Why Our Superhero Movies are Great

Posted: December 23, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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The Astounding Anecdotalist. Señor Strawman. Captain Selective Memory. The Marc with a Mouth. These were all super-villain names I considered giving to the author of this piece, in which he insists that “our superhero movies suck.” Then I changed my mind. After all, Marc Barnes and I, at the heart of the matter, agree on the important things. Once you wade through the sensationalism in his article, the picking and choosing, the moving of goalposts, his conclusion mirrors mine. That conclusion is that sexual morals and ethics are incredibly skewed on the big screen. Heroes don’t always act heroically in those matters. Heroes are not bound by law, but by virtue. We can safely assume that, had Superman grown up in the southern U.S. during slavery that he would have been against it. Conversely, Lex Luthor often operates inside the law, but with devious results. Heroic virtue is what makes heroes, not necessarily the law.

That being said, I cannot get on board with Marc’s “beat up the big guy” approach. This approach is fairly rampant in our culture, and it probably always has been. It’s why baseball fans hate the Yankees or Bryce Harper. It’s why people generally have no sympathy for celebs who make mistakes. Often, we don’t like the best. Maybe it is because they are better than us at ‘x.’ Maybe we’re jealous. Maybe we need to take out frustration about our missed opportunities at those who supposedly have had all the luck in the world. Maybe Marc isn’t intending to do this, but what he has done is take the garden and point out a few bad apples.

Here’s an experiment for you. Think back to the last time someone asked you about how something went. “How was your vacation?” “How was your day?” “How are you feeling?” And how did you respond? Did you list off all the fantastic things you experienced? Or did you pick the ONE thing that went wrong. “The vacation was great! Except for that one day in rained in the afternoon.” “I’m having a great day, but someone cut me off in traffic.” “I’m really healthy, although I did have a cramp earlier.” We contrast the good with the bad. Somehow, all the great things that happen to us get measured by the bad. It’s like measuring light by how much darkness there is.

Now you might say that Barnes is trying to be a voice of reason. He’s calling out failed standards. And he is. But he’s blowing things out of proportion. He’s misleading. He’s presenting half-truths to prop up a call for virtue. This call does need to be made, just not in the way he’s doing it. He’s painting a false picture and people are being taken in. The result will be missing the forest for the tree and letting the bad define the good. Here’s how.

#1) Feeding the Choir.

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You’ve heard of preaching to the choir right? Well, this is a little different.

Marc has a target audience here, made mostly of folks that agree with him. Mostly folks that strive for more virtue, are religious, or at least concerned with morality. They generally weed out bad films, TV shows, books, music, etc. They are always looking for wholesome entertainment. These are all good things. It can be hard to find wholesome entertainment. So when Marc’s article comes out, they feel affirmed. They are rightfully unhappy with how some stories go or how characters are portrayed. Marc affirms this. Thus, nobody stops to consider if what Marc says is really true.

Here’s a good example. Every year there’s usually a loud voice or two that complains about Hollywood running out of ideas and how everything is a re-make or been done already etc. These are usually the same people that complain that they have never heard of any Oscar-nominated films. You might also think that Hollywood is running out of ideas. It is common knowledge, right? It may be, but its also patently false.

Every year, on this very blog, there’s a check-in on Hollywood source material. Every year it is the same: original films and previously unmade adaptations account for at least two-thirds of all films. That’s only counting wide-release films. If limited-release films were counted, the figure would be even more skewed towards originality. Even so, most folks think Hollywood is running out of ideas because nobody has bothered to actually show them the data to take them outside their feelings, to say, “Hey, you should come with me to see Gravity instead of the latest Transformers flick.”

The same thing is happening here. We get sucked in. We remember that one scene that bugged us, or one film and we zone out all others. Just last year Christopher West, an absolutely incredible speaker and author, reviewed Deadpool. He used it as an example of how “mainstream” sexual perversion has become in that now its showing up in super-hero films. I too, was disgruntled and annoyed at these scenes in Deadpool. But I also understood that Deadpool is not mainstream. This movie made lots of money, but Deadpool is a land unto himself. Using a Deadpool film to get a pulse on the state of the superhero genre is like monitoring the Sahara Desert to see what rain is like on Earth. As expected, super-hero films did not take a ride down the Deadpool roller-coaster of death, and Deadpool remains unique, far away from traditional superheroes, an anomaly. Let’s not let those anomalies ruin everything else.

