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Fifteen years of blockbuster superheroes: what it tells us about our socio-political climate

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This is the age of superheroes. It’s fair to say that no cinematic genre has been so popular for so long since Western films in the fifties and sixties.

As Marvel and DC continue with their historic rivalry, film studios have also been getting in on the action. Last month saw the ever-successful releases of Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League, with eight more films having been confirmed by these same studios for release next year.

The superhero mania isn’t just restricted to the big screen, either. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has expanded into Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Agent Carter, and the Defenders series alongside Netflix; DC gave us Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow and Gotham. These TV series have, too, earned widespread viewership, as these comic book adaptations’ appeal bleed out from their expected demographics to include vaster sections of society.

Whilst superheroes have, for a long time, been an essential part of popular culture, they have moved from the fringes to front and centre stage in the mainstream. Since the release of X-Men in 2000 and Spider-Man in 2002, audiences for this genre have grown exponentially, and studios have avidly and rapidly been providing content for consumption. But what is it about superhero films and shows that is so appealing, that demand is still at an all-time high, fifteen years later?

Now, it’s undeniable that the sophistication of technology and CGI has played a large part in why superhero films have become popular today in ways they never were in the eighties and nineties. Likewise, the number of films being produced by MCU and DC can be explained away by sheer greed: superhero films bring in money, and keep the lights on. Yet it feels lazy to explain away the genre’s continued success in the diminutive terms of another adventure of late capitalism. Instead, it may be more valuable to look at the demand for superheroes as a product of the current socio-political climate of the Western world.

Just as many entertainment and art mediums, film is a product of the times. In the wake of the atomic age came films about monsters and humanity having to save the planet from itself. With the consumerist culture of the eighties, films about rebellion and challenging the status quo proliferated; the computer age saw a wealth of films exploring existentialism and humans’ own obsoleteness. One will note that the uptick for superhero films coincided with the September 11 attacks and the War on Terror that would follow, and to this day continues. After all, these movies are about an authority to put everything in order, to protect the established way of life, a plot that certainly seems appealing in a climate of such uncertainty and suspicion towards those in power.  

In a very US-centric analysis, one could view Batman as an expression of 21st-century American exceptionalism. The Dark Knight sees Batman, an overwhelming force of authority and order, cause into creation a great counterbalance, the Joker. If Batman is America, emerging from the Cold War as the lone superpower, then the Joker is Terror, an erratic and ever-changing face against an all-powerful nation. The one-note villains of the past have been swept away, and replaced with far more complex expressions of man’s inhumanity to man. Likewise, the superheroes themselves, far from being the purely good, invincible forces they once were, are portrayed with far greater nuance and afforded deep weaknesses.

While in large, the heroes remain vehicles for our hopes and values, the villains have transformed from being evil for the sake of evil, to representing and dealing with contemporary threats. In X-Men, the villain expresses justified anger towards social injustice and race discrimination. In Iron Man, capitalist greed at the cost of all else is the primary evil, whilst in Spider-man the enemy is the military industrial complex.

This means today’s superhero films manage to engage in discourse about challenging socio-political issues without compromising the escapism movie-goers so crave. In more cynical terms, it’s also easier to see these real issues be dealt with in fictional worlds by someone other than ourselves; by not being actively grounded in reality, we are not faced with the consciousness of our own inaction to resolve such issues.

Superheroes meanwhile reflect changing attitudes about liberty, shifting between Isaiah Berlin’s ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’: whilst superheroes used to represent the rebellious spirit of American political thinking and champion the oppressed, embodying the concept of positive liberty, post-World War II saw a shift to superheroes being invested in the maintenance of the existing order.

Today’s superheroes display traits subscribing to both positive and negative liberties, simultaneously representing the authorities and questioning their effectiveness. Ultimately though, in most cases superheroes today are content to maintain the status quo and intervene only to face external threats; this mirrors our own unwillingness to look for and tackle faults domestically within our own cultures, preferring instead to aggrandise our position and define ourselves against the ‘villain’, the ‘other’, whatever or whomever that may be.

Understanding the appeal of today’s superhero movies is to understand our current society. Our desire to see unchallenged optimism requires it to be set in a fictional realm, away from modern scepticism. This way we are still free to experience the comfort of Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ history, that there are powerful people who know better and are able to tackle unfathomable challenges that we cannot. Perhaps superheroes are the secular gods of a new world, offering hope and escapism as a respite from an overwhelming awareness of the dimensions of the world’s problems.

 

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