A fellow writer just asked a very innocent question: What genre are Superhero’s?
So started the inevitable war of lines. Where does science fiction begin and fantasy end? For those not in the know, despite the tendency to lump these two together for some of us – *who me? whistles innocently* – there are some very clear and very important distinctions. In attempting to answer as helpfully as possible ie avoid ranting at the poor fellow, something – a thought that had been blowing about the cobwebbed corners of my consciousness for some time, suddenly came into focus.
Why in this time, this era of virtual superhighways, when kids are being treated for minecraft addiction before puberty, and you’re more likely to get unfriended than wedgied, are superheroes so popular?
It made sense when they first captured our imaginations. The post war era was one of revolutionary change. We’d just survived a war that, like none before it, wasn’t won by men in trenches but men in labs. Rockets, cruise missiles, atomic bombs, radar, computers, no war has ever advanced technology at such a pace as World War II. In attempting to defend our way of life we changed it forever.
The impossible suddenly seemed possible in both wondrous and monstrous ways. The atomic bomb had brought the dangers of nuclear energy to the forefront of our less than reality checked media’s attention, while the thalidomide scandal in the early 60’s saw thousands of pregnant women take a new wonderdrug only to give birth to children with malformed limbs, organs – including eyes and hearts – and other severe, in many cases fatal, deformities. Science must have felt like a terrifying abyss of possibilities. And in that was born the Superhero.
Across the range of superheroes we see the sciences and their promises personified; the technology of Batman, the nuclear fallout of the Hulk, the space program in Superman. They meshed these two very distinct ideas, found a way to make them work together, advancement and destruction, man and machine, to balance the terrifying power of something beyond the human. In some odd way it makes me think of the old pagan traditions of praying to weather Gods. As if the best way we know to deal with anything this powerful is to reshape it in our own image.
Back then I’d have happily let them march under the banner of science fiction. At the forefront even. Cartoonish, overblown, yes, but in some ways that was a genuine reflection of how it must have felt, of the attitudes of the time. The ideas explored, issues raised, felt real, grotesquely, impossibly, possible.
Now? Batman is a car advert. Spiderman would probably just end up at A&E and Superman is an endless nerd debate about supersuit dry cleaners. Science has kept marching on and with it our credibility has been stretched. No one believes we’re exploring the possible anymore. Genetic modifications are more likely to keep your tomatoes fresh than give you the ability to climb up walls.
And no one cares.
They seem like tv’s in wooden boxes like a relic of a bygone era but in the last few years they’ve dominated the screen, large and small. Marvel’s extended universe is netting billions, with five shows currently running, over a dozen films already made and a dozen more in the pipeline. And don’t imagine DC isn’t fighting back, the Justice League will rise again in a theatre near you soon. Comic-cons around the world sell out in minutes, while sales of graphic novels – their original home – have risen year on year, netting over $870 million in 2014 compared to a mere $265 million in 2000.
It’s the biggest game in town.
And I for one, am very curious why.
One of the fundamental differences between sci-fi and fantasy – one that matters to me – is perspective. Sci-fi is always reaching forward, while fantasy predominately looks backwards. Despite superficial visual advancements much of the genre remains steeped in the past. Batman invents cool cars and abseiling equipment while in real life kids download dirty bomb schematics of the internet. Iron Man may be set against a background of arms dealing and terrorism, but his ultimate face off is still an unrealistically enhanced meglomaniac, one that armies and police forces are helpless against. One only he can defeat. The very idea of a lone hero feels left over from another age, one of Knights and chivalry, when one man armed with just a sword could fell the oncoming hordes. And perhaps that’s its appeal.
The humanity we foisted on the inhuman forces we were uncovering has morphed into a code. No longer just a face, but a set of values that cannot be transgressed, like the Knights oath, they promise to be bound by honour, justice, to put their powers into service for us. The science is no longer important, and with it goes any limitations, now its about power and control. We’ve returned to the weather gods. Despite their hi-tech weaponry and modern setting, they offer the comfort of the past and the promise that if we’re good, we’ll always be protected.
The superhero offers us a messiah, just like a religion. In the modern western world science was supposed to have bested that kind of thinking. While their popularity in the emerging modern east seems to run contrary to their strong allegiance to the notion of state over individuality. Perhaps its because the superhero of today is not a man, but an idea. Of sacrifice, of strength. Recent reincarnations of Superman have all but banished the Clark Kent aspect of the character. While the name remains, everything he embodied, the man behind the suit, the weakness, hopes, and fears have gone. In Man of Steel he was a Greek god in tight white tee-shirt and billowing locks. A rock video messiah, with a kick-ass mamma to match. Lois knows his powers as soon as she knows his face.
He – like all superheroes – is constantly asked to put friends and lovers to the side in order to serve the greater good. In the seventies Superman was defined by his love for Lois, turning back time and giving up his powers for her. He never stops trying – and failing – to win her love as Clark, as himself, a man not a birthright.
Today’s superheroes are blighted by equally unsuccessful love lives, but rarely is it down to being bad at flirting and a bit of acne. Rather they choose to reject love out of a sense of responsibility to protect. The most recent series of the Flash ended with our hero walking into a prison of Tantalus proportions in order to maintain the balance of life, just as he saves the girl. Their choice is their burden.
