why americans love superheroes
escapism and rescue fantasies
September 14, 2011
Why is the coming year so packed with blockbuster superhero films? It’s not just the action–it’s a deep need in the American psyche.
A near-lifesize replica of Milla Jovovich as Alice in “Resident Evil.” Of course.
Photo Credit: PopCultureGeek.com at Flickr
Over the course of the next year, a disproportionate number of superhero-centric movies are scheduled for release. This has much to do with both the increasing American appetite for glossy comic-book blockbusters and the nigh-guaranteed huge profits they’ll rake in, but there’s also something deeper involved: a need for a solution in a time of perpetual American crisis.
In a twisted way, it’s the same reason so many people have turned to the Tea Party: a distant desire for a fantasy world that won’t and can’t exist (for reasons of decency or, in the case of superheros, the limitations of physics). It’s not really to say that average Americans want to be rescued as if by magic, per se, but in times like these, the twin desires for a hero and need for escapism are exceptionally powerful when paired.
That at least partly explains the glut of superhero action films, revising history and the political narrative either for better (Iron Man 2) or for worse (Captain America). But what specific wish fulfillment are these films aspiring toward? Here’s a look at the big superhero flicks forthcoming, and our armchair analysis of how they fit in the puzzle of the American psyche.
1. Marvel’s The Avengers (5/12)
PLOT: Just imagining this film is enough to bring a spittle of drool to even the vague comic book fan, and said drool is flavored like money: the flick stars Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Chris Evans as Captain of America, Scarlett Johanssen as Black Widow, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Incredible Hulk, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor, among others. Together, the powerful shadow-saviors known as SHIELD will save the earth from a shadowy band of terrorists “threatening global security.”
WISH FULFILLMENT: Too soon to completely tell what the threat will represent for us (the most comprehensive teaser thus far simply involves a logo and Samuel Jackson’s voiceover). The most obvious choice would be Al Qaeda, and the desire to wipe out the threat in one fell swoop, were that a dream at all possible by force. But because it is written and directed by Buffy creator Joss Whedon (more nerd crack), who leans liberal—and given the “evil defense contractors” subplot of Iron Man 2—we’re betting on this super-superhero film to be a kind of alternate universe for progressives, where triumph of the underdog trumps moral ambiguity.
2. Man of Steel (6/13)
PLOT: Superman (as envisioned by Zack Snyder) fights two surviving fellow Kryptonians.
WISH FULFILLMENT: Superman is an intense part of American mythos. One of the most important literary characters of the 20th century, he’s helped both reflect and define who we would like to be. So it makes sense that this is more of a Civil War narrative—brother fighting brother, etc—in an era when the country is split in two. Of course, by the time it comes out, we’ll be six months post-inauguration, Obama or otherwise, so the film’s purported sub-storyline—Superman’s existential crisis—will likely be appropriate either way. But it should also be noted that Superman—an undocumented immigrant from the planet Krypton—is the favorite superhero of presidential candidate Rick Perry. If the writers of Man of Steel have any mettle, they’ll include his undocumented status. Invasive TSA patdown, perhaps?
3. The Dark Knight Rises (6/12)
PLOT: Christian Bale’s chainsmoker-voiced, rogue Batman fights off evil, Bane and Catwoman.
WISH FULFILLMENT: Because the first installment of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight was shadowed by the showstopping performance and subsequent tragic death of Heath Ledger, the function of the actual Batman character was obscured by the concept of a tragically crazed, sociopathic mass murderer. But it’s a good time to reimagine Batman’s place in our American psyche. He, too, is a damaged man, changed forever by the brutal murder of his parents, and motivated solely almost by that—a force for good who might not be wholly trustworthy, but he’s the only thing we’ve got. The majority of Democrats, anyone?
4. Twilight: Breaking Dawn (11/11)
PLOT: Magical vampire Edward and human cool-girl Bella finally get hitched, and she gets pregnant after doing it one time, which makes her vulnerable to Jacob and the werewolf pack.
WISH FULFILLMENT: Books can and will be written about this. Though Edward is not a typical superhero, he is a special vampire whose job is to rescue his betrothed. The sex parts are one thing—two modern teenagers who only have sex after marriage, as written by an avowed Mormon—but the concept of two strong men fighting over one vulnerable woman is a Disney-classic dreamscape. For women and girls everywhere, it’s a standard fairy tale of forbidden love and male rescue, designed to mirror and reaffirm our socialization into gendered saving. There’s a reason women like me can both critique it from a distance and are dying to see it, and it ain’t just Robert Pattinson’s beautiful mug.
5. Resident Evil: Retribution (9/12)
PLOT: The fifth in the series based on the insanely popular video game, Milla Jovovich’s superpowered Alice elevates the skimpy-outfitted life savior from Tomb Raider status to a sole survivor of apocalyptic reaches, in a role that is more often afforded to men. (Interestingly, the series has tanked with critics, but raked in fan dough.) So far, the series has Alice rescuing survivors of a global outbreak of deadly viruses, fighting off evil zombies and humans in a horrific dystopia.
WISH FULFILLMENT: Along with the apocalyptic storyline, which appeals to the more doomsday-foreboding feeling of those of us following climate change, Alice represents the deep-seated desire for true exceptionalism—not that we, as a country, are somehow better, but that we, as individuals, will somehow magically survive the end of the world, if only because of our own inability to imagine otherwise. The survivalist aspects of both the video game and the film are stark, as well—inherently militant, yet inherently good, there’s a justification for lawlessness within the plot. Maybe a way for us to somehow comprehend the incomprehensible real-life wars the country continues to engage in.