A call to abolish them is completely misguided
The other day I came across this article, which reviews the claim of film critic David Denby that our society needs rescuing from our obsession with superheroes, and that the movie business never will be mature and realistic until it stops focusing on fantasies like these. As if a future where people only told realistic stories was somehow desirable. This is an utterly ridiculous call, because human society has created superheroes for thousands and thousands of years. Why on earth would we collectively ignore the way our mind works? Stories of fantastic powers and superhuman doings are not necessarily dumbed down stories for the lowest common denominator.
Of course I don’t mean humanity has been inventing guys in spandex flying through the air for thousands of years. But we’ve never been able to resist giving characters in our stories super-human abilities. Even in stories where Achilles was not dipped into the river Styx (ie: The Iliad), he has super-human fighting ability – not just because good fights make a good story (see, humans haven’t changed much), but also because we’d like to see what such a super-good fighter would be like. Beowulf was the only man courageous enough to fight a rampaging dragon, showing what could happen if we could overcome our natural-enough inclination to run away. King Arthur gets to show off what a ‘perfect king’ might be like. Paul Bunyan gets to be gigantic. All in all, people throughout history weren’t shy about inserting unbelievable characteristics into otherwise somewhat-realistic stories. And I don’t think things have changed much. People with special abilities – Superman, Spiderman, Harry Potter – still fill our stories. And I don’t think that needs to change. Just because a story is a fantastic story, doesn’t necessarily indicate our society’s literature or film culture is does not realistically “reflect the soul” of North America.
Because superheroes give us a picture of what rising above our circumstances could look like. They can get past all our frustrating limitations in a way no one else has the power too. And because they can do that, they can also examine if what we think we want would turn out to be a good thing after all. Let’s take Achilles, the supreme realization of someone who hit all the targets for a perfect hero in ancient, ancient Greece. (To us, he comes off as a self-centered jerk, but trust me, to them that was apparently what their heroic ethos required). Does that make him happy? No, throughout The Iliad, he is continually placed in situations that make him furiously angry, as a result of living up to this ideal. And our modern superheroes fill the same function. Want the ability to make all those criminals who get away with evil crimes to pay? Well, there’s responsibility that comes with that. And would it actually make the world a better place?
So we get the hope that comes with watching someone rise above petty human circumstances, and do what we can only dream of. But we can also see that consequences of what this would be like, without have to bear the responsibility for that ourselves.
And this is unrealistic? I suppose what Denby means in the article I linked above is that we can use this type of thing as an escape from reality, to avoid facing what’s actually wrong with our society right now. Presumably he thinks we should have more movies (movies are the focus of his piece, actually) that deal with human limitations, our inability to reach perfection. Facing our problems is the only way to deal with them, and so on. But isn’t there room for both? Humans need to look up to something, and need to have some kind of hope. Otherwise superhero stories would never have been written. Depression can easily lead to apathy, after all.
And, like I said before, these stories force us to examine our ideals. Are men with inhuman fighting ability really what we want to see in our world? How about men with infinite power? Or men with an unswerving drive to see justice done? I think the answers stories about humans with fantastic powers can give us astounding intelligent answers to this – though it certainly produces immature answers as well. Because it’s easy to let our assumptions about what our society thinks is worth pursuing go unexamined. And even super-human abilities will run up against unexpected limits. (After all, the world itself is still imperfect).
So yes, more superhero movies, please. But also more stories on a mythic scale, of the type humans used to sit in circles around a bard to listen to.
What do you think about superheroes – completely unrealistic, or worth making stories about?
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