#2) Moving the Goalposts.

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A huge issue with Marc’s article is this constant moving of goalposts, this careful selection of examples to serve Marc’s assertion while ignoring data that doesn’t. Even the title is guilty. The article is allegedly about super-hero movies, but then he brings up television shows like Daredevil and The Defenders. The operating assumption is that the title is misleading and that Marc is referring to all current superhero media. Except that isn’t really true either.

Marc ignores the fact that MOST superhero films don’t have the issue that he claims is ruining all of them. Going back to 2008 (a year selected due to the release of The Dark Knight and Iron Man, thus ushering in the modern era of high-quality super-hero films, and also because looking back to over a decade doesn’t do too much good in this conversation), here’s a look at superhero films released on the big screen.

  • The Dark Knight
  • Iron Man
  • Hellboy II: The Golden Army
  • The Spirit
  • The Incredible Hulk
  • Watchmen
  • X-Men Origins: Wolverine
  • Green Lantern
  • Iron Man 2
  • Thor
  • X-Men: First Class
  • Captain America: The First Avenger
  • The Avengers
  • The Dark Knight Rises
  • The Amazing Spider-Man
  • Iron Man 3
  • Man of Steel
  • The Wolverine
  • Thor: The Dark World
  • Robocop
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron
  • Ant-Man
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
  • Fantastic Four
  • Batman v Superman
  • Captain America: Civil War
  • X-Men: Apocalypse
  • Doctor Strange
  • Logan
  • Wonder Woman
  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming
  • Thor: Ragnarok
  • Justice League

The bolded films fit into Marc’s “problematic” category, because their heroes don’t act virtuously in terms of sexual ethics. This undercuts their character and makes it hard to see them as heroic. For Marc’s theory (that there’s a problem in super hero films that heroes are not both virtuous and ethical, so they can’t actually be a hero) to have weight and be consistent, the films he speaks of need to actually have characters who are trying to be portrayed as heroic. Nothing can undercut heroism when there is no heroism to begin with.

The above list shows that “problematic” films have become increasingly sparse in more recent years. In fact, the good outnumber the bad, 27 to 12.

And that can be narrowed down even more. Wolverine, who has never been presented as a paragon of virtue, accounts for three of the twelve. Star Lord is a self-proclaimed outlaw (Guardians of the Galaxy), and Watchmen is not so much about heroes, as it is about what happens when they go bad. That leaves us with Iron Man, The Spirit, Green Lantern, Christian Bale’s Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Of those, only three are active: Iron Man, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Let that sink in. There are THREE heroes that fail Marc’s test. THREE.

There are some significant omissions. DeadpoolSuicide Squad, the Punisher, and Ghost Rider. Marc’s entire argument hinges on the fact that there is a disconnect between virtue and ethics. Deadpool, Ghost Rider, and the Punisher are neither ethical nor virtuous, and have never claimed to be. They do not claim to be heroes, so there is no disconnect. No moving goalposts on this one. And the Suicide Squad….

This is where one has to wonder if Marc actually likes superheroes, or if he just wants to trash them because of some hipster issue. His entire article concerns what truly makes a hero. Suicide Squad is a film that hammers the viewer, ad nauseam, about the villany of the featured characters. These are murderers, robbers and lowlifes. They are literally only cooperating because their heads will explode if they do not. Suicide Squad is not a super-HERO movie. Yet Marc holds up this film as a tentpole for his argument, which is basically like trying to convince someone to go vegan by telling them how good steak is for them. Look at this paragraph he wrote (with commentary included).

“Suicide Squad is the ultimate expression of this problem. We want our own vices to be edgy, cool, and not to interfere with our self-proclaimed status as “a good person, really,” so we make our villains heroes.”

No. No. No. None of these folks are heroes and, like Whitey Bulger or Freddy Krueger, they were not magically made into heroes just because a movie was made about them. They live in maximum security prisons where they will attack their guards at any opportunity. No attempt is made to make these guys into heroes. Sympathetic, maybe. Heroes, no.

This feels good — then we are struck by the inadequacy of the villain to perform basic acts of heroism, mangled as he is in knots of vanity, greed, and lust. So — between butt-shots of Harley Quinn and some Very Good Scenes with The Joker — we raise the stakes to nauseating extremes (you must be momentarily good or else a witch-queen will enslave the human race).

