America loves superhero movies right now. Whenever mainstream America adopts something that used to be the domain of a specific smaller group (in this case, comic book fans), it’s worth looking at the reasons and ramifications.
Superhero narratives are essentially about good beating evil. There have always been some more morally ambiguous offerings, notably Alan Moore’s 1987 series-turned-graphic-novel Watchmen, but this wasn’t the norm, especially in popular movies about superheroes. The explosion in superhero movie popularity roughly coincides with a shift from straightforward ‘good guys against bad guys’ stories to grittier, more ‘realistic’ portrayals of both heroes and villains, starting around 2005’s Batman Begins. The stories and characters have become more multidimensional, and while this is interesting and analyzable as its own phenomenon, I think an examination of the heroes themselves and their characteristics is a little more illuminating.
Two important questions I think we need to ask regarding the uptick in superhero popularity over the past five-to-seven years are:
- Who do we regard as a hero right now? And
- How do we view the consequences of heroism, as they relate to our definition of a hero?
Who we consider a hero today is undeniably different than who we looked up to twenty years ago. Arguably the two most popular franchises at the moment are Batman and Iron Man, starring two heroes who have no inherent superpowers. This is an important first point: we idolize ordinary people who have become extraordinary in order to set the world straight. This is not the age of Superman and the deus ex machina (which is why it’ll be compelling to see what direction next year’s Superman reboot Man of Steel takes)—we want to see identifiable people struggle for a hard-earned victory.
Robert Downey Jr.’s version of Tony Stark in Iron Man, its sequel, and the recent Avengers has been endearingly self-absorbed and hotheaded, something that audiences love now but may have been met with distaste in, say, the 80s. Of course, current Iron Man still has traditional heroic qualities—superior intelligence and little tolerance for injustice (even if he does question the morality of stamping out violent injustice with violence). Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s Batman is, despite his rule to avoid killing, is every bit the eponymous “hero” of The Dark Knight. He’s a menacing, often brooding figure driven by the murder of his parents. Of course, that’s always been Batman’s motivation, in theory, but the darkness of exactly what it means is on full display in the Nolan trilogy.
So we don’t just want identifiable heroes to root for. It’s not enough that they are ostensibly human; they have to be flawed. I would argue this is a good thing: if we think that heroes are people like us, with flaws, we reflexively think that people like us, with flaws, can still be heroes. This is basically what people have wanted to think about hero stories since the beginning of time, but the way we’ve constructed our heroes now allows us to do it more immediately.
And how to we view the consequences of heroism? If we are going to take from superhero stories that ordinary people can be heroes, what can we expect for those who act heroically? Since our heroes are now suitably hamartia-d, their battles with evil are going to take a toll on them.
And the toll, overwhelmingly, seems to be that superheroes get lonely being different. They can take a physical beating without much trouble, but psychological blows linger. This shows up everywhere—Alfred and Rachel constantly tell Bruce that Batman is destroying him, Avengers Captain America’s brand of optimism is significantly more disillusioned than it was in 2011 Captain America, Peter Parker is a loner even before becoming Spiderman, Stark’s quasi-romance with Pepper Potts is symbolically always interrupted by something Iron Man-related, Bruce Banner is in self-imposed exile at the beginning of The Avengers, and Thor is always an outsider despite adopting Earth as a home. This is an old idea—“It’s lonely at the top”—but it’s new to superheroes on such a crushing scale. Superheroes have always been different, but that has almost never been a bad thing. Now that they’re ostentatiously imperfect, their distinction is a burden.
I don’t know if this is a good thing. It’s probably realistic, but it slightly mutes the message of hope that is central to superhero narratives. We want heroes, of course, but the way they’re portrayed makes us hesitant to want to be one.
On a big scale though, that hope is a central takeaway. Superhero movies are popular because they symbolically show us hope. Heroes are flawed and lonely because people are flawed and lonely, and the hope in the new breed of superhero movies is that these problems don’t have to keep us from doing heroic things.