(April 18, 2019) — “Avengers: Endgame” opens on Friday, April 26 — yes, another one — and someday we’ll know what this deluge of superhero movies means. When a trend is this persistent, it definitely means something — especially when half the movies are mediocre, and yet audiences keep coming.
So why? Why are they doing this?
The first thing to realize is that anxiety is usually at the foundation of long-term, popular film movements. It’s anxiety that is behind most genres that become intensely popular for a time — such as the gangster movies of the 1930s, film noir in the ’40s and the sci-fi movies of the ’50s.
And so, assuming an anxious cause for the superhero craze, here’s my guess: These movies are a response — an unconscious and often malignant response — to a crisis of individuality. And by that, I mean a crisis of belief in an individual’s importance and power.
This crisis is the product of two forces that are compounding each other. The first is the fear, felt intensely by many Millennials, that they are the first generation that might go backward, that opportunities are limited, that no matter how wonderful they may be, they won’t have the economic opportunities of their parents. This is a potent holdover from the recession that was probably intensified by the uneasiness following the 2016 election.
The second is the pervasiveness of social media that practically requires people, particularly younger people, to present and package themselves in an idealized way. Yet all this packaged self-presentation makes one susceptible to attack. You put yourself out there in this virtual way, and suddenly you have to worry about likes, followers and the remarks of total strangers. Hence, the need to band together with other like-minded and sympathetic people.
Superhero movies speak to this insecurity and vulnerability with fantasies of power. They tell stories in which powerless, average people somehow acquire a special capacity that makes them undeniably significant, individual and impervious to assault. Thus empowered, they can fight the world and win, sometimes with the help of others who are similarly gifted.
Expressed in this way, superheroes would seem to be a positive force. But are they? The “Avengers,” “Justice League” and “X-Men” films are about people with the power to destroy the world. Yet each of these franchises, in confronting the question as to whether the superheroes should accommodate themselves to the needs and concerns of the community at large, has come down on the side of superhero autonomy.
Audiences identify with the superhero, as they identify with all protagonists, and so they find themselves agreeing, for example, that Captain America should decide what Captain America does with his powers, not the U.S. Congress or the United Nations. Over and over, these movies tell us that devastating power should be left in the hands of highly emotional and immature individuals, that this is a good thing for everybody.
“This is the fight of our lives. The world is on fire.” The Avengers celebrate dystopia, death and endless destruction.
Ultimately, the superhero’s power is the power to kill people. And so, “Deadpool 2” begins with a series of short scenes in which Deadpool shows up somewhere, unexpectedly, and kills every person in the room. These scenes are intended to be funny. To an extent, they are funny. He appears, makes a joke and starts shooting, and of course, he has his reasons. But such scenes are just the logical endpoint to the murderous selfishness that we find encoded in most superhero movies — with “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” being big exceptions.
Do superheroes cause damage outside their movies? Are they a malign influence in the larger world? Probably not. But still we should keep in mind that most superhero films are solipsistic fantasies, in which a newly powerful person becomes free — and has the right — to go on a homicidal rampage. Other people’s lives don’t matter, just the expression of the superhero’s devastating power.
That’s why I suspect that decades from now, it will hardly seem coincidental that mass shootings and superheroes flourished in the same era.
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