Is our obsession with superheroes actually killing them?
In 1992, Superman died.
At least in the comics, leaving fans stunned.
It was a big deal, leading many fans to question their place in the world, and ask who, if anyone, will be our salvation! Cut to 2022. We are surrounded by all kinds of superhero media. But is our obsession with superheroes actually killing them?
There has never been as much superhero content to consume as there is right now. Why? Well, DC and Marvel Comics have a huge fan base. Studios like Disney and Warner Bros have a lot of resources, and combining the two forces gives them the perfect formula to make quick and easy money.
But, there is a huge problem with what this does to the storytelling. Once upon a time, DC and Marvel Comics would use the superhero to reflect people’s anxieties about pressing political, social and cultural issues. Golden Age icons like Batman, Superman and Captain America were war heroes. They represented a nation’s anxieties at a time of intense ideological conflict.
We first see them fighting Nazis in ways that are laughably and yet lovably simplistic. In his very first issue, Captain America punches Hitler. Comic historian Andrew Wahl explains how Captain America comics would explore American anxieties through the decades. He spent time being disillusioned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, then went on to fight terrorists in the Middle East post 9/11, then got more introspective about that too, as the war became unpopular.
“What are Superheroes saving if aren’t in the present? Today, when there’s rising frustration against wealth inequality, unemployment, inflation, for instance Superheroes like Iron Man or Batman represent a technocratic, individualistic solution to gaping, systemic issues. It’s a bit like Elon Musk trying to realistically solve climate change. He claims he can do it, but who’s buying it?”
The X-Men were hated by most of society simply because they were mutants, despite them not having any bad intentions. Intentionally or not, this became a powerful reflection of popular sentiments about civil rights.
Whether they have aged well or not, these narratives still offered a way to better understand what a society stood for, feared, and worshiped. In other words, superheroes, in their comic book avatars never shied away from politics. Whether in a subversive, or a coercive sense, they offered ways to actively think about and engage with the zeitgeist.
But, unfortunately, now, these superheroes seem stuck in time, debating World War II era questions about good versus evil, without adapting to fit our current problems.
What are Superheroes saving if aren’t in the present?
Today, when there’s rising frustration against wealth inequality, unemployment, inflation, for instance Superheroes like Iron Man or Batman represent a technocratic, individualistic solution to gaping, systemic issues. It’s a bit like Elon Musk trying to realistically solve climate change. He claims he can do it, but who’s buying it?
The defining issues of our times are economic inequality, global authoritarianism, climate change. And when you add to that an unprecedented pandemic, it becomes hard to buy into superpowers saving the day. You might counter this by saying that the new crop of superhero content is doing a great job with diverse representation, challenging the outdated idea of white cis male superhero.
But despite the most overt diversity, representation is often the end itself, rather than a vehicle for nuanced explorations of good, evil and the shades of grey between.
Although to studios’ credit, villains are getting more complex. Take Thanos’ Malthusian solution to saving the world, or Killmonger’s genocidal impulse for racial justice – they are, at the end of the day, villains. More than having us question what villainy even means, superhero films are quick to peddle the ends don’t justify means philosophy, brought to you by the trusty good hero who saves the day.
What day are they really saving?
Some creators are tackling exactly this question through new forms of storytelling that challenge this cookie cutter formula for superhero content. May be this rise of the anti-superhero genre will make us finally call the time of death on superheroes.
[images from different sources]
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