In reaction to the blockbuster hype for new superhero movies coming out this summer, NYT movie critics A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis have a conversation on the genre, with some juicy thoughts on the contradictions between superhero mythologies and the corporate media industry that produces these films (ellipsing is mine).
On national myths of American superheroes and the contradiction with global politics:
DARGIS: On one level the allure of comic book movies is obvious, because, among other attractions, they tap into deeply rooted national myths, including that of American Eden (Superman’s Smallville); the Western hero (who’s separate from the world and also its savior); and American exceptionalism (that this country is different from all others because of its mission to make “the world safe for democracy,” as Woodrow Wilson and, I believe, Iron Man, both put it).
SCOTT: …It’s telling that Hollywood placed a big bet on superheroes at a time when two of its traditional heroic genres — the western and the war movie — were in eclipse, partly because they seemed ideologically out of kilter with the times.
On the rise of revenge in superhero narratives:
SCOTT: …The Joker’s mocking question from“The Dark Knight” — why so serious? — echoes through the past 10 years, when, with a few exceptions, there has been very little that is comic in comic book movies. Instead these movies have mostly been angry, anxious and obsessed with the idea of revenge.
Perhaps this is a reflection of the state of the world after Sept. 11, 2001. Certainly the superhero movies of today are, like the gangster pictures of the Depression and the westerns of the ’50s, a screen onto which our society projects its fears and dreams. But I also think that the grimness arises from another source. When hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, it is never a laughing matter.
On the corporate, commercial power of superhero stories:
SCOTT: There is something paradoxical about the modern ascendance of the superhero: world domination is what these guys were born to fight, and here they are chasing after it in a fairly literal way… Far from being an underdog genre defended by a scrappy band of cultural renegades, the superhero spectacle represents a staggering concentration of commercial, corporate power. The ideology supporting this power is a familiar kind of disingenuous populism. The studios are just giving the people what they want! Foolproof evidence can be found in the box office returns: a billion dollars! Who can argue with that? Nobody really does.
On today’s contradiction of more tech but less choice:
DARGIS: We’re at a paradoxical moment when new digital technologies have created more and more stuff, movies included, even as the consolidation of the media gives us fewer real choices.
On how American superhero movies reify an outdated status quo of American democracy & problematic gender roles:
SCOTT: …And much as they may fetishize courage and individualism, these movies are above all devoted to the protection of a status quo only tangentially (or tendentiously) related to truth, justice and the American Way. The DC and Marvel superheroes, champions of democracy in the ’40s and ’50s and pop rebels in the
’60s and ’70s, have become, in the 21st century, avatars of reaction.
DARGIS: …For all the technological innovations, the groovy new Bat cycles and codpieces, superhero movies just recycle variations on gender stereotypes that were in circulation back in the late 1930s, when
Superman and Batman first hit. The world has moved on — there’s an African-American man in the Oval Office, a woman is the secretary of state — but the movie superhero remains stuck in a pre-feminist, pre-civil rights logic that dictates that a bunch of white dudes, as in “The Avengers,” will save the world for the grateful multiracial, multicultural multitudes. What a bunch of super-nonsense.
Also, I love Nathan Fox’s graphic for this piece (see above), which gets eclipsed by the movie stills on the article page. My only edit would be instead of having superheroes on a blank, iceberg-like terrain, I would have used a globe with the characters leaping from the US. But I tend for the obvious with these sorts of things: maybe the camera guy’s ostensibly American gym socks are enough to express the push for global cultural hegemony.