Some thoughts on superheroes

From the editor:

“Avengers” fever is sweeping the nation once again, and I get it. I understand what’s fun about superheroes and about big-budget superhero movies. Spectacular visual effects and a massive “end-of-the-world”-type showdown at the end — what’s not to like? It’s hard not to smile when you watch superhero movies, and so I understand why millions of people have a mindless good time watching them. But yet, despite that, I’d prefer to see something else…almost anything else, to be honest.

I don’t begrudge any of the superhero characters, individually or collectively. I’m not sick of one person or one thing. What I’m sick of, however, is the fact that because we’re consistently inundated with superheroes, we don’t see other films in this particular genre.

Superhero movies, after all, are not really a genre. They’re part of a broader one: “good guy wins.” There are a lot of variations on this, from James Bond to Rambo. In movies like this, we know what’s going to happen: it’s a foregone conclusion. This is the meaning of “mindless entertainment,” and it can be quite fun. Whether it’s *sniff* high art or not isn’t important: people watch them and have a good time, and I think that’s a good thing.

But superhero movies have started to bother me for a few reasons. First, their premise is usually some variation on the theme of “Oh, dang. We better save the dumb humans from another catastrophe.” And then they swoop in and save the day — and you know they’re superheroes because they’re green, or because they’re wearing a silly costume, or because they can fly — and the humans are rescued, yet again, from almost-imminent disaster. If you think about that for a second, it’s deeply depressing. You’re saying that humans are so incapable that they always need saving? I suspect many would disagree.

Before we get too academic, let’s put the sociocultural implications aside. My point isn’t to write a treatise on the padding of our collective national self-esteem by having consistently-American superheroes save the day against vaguely “foreign” and faceless enemies. Nor is it to say that superhero movies foist a belief that “others will always be there to save us” upon the viewers — that they reinforce a weakly codependent “Big Brother will save us” statist viewpoint already running amok in our society. Really, those aren’t my points — perhaps someone else can take those ideas and run with them.

My point is that “good guy wins” movies can come in many different ‘wrappings,’ so to speak, but they’re all similar. “Rocky IV” is just as unsurprising an outcome as a superhero movie, and and just as much fun to watch. But there is no “Rocky”-type series now. Hollywood wouldn’t take a chance on that; they’d prefer to bleed every possible iteration of Batman dry.

There are a lot of larger-than-life characters in existence, and not all of them come from comic books. Many of them come from “real” books (gasp!). Although most publishers don’t publish short action-adventure books any more, these series were great fun, with big “massive global crisis”-type plots…and, collectively, sold hundreds of millions of copies. For people who know me via the Destroyer series, or are coming to this article via, this is obvious, but it’s not obvious to a lot of people. I’m 29, and most people my age have grown up without ever seeing this genre of books. I don’t remember the days of tons of different action series books on wire racks at grocery stores, though I wish I did.

Say what you will about them, these books are fun — and some of them (like the Destroyer series) are downright great. While the Destroyer may satirize no-longer-current “current events,” the books are also (and far more importantly) filled with magical martial arts, histories of past masters, and the constant pulse of a touching parent-child dynamic. Other series have merit, too, whether it’s the ‘sexy fun’ of a series like the Baroness or the gritty, tough-guy appeal of Mack Bolan.

I wish that movies would consider more of these series and sources, rather than constantly turn to comic books. There are so many different series in existence, with so many possible feelings to evoke and so many different plot paths to tread. There are series about tough female spies, about guys fighting vendetta wars against people who wronged them, about secret masters of disguise — even a series about an assassin priest sent by the Vatican.

So why not, Hollywood? Why not pick some of this awesome source material — every bit as fun as superheroes, and infinitely less expensive to produce — and run with it? The glut of superhero movies truly feels like having to watch the Super Bowl every day…and although the movies were fun for a little while, by now they’re getting really, really stale and boring. Let’s have some non-superheroes save the day for once; let’s have humanity take matters into its own hands. Let’s have real human characters fighting real human threats and making a real difference — not simply men in capes saving the planet from robotic destruction.

Plus, there’s only so much spandex I can take, and I hit that limit a long time ago.

— Devin Murphy

May 2, 2015