. They take up a studio’s time, energy, and, most of all, money. But this isn’t unique to superhero movies nor is it new. Hollywood has always relied on blockbusters, all the way back to Gone With the Wind.

Also, you can make a superhero movie with a low budget. Chronicle was made for $12 million and according to the 2012 box office figures, it’s made $64 million so far.

“It is a genre dominated by the thoroughly unoriginal notion that you cannot trust the government. Even when you can trust the government, you cannot trust all of it. And even the branches you can trust aren’t much help, because they are incompetent. To save humanity, one must rely on a bootstrap operation headed by a dedicated go-getter and self-starter. At heart, all superheroes are Republicans.”

Queenan is putting the tropes of the larger action movie genre at the feet of only superhero movies. In Die Hard, perhaps the most iconic action movie ever, the hero has to combat a squad of villains all by himself (without shoes!) and is helped only by one lone cop and hindered by the supposed good guys, the incompetent FBI.

“Can’t trust the government” is a thriller staple, from The Manchurian Candidate to the Bourne films.

Yet no one’s calling for the end of thrillers.

“In superhero movies, women are almost always accessories. This is true even if they themselves are superheroines. The men do the heavy lifting; the women serve an ornamental function. This is why we are all the way up to Iron Man 3 and Batman 7, but have not seen a Supergirl film since 1984, or a Wonder Woman film ever (supposedly, it is coming this year). The 12-year-old boys for whom superhero movies are made are not interested in women. They may not even be interested in girls. They are certainly not interested in girls with superpowers.”

Hey, no one’s more sensitive about the roles of women in these superhero films than me. Last year, I even wrote an open letter to Joss Whedon, asking him to give us our heroines!  (Whedon, with a freer hand on television than in movies, has a much more varied cast in the upcoming Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show.)

It’s a crime that a Wonder Woman film seemingly can’t get made or that Scarlett Johansson says she’d have to wear pasties to get a Black Widow movie approved or that we’re getting an Ant-Man movie before one starring Johansson as the Widow.

But after slamming Dark Knight Rises above, Queenan fails to note that the best part of Dark Knight Rises was Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle a.k.a. Catwoman. She practically walks off with the movie. Even the main driving force behind all the events in this film is another woman. Absolutely, the first two Batman movies are seriously lacking in estrogen (Martha Wayne has maybe one line while Thomas Wayne gets a nice role) and Lois Lane in Superman Returns? Don’t talk to me about how bad that was. So it’s obviously a problem.

The Marvel movies have made somewhat of an effort.

There are prominent female roles in all the X-Men movies. There’s also Peggy Carter in Captain America, Pepper Potts in the Iron Man films, and Sif and Jane Foster in Thor. Okay, only supporting roles. There needs to be some serious improvement, agreed. Very much with him on that.

However, Queenan’s also slamming the superhero audience and his facts aren’t correct.

Forty percent of the audience for The Avengers consisted of women, so his swipe at the superhero-watching audience is way off base. That he perpetuates this stereotype of the superhero movie fan only muddles the truth. In reality, the facts show a female audience eager to see female heroes and not an audience of cellar-dwelling sweaty fanboys.

“Superhero films increasingly rely on a structure where the hero thinks he is fighting one villain when he is actually fighting another.”

Again, another thriller/mystery staple. And, besides, Loki was obviously working for someone in The Avengers. And the Red Skull wasn’t a surprise in Captain America. The Joker was pretty up front in The Dark Knight. Magneto’s turn to the dark side was widely telegraphed throughout all his appearances in the X-Men movies. I have to wonder if Queenan’s attention wandered away while he was watching these movies.

Then we get to the point that shows an utter lack of comprehension of the current superhero movies:

“You wake up awesome. Not because you did something special like beat Hitler or cure polio. All you did was wake up. And suddenly you were awesome. It is the dream of the fame-hungry X Factor generation.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” is Spider-Man’s defining philosophy.

Peter Parker isn’t a hero because he accidentally received powers. He’s a hero because he uses those abilities to fight for those who can’t defend themselves. Steve Rogers was already a hero before he received the super-soldier serum. The moment I saw the Captain America movie trailer in which scrawny Steve jumps on a grenade to save others, I knew the movie was in the hands of  filmmakers who understood this. Steve’s a good man given a chance to do greater good because of his powers but also because of his need to help others. Powers don’t make the man. They’re just a tool.

Similarly, Thor isn’t a hero because he has godlike powers. He’s a hero because, unpowered and in a strange place, he’s willing to give up his life to save his friends. It’s only after he’s proved his selflessness that he receives back the power of Thor. Bruce Wayne isn’t a hero because he has gadgets, he’s a hero because he’s Gotham’s protector when no one else has stepped up to the role. He also trained long and hard to achieve his skills.

The supporting characters in the superhero movies also emphasize that ordinary heroism is important. Jim Gordon in the Nolan Batman movies is a hero without special abilities beyond a thirst for justice and the theme of anyone being able to be a hero is all over this trilogy.

Sure, people love seeing some epic fights. But in superhero movies, they’re not rooting for the biggest or the strongest. They’re rooting for those who use their wits and skills to help people.

That’s why people cheer when the good guys win. Not because they received instant powers but because they fought the right fight. Because they’re good men, as Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Erskine states so eloquently in Captain America.

Ordinary people can are capable of extraordinary things.

That’s the message of the superhero movie.

The world doesn’t need saving from that. The world needs more of it.


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4 thoughts on “The Cliffs of Insanity: What's the Point of Superhero Movies?

  1. Actually before Super Hero movies became the giant trope… thriller movies were the ones that were complained about being the ones sucking all the money from other productions. And before that was Action, Disaester, etc etc. The problem is not whatever is on top of the heap. The problem is that people hate not being on the top of the heap and tear down whoever is on. But free speech and all that.

  2. Awesome.

    *claps slowly*

    Like one of my friends said, superhero movies have positive messages often, compared to the reality crap and drama shows that play things too safe, and paint humanity in the negative. How many times can CSI/CSI: Miami be all the same thing…?

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