Use Your Words, Wolverine

The bad lessons of superhero movies.

Michael Atkinson June 26, 2014

Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in X Men: Days of Future Past. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

If you’re old enough to remem­ber when an R‑rated movie for adults, like, say Stan­ley Kubrick’s Full Met­al Jack­et (1987), could get a wide release in mid­sum­mer, then you hard­ly need a rea­son beyond your own matu­ri­ty to be dis­grun­tled about Amer­i­can movies this time of year. Who would’ve thought, even in the Rea­gan era of block­bus­ter­dom, that our native movie cul­ture would be over­whelm­ing­ly enrap­tured by super­heroes? They’re for kids, right?

Generally, superheroes appear to be a device with which adolescent frustration and the untamped adult urge to bomb, bash and beat down are not only given expression, but made supreme in our collective headspace.

Well, yes — except that the tweens and teens buy­ing tick­ets when the cur­rent wave began, with X‑Men (2000) and Spi­der-Man (2002), are now adults, and super­hero flicks are the new grown-up nor­mal. With some 45 entries since 2000, the sub­genre has earned near­ly $10 bil­lion at home and more than $21 bil­lion in inter­na­tion­al the­aters, not to men­tion the home-view­ing rev­enue, which can be five or six times high­er. Like it or not, 21st-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca can be des­ig­nat­ed by its wor­ship of and empa­thy with Iron Man, Spi­der-Man, Super­man and Cap­tain Amer­i­ca, just as ancient Greece can be char­ac­ter­ized by its pas­sion for Perseus or 19th-to-20th-cen­tu­ry Ger­many can be seen as a soci­ety idly in love with Winnetou.

Relax, we’re told, it’s just escapism—except, for most con­sumers, escape is the only cul­ture they know. Super­hero cin­e­ma in par­tic­u­lar infan­tilizes ideas of social con­flict, dra­ma, hero­ism, moral choice and even vio­lence, and does so because it has one nar­ra­tive thrust: the reduc­tion of all con­flict and dra­mat­ic ten­sion to fight­ing. Any prob­lem posed to mankind, Metrop­o­lis or Amer­i­ca must be solved by mano a mano brawl­ing. Whether the hero and archvil­lain are punch­ing each oth­er through build­ings or inflict­ing super-pow­ered car­nage on air­lin­ers, the dra­matur­gi­cal upshot is always the same: Noth­ing goes on that wouldn’t hap­pen in a play­ground spat or a late-night fist­fight between drunks, and the out­comes are always predictable.

How and why does this sim­plis­tic spec­ta­cle — com­ing after a cen­tu­ry of Hol­ly­wood movies rev­el­ing in all vari­eties of moral dilem­mas, emo­tion­al crises and inven­tive cli­max­es — seem to sat­is­fy so many view­ers? If you’re among those who remain unsat­is­fied by a 30-minute-long punch­ing bat­tle between two dig­i­tal fig­ures in uni­col­or leo­tards, then you may see the inef­fec­tu­al may­hem as a kind of cod­ed mil­i­tarism, all-Amer­i­can and pack­aged like a Hap­py Meal. Whether it’s in the form of des­per­ate vig­i­lan­tism (the lone­some Spi­der-Man and Bat­man) or of insti­tu­tion­al jin­go­ism (the cor­po­rate-mil­i­tary Iron Man, the mar­tial­ly offi­cial Cap­tain Amer­i­ca), it’s all about boil­ing dilem­mas down to Might Is Right — and Amer­i­can exceptionalism.

It’s no coin­ci­dence that this pop enter­tain­ment phe­nom­e­non emerged and thrived in the years of Bush II, and con­tin­ues under Oba­ma in the haze of dis­tend­ed mil­i­tary involve­ments in Asia, mat­ter-of-fact exec­u­tive drone assas­si­na­tions, and the rapid dis­si­pa­tion of Amer­i­can suprema­cy on every front. Amer­i­cans crave fist-in-the-face pow­er, and if we can’t get it in a glob­al sit­u­a­tion swift­ly spi­ral­ing out from under our boot, then we’ll set­tle for fan­ta­sy mus­cle men pound­ing the evil­do­ers into dust.

True, the X‑Men series, being a thin­ly masked para­ble about the dif­fer­ence and oppres­sion of gays, has a con­sis­tent anti-mil­i­tary per­son­al­i­ty — but its most pop­u­lar pro­tag­o­nist, Wolver­ine, is defined pre­cise­ly as being invin­ci­ble in a one-on-one death match. Gen­er­al­ly, super­heroes appear to be a device with which ado­les­cent frus­tra­tion and the untamped adult urge to bomb, bash and beat down are not only giv­en expres­sion, but made supreme in our col­lec­tive head­space. These movies are one way that our over-enter­tained cul­ture hero­izes its own worst impuls­es — if in fact the sub­genre isn’t an exam­ple of Anto­nio Gramsci’s cul­tur­al hege­mo­ny, a manip­u­la­tion of norms and val­ues by the cor­po­rate class in order to main­tain the mil­i­taris­tic weltan­schau­ung that makes so many eco­nom­ic sec­tors so much mon­ey. Shun these movies, dear pro­gres­sive read­er, as you would shun a gun or an episode of The Ulti­mate Fight­er. There are oth­er sto­ries to tell, oth­er nar­ra­tive forms to stir, exalt and move us, that do not reduce us to spec­ta­tors at a fist­fight. This sum­mer, stay home and wait for better.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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