I now find myself taking my son to birthday parties where all the kids are dressed as tiny, ultra-violent technicolor fascists. Disney has succeeded in making American superheroes an expected part of small children’s lives all over the world.
I hate that American superheroes are so boringly unrealistic. No human on the planet, if suddenly granted magical powers, would become Spiderman. There’s no part of Batman’s journey from billionaire to leaping-around-the-streets-at-night-hitting-people that makes sense.
Why did Americans fall so hard for their superhero mythology? Maybe it’s a consequence of millions of children growing up with the comics as their only literature. When it comes to superheroes, it’s as if America has a blind spot. The comics made by Marvel and DC are bizarrely naive and the resulting films like Superman unbearably straightfaced.
In the 70’s they thought making superheroes psychedelic might give them depth. By the 80’s they’d taken the whole thing to its logical conclusion: anyone acting like these ‘heroes’ must be a psychopath; so the stories got darker, but they still couldn’t break free from the internal contradictions. Things didn’t change until they imported British writers – like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison – who were free from the constraints of the mythology and could see it for what it really was. These guys came from a tradition that created 2000AD comics, where Judge Dredd is an explicit fascist and the stories are about abuse and corruption. They weren’t going to be able to take ‘superheroes’ at face value, without any sense of irony or social commentary. So Alan Moore wrote Watchmen and killed the genre by taking it seriously for the first time. For a few years afterwards others had fun with the corpse and got a few books out of it (Flex Mentallo is a good one), it was easier to write non-boring stories now the spell had been broken.
Post-Watchmen, there were some good superhero movies. One successful approach was to acknowledge the high camp of the premise, like Tim Burton’s Batman films. Another was to just go full anti-hero like Wesley Snipes' Blade. And that was that, until the new batch of Marvel movies came along and repackaged the whole thing to sell to a new generation of kids. Relieved of irony, the movies were free once more to pretend that it was totally normal to hero-worship besuited fascists. And now my son’s school asks him to come to sports day dressed up as a character who preaches violence as a solution to the world’s problems.
I wouldn’t mind so much if it was at least good fascist art. “Of course,” I can hear you saying, “in these stories the superheroes represent more than people.” They represent the fascist ubermensch, ruling the world. Maybe ‘Iron man’ is America with nukes, feeling insecure about its position in the world. Even if I accept this obviously retrofitted meta-narrative, the stories are still bad allegories. The world has plenty of religions, there’s nothing much to learn from more stories about unrealistic gods beating up aliens. The only point behind endlessly repeating the same stories is to comment on today’s culture. However, when you’re so wrapped up in it that neither the writers nor the audience can admit that the story is allegorical, the irony is lost. Religions suffer from the same problem. Unable to step outside of their faith and see their religion in the context of wider culture, believers miss the lessons in their own doctrine. And they end up making bad art. I guess I’m saying Marvel movies are the cinematic equivalent of plastic figurines of the Virgin Mary covered in flashing LEDs.