While I’ll admit that there can be nothing more satisfying than watching lycra-clad clods beating the beJesus out of each other, there’s no doubt that the American superhero is basically a fascistic construct. The embodiment of ‘might is right’ and the idea that some people are born ‘special’. I say American superheroes because the phenomena was born and bread in the US. British comics rarely do superheroes. Their ‘heroes’ are the likes of Strontium Dog and Nemesis the Warlock: mutants, deviants and outcasts.
The American superhero has always been there to fight America’s enemies. In the ‘40s it was the Nazis, in the ‘60s they went to ‘Nam. In Watchmen, Edward Blake famously says, “You know if we’d lost here in Vietnam, I think it might’ve driven us crazy. Y’know, as a country”, and in the real, post-Nam comic world a disturbing trend emerged. Anti-heroes like The Punisher became increasingly popular, fighting not for ‘justice’ but refighting and winning lost battles, and dishing out vengeance.
Now, in the post 9-11 world, even Superman has become a killer. Think about this. In Kung Fu Hustle, the ‘super’ hero, Sing, doesn’t kill The Beast. He could – easily. Instead, he redeems him. Yet even in an American children’s superhero cartoon like The Incredibles, Syndrome is killed. The hero may not deliver the killing blow himself, but in Hollywood, the bad guy must die.
Superheroes are essentially violent, wish-fulfilment fantasies, in which characters like Iron Man become the ultimate expressions of capitalism, complete with fast cars, fast women and egos the size of the Empire State Building. And if Tony Stark isn’t a jingoistic enough for you, wait till you meet War Machine.
So where am I going with all this? Last month, James and Alex questioned whether the film industry is becoming saturated with superhero movies. And, if so, is the dominance of the SFX blockbuster quashing creativity?
Hollywood long ago realised that there’s an almost infinite supply of caped crusaders and deranged super villains to exploit. It all began with Marvel and DC, but the appetite for comic book capers has reached such a fever pitch that even indie comic creations, like Hellboy, have become household names. Whether you’re a fan or not, these blockbusters are satisfyingly polished products. Fun, but formulaic, flicks, where plot and exposition are secondary to thrills and spills. They’re a sterile solution too. These are movies made by the Hollywood Machine, written by committee, rewritten, edited, and recut by accountants, to appeal to the largest audience demographic. A Hollywood comic book movie is a by-the-numbers product: the visual equivalent of the Big Mac. But like any successful brand, the Machine is pitching to an audience who have already bought into what they have to sell.
I’d argue that, if artisan burgers – or films – are more your thing, then there’s still plenty of choice out there. My real concern is that beneath all the gloss and glamour, there lies something less palatable. Hollywood has a message to deliver.
Let me be clear. I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I don’t think that the CIA is injecting blip-verts into my favourite TV shows. I’m also a huge fan of – and consumer of – Hollywood’s wares. I think the ‘message’ that Hollywood in general, and superhero movies in particular, pump out is entirely unconscious. It comes from a nation rightly proud and confident of its achievements but occasionally woefully oblivious to any world view but its own.
In American movies, it can seem that the bad guys are always the ones with the foreign accents, that other cultures and traditions are some how lesser things, and that women and black characters are adjuncts. The good old US of A is happy to save us all, whether we need it or not.
This doesn’t make for comfortable viewing. Plus, if you are going to mix fact and fiction, if you are gong to put Tony Stark in Afghanistan, or the X-Men in the Cuban Missile Crisis, then you need a delicate touch.
The most recent wave of superhero movies has attempted to add some depth and ‘realism’ to the genre. Captain America is no longer the unquestioning soldier. Black Widow has become a tortured soul looking to wipe out the red in her ledger. Iron Man is a reformed character suffering from PTSD. Give me great stories, heroes with consciences, and actions with consequences, and I’ll follow you to Phase Four and beyond. The challenge for filmmakers is reinventing a genre that is, all too often, backward, xenophobic and misogynist, so that it can be enjoyed by all audiences.