Years ago, I did a post explaining (along with a little defending of) the role of superheroes in modern pop culture. I grew up with them, as did two generations before before me. For a long time, I considered them the modern equivalent of mythological heroes like Hercules, Beowulf and numerous other examples from around the globe. More recent examples might be along the lines of a Knight of the Round Table, or The Twelve Peers of Charlemagne. Every culture needs heroes as inspiration and role models.
The meteoric rise in popularity of superheroes over the last decade is a reflection on modern society and it’s ills. We live in a world that seems upside down and completely out of control. Everything is exaggerated and distorted by special interests and the media. This is on both sides of every issue in my opinion. Real world heroes are human and have flaws which are exposed and and often exaggerated before the would be hero is viciously torn down.
People need heroes though, and more importantly the hope that they inspire. They want role models and to believe there are people out there who can make a difference. Since we don’t seem to be allowed to have real world heroes, who better to take on that role than a modern fictional character capable of feats rivaling the greatest of mythological heroes?
Marvel movies are so popular because they give people exactly that: heroes who stand up for their beliefs and go the distance to do what’s right, (or at least what they stubbornly believe is right). Let’s not overlook that everything superheroes do is also on a grandiose scale. The typical blogger may only truly influence a handful of people. Superheroes save the entire world from seemingly insurmountable foes…
The Dark Side of the Genre’s Popularity
Over the past year, I’ve become even more aware of and alarmed by the negative effects that the Superhero craze is having on society. I’m talking about a general infantilization of society at large.
Somebody make you mad and you KNOW you’re in the right? Beat them up! It’s what superheroes do. Hell, they can’t even work together first without having a good brawl to establish a pecking order.
Laws and rules? Those are for chumps. They just get in the way of real heroes and prevent them from doing what needs to be done.
Taking that a step further, there’s the drastic rise of anti-hero characters since the 1990s.
Sure, Deadpool kills and maims almost everyone he comes across, but he constantly throws around juvenile insults while doing it, so that makes it OK. He’s also just one of countless characters with minimal regard for human life. Meanwhile heroes like Superman and Captain America with strict moral codes are called boring.
All of the above, constantly drummed into us via TV shows, movies, and comic books, IS having a negative impact on society and how we treat each other. Even highly respected comic authors like Alan Moore of Watchmen fame are starting to call out this toxic trend. People are be becoming more narcissistic, self-entitled, blindly convinced of the righteousness of their beliefs without ever applying logic to them, and prone to violence.
Or there’s the flip side where people develop learned helplessness, believing that it takes somebody superhuman to fix the problems around them. The superhero genre is hardly the only cause of the rise of these behaviors, but it’s certainly a major contributor nowadays.
Is There A Solution?
There’s always a solution, it’s more a question of if anyone will accept it.
First and foremost, society needs to step away from the idea that “dark and gritty is real!” Reality is what we choose to make it via our efforts. Violence is only real if we choose to accept the Hollywood message that it’s the only way. Reality there is none of them have a clue there what’s real anyway. They simply know that violence, just like sex, sells via an easy appeal to our more base urges.
That does NOT mean we have to reduce storytelling to the level of Saturday morning cartoons. There’s a happy middle that allows for dramatic storytelling without glorifying the worst in us.
It’s all about the storytelling though. The genre isn’t bad, it’s the people misusing it that are. Even with tights and superhuman powers, we can still have three dimensional characters and plots that are more than the newest Godzilla level villain and massive special effects budgets. Can we get there? I don’t know, but I know society is going to continue to struggle unless the movie studios give us movies like Black Panther instead of ones like Deadpool.