This isn’t really a question of being good. There are hundreds of examples from comics, books and films where a bad guy does something good. The Suicide Squad is not made of folks who walked into this situation. They didn’t volunteer for this mission. They were forced into it. Once there, they were forced to choose life or death. In that situation, survival, not virtue, drives the decision.

Recognizing that the vicious-man-as-hero cannot realistically save the world in and through his virtue, we reduce the world-saving act to an act of technical power (shoot the bad thing with a gun) making it possible for vicious, self-indulgent, lustful egomaniacs to be heroic — only by making an awful movie in the process.

Again, Suicide Squad, not heroes, obviously. But even so, in how many films have virtuous characters used “an act of technical power” to save the world. Thor throws Mjolnir. Captain America throws his shield. If an act of virtue is actually volunteering for the fight, the Suicide Squad don’t do that either. It is an awful movie though.

In a way, Suicide Squad is the logical conclusion of all superhero movies in which the protagonists do not strive for personal perfection, but remain content to obey a few basic moral laws. It is a hyper-powered, unbelievable romp in which the categories of good and evil are shirked off in favor of the only value that seems to matter — power.

Did Marc even watch this film? The characters in Suicide Squad don’t follow any laws. The categories of good and evil are absolutely NOT shirked off. There’s no mystery about it, the Suicide Squad is full of people that can all be placed in the category of evil. These are not good people, there’s no gray area. In an article that decries the duality of the modern superhero, Marc simultaneously complains that villains, who are neither virtuous nor ethical, are somehow the embodiment of this problem. This is ludicrous. Can you imagine complaining about Star Wars and using Doctor Who to illustrate your point? Can you imagine complaining that the characters in The Godfather aren’t virtuous? Or that they are spoiling movies about cops because of one good thing they did? In the words of Harley Quinn: “We’re bad guys. Its what we do.”

3) The Classic Strawman. (Not a superhero name)

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The second thing that Barnes alleges is that there isn’t room for the little guy anymore. Evidently, there is only the rich (Batman, Iron Man), the supernatural (Thor?), and the genetically superior (Hulk, Captain America). He immediately disproves his own claim by mentioning Spider-Man, and maybe he thinks Thor and Wonder Woman are supernatural. They may seem like it to humans, so he can have that one. There’s also no room for small battles. Evidently, everything is a “save the world” issue. He mourns the days where anyone could be a hero.

“Original comic strips were full of asides to children to remember that “you can be a hero too.” If this looks cynical now, it is because our favorite superheroes do not engage situations in which ordinary people are genuinely capable in participating in the salvation of the world.”

Our favorite superheros back then didn’t engage in those situations either! It doesn’t look cynical, because nothing has changed since those comics were published. Normal people have always been saved by the super-normal. That’s literally why we call them superheroes. Sure, readers knew there was very little chance of being as rich as Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, but they knew just as well that radioactive spiders, Pym particles, Green Lantern rings, or the speed force didn’t exist. They knew that even if you were only human, you’d need to train forever to reach the skill level of Hawkeye or Green Arrow.  Nobody on this planet could combat apocalyptic threats on their own. It isn’t a case of modern super-heroes getting over-powered, its a case of mythology and legend that’s been around since the Greco-Roman times. Comic books never told us that we could stop global threats or gain super-powers. They told us to be heroes in our own way. And they still do, and we still can.

These assertions are certainly straw men. It simply is not true that all our superheroes fall into one of Marc’s categories. Here’s all the heroes that don’t, from the movies listed above.

  • Green Lantern
  • War Machine
  • Black Widow
  • Falcon
  • Nick Fury
  • Hawkeye
  • Spider-Man
  • Robocop
  • The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Star-Lord
  • Drax
  • Groot
  • Mantis
  • Quicksilver
  • Scarlet Witch
  • Vision
  • Ant-Man
  • Wasp
  • Mr. Fantastic
  • Invisible Woman
  • Human Torch
  • The Thing
  • Casey Jones
  • The Flash

And if you’re looking for battles that aren’t potentially planet-shattering, there’s these:

  • The Dark Knight
  • Iron Man
  • The Spirit
  • The Incredible Hulk
  • X-Men Origins: Wolverine
  • Iron Man 2
  • Thor
  • X-Men: First Class
  • The Dark Knight Rises
  • Iron Man 3
  • The Wolverine
  • Robocop
  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2
  • Ant-Man
  • Captain America: Civil War
  • Logan
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming

Barnes conveniently forgets these heroes and films because they don’t fit his claim.

