We love comic book movies. Even the bad ones tend to make a lot of money.
Besides the explosions and action sequences, there is clearly something captivating and compelling about individuals who have superhuman powers. Yet, there is something deeply pessimistic about comic books that everyone seems to ignore.
The central premise behind comic books is pretty cynical: there are problems that cannot be solved by ordinary people or the government. Often, the government is the problem (or hindrance).
Comic books tend to take two tracks:
1. The government is so corrupt that it cannot uphold the law. Only an extrajudicial agent can ensure restore law and order. Or,
2. The government — including its military and scientists — are incapable, too inept, or lack the ingenuity to defeat a super villain or alien invader, and need to be saved by a non-human (defined as a mutant, alien or billionaire one-percenter).
Further, in all situations it is only an individual or a handful of people who bring about change.
In comic books individuality is praised rather than collectivism.
It’s always one super smart genius who comes up with the solution, not a huge team of scientists a la the Manhattan Project.
Hundreds of thousands of troops are always powerless to stop a villain threatening the destruction of city or the planet — one person or several are seemingly more powerful and effective than the entire U.S. Armed Forces.
Comic books dismiss the idea that ordinary people can do extraordinary things, especially when they come together. Only a few people are capable of bring about changing, and they are most effective when working alone.
So why are comic book movies currently so popular — the top grossing movies year after year?
Unlike other western countries, individualism is valued more than collectivism in American culture. In popular culture this isn’t only reflected in comics — look at westerns where it usually falls to a loan gunslinger to restore law and order. And for decades, western books, movies, and TV shows completely captured the public’s imagination.
Americans have also always had a deep distrust of government, and in westerns like comics, the government and local law enforcement were usually inept or corrupt.
Or, if the hero was a law enforcement officer, they were a sheriff who enjoys a quasi-independent status because they are locally elected (never would the town under siege by bandits ask for help from the federal government and receive a small cadre of U.S. army troops). And in westerns, problems are typically resolved by shooting someone.
What got me thinking about all of this is Star Trek. Despite its iconic status, it’s never quite won widespread appeal, especially in the way that comics book have become so mainstream recently through movies. I mean, thirty years ago who could have really imagined that a motion picture version of Iron Man would gross a billion dollars?
Star Trek, especially The Original Series and The Next Generation, are unique in our popular culture for the value that they place on collectivism. The crews of the Enterprise may be talented, but none of them acting alone can solve a problem. The show is all about teamwork and the benefits of diversity. And it’s worth pointing out that in it, the government — the Federation — is always positively portrayed.
I have a hard time thinking of any other pop-culture property that has such a positive view of collectivisms and ordinary people being able to solve problems. One of the few examples, which interestingly made more money overseas than domestically, was Pacific Rim.
A superhero is not needed to defeat giant monsters.
Instead through a worldwide government program of unprecedented cooperation humans are able to transform themselves into superheroes capable of fighting the monster. The film is also careful to balance the contributions of the jocks and scientists, as well as show the army of people who are required to support the monster-fighting robots.
Had the film been directed by someone not as so idiosyncratic as Guillermo del Toro, it seems likely that it would have followed the usual pattern of comic movies: one person working on their own builds a monster-fighting robot because the government is to incompetent to come up with a plan on their own.
I often hear people justify their decision to pay money to see a bad superhero movie because they are seeking escapism, not necessarily quality. But these movies just reinforce an idea that we cannot solve our problems, that if it wasn’t for someone unreal — a superhero — the people of Earth would be screwed.
That doesn’t seem like escapism to me.