Unless you have been hiding underneath a piece of kryptonite, you would have noticed that superheroes are everywhere and they dominate success at the box office, primetime television, gaming devices, etc. This phenomenon is not insignificant nor without cultural influence.
Before I end up stirring superhero fans everywhere into a Hulk-like rage and receiving a lifetime ban from Comic-Con, I want to state two provisos up front. First, I like superhero movies. They are entertaining, fun, and promote some great values like honesty and courage. The following is not intended to argue that the superhero genre be abandoned or boycotted, simply that viewers consider the full spectrum of issues they raise. Second, although there are exceptions to all the following, they are, by necessity, based on generalizations.
With Batman-like brevity, the following argues that these messages, values, and realities are not all positive or benign. To that end, here are five reasons why superhero movies are not all that super:
#1: Superhero movies portray that villains and heroes look differently and have different powers than you.
Watch an average scene from a superhero movie and there is no ambiguity of who the superhero or super villain is. They are identified by a unique costume and/or a unique superpower. This is why no one mistakes Superman with Lex Luther – everyone knows all bald men in business suits are evil.
Granted, it is part of the storytelling mechanism to clearly identify whom the heroes and villains are, but this is very different than real life. In real life, the heroes among us look just like us. Real life heroes are firemen/firewomen who step into a raging fire without the supernatural ability to withstand it, teachers who work endless hours without super strength, and cancer patients who are injected with radioactive material in a heroic fight for life. Heroes live in plain sight and are everyday people.
Disturbingly, the opposite is also true. Sexual predators, murderers, thieves, etc. don’t wear costumes to display their evil intent. The truth is much scarier than that: real life villains look just like us and live in plain sight. Everyday villains, like everyday heroes, are everyday people.
#2 Superhero movies too easily separate people into categories of good and evil.
The simplistic moral compass of a classic superhero movie is easy to storyline but it can portray good and evil in too simplistic of terms. This simplistic view of the world can easily place people in an “us versus them” posture without recognizing the complexity of human problems and the nature of good and evil. This is why the writing of the TV show “Breaking Bad” was so compelling – it recognized the moral complexity that exists in everyday life.
#3 Superhero movies portray average as insignificant.
Superhero movies have a propensity to make average seem insignificant. The temptation is to watch and assume that since one doesn’t have a superpower, one can’t change the world, be an agent of good, or tackle injustice. The reality is that this has always been, and will always be, done by average ordinary people. We can’t wait for superheroes to change the world because we are the agents of change the world desperately needs.
The problems of injustice, poverty, and inequality do not need just one person with the angry green power of the Hulk, the utility belt of Batman, or the Hammer of Thor. Instead, it needs average ordinary people joining together to fight injustice, poverty, and inequality with the collective power of their everyday choices and voices.
#4 Superhero movies ignore the moral dilemma of collateral damage.
In superhero movies it isn’t odd to see the actions of the hero indirectly kill innocent victims as a matter of collateral damage. The simplistic moral storyline may necessitate this, but its occurrence, without consideration of the moral dilemma it causes, is concerning. Is it okay for a superhero to kill or risk the lives of other people in order to save someone else? Does the ends justify the means?
#5 Superhero movies promote and elevate a compartmentalized view of life.
Whether we are talking about Batman (Bruce Wayne), Spiderman (Peter Parker), or Superman (Clark Kent), one of the traditional and common traits of superheroes is that they have two identities – an alter ego. They are seen to be ‘mild mannered’ by day and ‘courageous’ by night, promoting the false belief that these two traits are somehow incompatible with each other.
Being two different people, depending on the situation, is not a trait to be fostered. True heroes don’t have alter egos and costumes. True heroes are the same good men and women in public as they are in private. These are the kind of heroes our world needs.
Superhero movies are entertaining and fun but the nature of this popular genre affirms and promotes values that we need to be critically aware of as we enjoy them. We need to view the superhero genre with a metaphorical x-ray vision and critically reflect on what is happening below the surface.