“Audiences are bored, quite rightly, by the fact that Hollywood seems incapable of producing a superhero movie that doesn’t end with the pathos-drenched threat of a Totally Epic Wasting of the entire universe. They are bored that the final showdown always amounts to a hero roaring to manipulate some CGI ball, stream, or wall of ungodly “energy” away from the innocent. But what else can we expect?”

Well Marc, we can expect something like any of the seventeen examples listed above. Something like what will happen in Black Panther as well, probably.

Barnes is trying to make a point that all we, and the writers of these films, care about is power:

“The loss of virtue, by which ordinary men are able to great things, puts the emphasis on power — on technical or supernatural strength.”

He wants to have it both ways. He wants to keep the focus off of power, while at the same time ignore that the power is the only thing that allows for these world-saving feats, and that what one does with power determines if they have virtue or not. Any normal human can say “I couldn’t stop the runaway train from killing people.” Our superheroes could stop that train. And if they do, they are heroic. If they don’t, they are not. Those are the heroic moments. This is comic book 101: “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility.”

And speaking of Spider-Man, what’s the deal with this?

“He wants to break out, to quit his “friendly, neighborhood” vocation and take on the slick, amoral cool of The Avengers as they protect the world from total destruction. As an audience, we know that the moment he does he will be absorbed into an increasingly boring universe of grunting, sweating, super-charged schmucks playing heroes for impossibly high stakes and having sex with each other in the off-scenes.”

I’ll wait while Barnes names any of the Avengers who have had sex with each other. Banner and Black Widow never were officially a couple. Banner turned her down. We’ve already discussed Iron Man’s issues. Thor and Cap have never even been seen staying at a woman’s house. Hawkeye is married. Falcon and War Machine have had no romantic interests appear. Quicksilver is dead, and we’ll have to wait and see what develops between Vision and Scarlet Witch (they get married in the comics).

This is more than a straw man. This is just spouting nonsense for the sake of sounding knowledgeable. This is simply making things up with no basis in reality. There’s a feeling of pompousness here. A trace of “I know better” that’s willing to do away with facts. And that brings things to the final point.

4) Begging the Question

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It’s been shown that there are only three active heroes that actually meet Marc Barnes’ assertion: Iron Man, Wonder Woman, and Superman. If we bring up TV shows, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Green Arrow and maybe Daredevil can be added. Still not really lining up with Marc’s version of reality, especially when you also add characters from The Tick, the Arrowverse, and more.

Marc’s taken complaints, blown them out of proportion and presented them as truths. They aren’t. And of course, there’s the biggest fabrication: that our superhero movies suck. Marc’s subjective experience should not cloud the objective fact that superhero films have been very much the opposite, aside from the DCEU. Marvel Studios films are generally very clean and present great messages about responsibility, sacrifice, courage and yes…heroic virtue.

You see, a person does not need to be perfect to be a hero. Barnes says:

“What is true of movies is true of life: When we cease believing in the good man, we begin looking for the strong man to save us.” 

This is, once again, begging the question. Just when did we stop believing in the good man? Day after day there are examples of people being heroes. A whole town got together to help a dying man see The Last Jedi. An MLB pitcher helped a family get their beloved dog back. People buy groceries for those in need. Those very same people have flaws and weaknesses. They make mistakes. But the very fact that they are weak makes them strong. The good is always there to choose. If Marc Barnes applied his judgement of super-heroes to real life people, not one of us would be capable of anything heroic. The faults in these heroes give us hope for ourselves. A womanizing billionaire with a drinking problem can choose to pilot a nuke into outer space, a brilliant burglar ex-con can prevent terrorists from developing new weapons while at the same time being the hero his daughter needs, a cocky test pilot can become the greatest space policeman ever, a forensic detective trying to solve his mother’s murder can stop other murders when he becomes the fastest man alive.

You wanted to see the everyman present in these films Marc Barnes? He is. And she is. They are overcoming their faults and sins to choose to be responsible for their power. And even if they don’t, they get back up. And yes, there’s sometimes a disconnect between ethics and virtue. But instead of holding those few examples high for everyone to see, let’s share the good examples instead, and live by their light, not the dark.

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