The Dark Knight reincarnation of Batman, which many might credit with spearheading the current resurgence of the genre, worked this particular angle to mythic proportions, with Batman hiding out as a reviled monster in the belief that this lie serves a better world. At the end, when he does get the girl, he does so after handing on the Superhero mantle. Only by ensuring the world is protected can he become a man again.
Identity has always been an integral part of the genre. Comics were not always the mainstream entertainment they are today. And it’s not a coincidence that the most common true identity of any superhero is the geek, the scientist, the underdog; woven in to their tapestry is every lonely teenage boy, from frustrated love to confusing physical changes to struggles with authority.
With their mainstream acceptance, it seems our heroes have gotten a cool new makeover. Deadpool and Iron Man wise crack like comedians on speed, and if they’re not witty then they’re stacked like – well like Thor. It more often feels like they are the authority – overworked, unappreciated and all encompassing.
Some might argue that they’ve simply evolved, grown up a little, gotten a little dirtier, as tends to happen as we get older. The Dark Knight stands as a landmark in tone, introducing grit, and a lot of grey filters to the world of Superheroes. At least in the cinematic universe. In the comic-verse anti-hero works such as Constantine and Jonah Hex, have been kicking around for a while. The problem is their flaws aren’t weaknesses – saying ‘I’m an unstoppable force against the darkness’ is a weakness is a little like saying in an interview that you work too hard. Growing up for most of us means we become more vulnerable, we accrue back injuries and mortgages, not body counts. But yet again that might be their appeal. Their audience nowadays seems just as likely to be worrying about the taxman stealing their retirement fund as bullies stealing their lunch money.
We’re lulled into a false belief that we’re witnessing darkness, facing uncomfortable realities embodied in husky voices and unshaved jawlines, when what we’re really witnessing is the uncompromising scope of their power. Their darkness reassures us. It reinforces the code, the black and white morality in play. These are men who do not stop in their pursuit of justice, who do not tire of smiting the unworthy, who will not let death or love distract them. Iron Man will not let the Mandarin go unchecked because Pepper is in danger. They will always choose the righteous path, its just littered with a lot of bodies.
And perhaps most importantly in the anti-hero handbook, they choose who is righteous. In Winter Soldier we’re presented with the idea that the entire organisation of SHIELD is evil despite every life they’ve saved, every world ending plan they’ve thwarted because some folk in it had been plotting against them. Yet Cap has no problem defending said Winter Soldier, one of their evil plots, because ‘friend’.
In the current landscape I find that a little troubling. I’ve never had much time for simplistic notions of good and evil or of circumnavigating individual choice. Vigilantism isn’t about taking the law into your own hands, its about taking judgement into your own hands. Something some of us seem too eager to dole out.
The dark subtext to religion is that it doesn’t just offer comfort in the form of goodness will be rewarded, but that allegiance to great power will protect. If I play by their rules, by their definitions of right, I will be safe. The current resurgence of superheroes, the dark anti-superhero, seems to be reinforcing pack mentality, a might is right approach. They’re still defined by their ability to lift really heavy stuff and pile up a lot of henchmen. Even when dealing with ideas of evolution, evolution to a higher form of existence, power is defined by how dangerous you are, how many you can wipe out. They have to create increasingly ridiculous villains and outlandish plans in order to justify the superhero and the destruction his anachronistic powers leave in their wake. Like gods themselves, the battles seem not unlike some ancient clashing of the Greek Titans, certainly in terms of how little they pertain to real life threats. Ultron chips out a country sized meteor in order to give them lots of screaming innocents and crumbling buildings to justify their death tallies. While Whedon had to write a lot of monologue cliches in order to justify why anyone – let alone an alien AI created to protect the world – would ever want to go to such convoluted lengths to destroy it in a time with nuclear warheads, computer virus’s and weaponized diseases.
It may not be that their appeal is quite as actively nefarious as that. But there is no doubt power has an almost irresistible pull and nothing embodies it more than the simple act of knocking a man down. Violence has long been fetishized in Hollywood – and probably in literature and art of all kinds – but its never been as prevalent as it is today. The convergence of superheroes, the embodiment of goodness and self sacrifice, with all these elements, violence, power, the way it offers a simple black and white map to justice, vindication, may go some ways to explaining why they are so popular. A simple, fun answer, free of consequences or doubts. It’s a very long way from its science origins.
All of which sounds a lot like it adds up to someone who just doesn’t like superheroes. And honestly that’s not true. I may be more a Close Encounters of the Third Kind girl, but I was a mad x-men freak as a kid and still secretly want to write Rogue and Gambit fan fiction. Modern incarnations aren’t appealing to me, I don’t like many of the themes driving them, the twisted values that keep cropping up, the stand-in of violence for maturity, but the core ideas, the curiosity that drove the comics that gave birth to them are still worth exploring, identity, power, possibility, consequence. One of the other things that I believe defines science fiction is that it ask questions, rather than clings to dogma and old beliefs because they are safe. Science, in fiction or in a lab, seeks to push beyond the accepted into the treacherous territory of being wrong, making mistakes and not knowing where we’re going to end up.
Superheroes can still lead us there. If we’re willing to take a step into the unknown.