Superheroes are starting to bug me

All those Sharpie-bright spandex boys have helped Hollywood off an awkward hook

Superheroes are starting to bug meNo disrespect to Wolverine, who’s the hottest Canadian at the box office since Mary Pickford (even if they do need an Australian to play him), but I wonder about this superhero business. They’ve been cleaning up at the multiplex ever since the dawn of the millennium: Spider-Man. X-Men. Batman. Iron Man. The mid-20th-century long-underwear guys are bigger than ever in the 21st. Truly this is the Age of the Superhero. And it’s beginning to bother me.

Don’t get me wrong. I love comic books. Meeting Stan Lee was one of the great moments of my life. Read a zillion of his masterpieces as a kid—although my grasp of the details decades later is generally frozen circa issue No. 22: Jean Grey will always be Marvel Girl to me. Please, no need to write to point out that she subsequently became Phoenix, and then Dark Phoenix, and then died, and then turned up in a pod at the bottom of Jamaica Bay, which was given to Mister Fantastic of the Fantastic Four, and then she died again but implanted her psyche in the body of the comatose Emma Frost . . . I’m just skimming the CliffsNotes here, so, alternatively, don’t write if my précis has omitted many fascinating plot twists over the decades. My point is that keeping up with these guys is a full-time job. And even the fellows whose basic bio doesn’t change much get “reinvented.” The reinventions are invariably the same: out with the breezy guy swinging through the streets of Gotham to a ring-a-ding-ding Neal Hefti theme tune; in with some morose misanthrope hunched on the rooftops brooding and riddled with self-doubt. In the sixties, the TV Batman was camp. Then he got dark in the eighties movie. But then by the nineties sequels the dark Batman had mysteriously camped up again. So now he’s darker than ever. I think the concept of reinvention could do with reinventing.

When I was a lad, a lot of my pals didn’t dig this stuff. Boys who were into war stories valued verisimilitude, which made it hard to get past the capes and tights on Green Arrow or Ant-Man. So, even among the male youth demographic, the superhero catered to a niche market—and a parochial one at that. One can certainly detect, as scholars do, a long cultural inheritance of Übermensch mythology underpinning the Marvel and DC universes, but putting the Übermensch in Sharpie-coloured fully accessorized costumes is very American. Wolverine may have been born in northern Alberta and may have spent many years struggling, somewhat improbably, to escape the sinister clutches of his masters at the Canadian Defence Ministry, but, to the best of my knowledge, he has never been spotted flying down Yonge Street fighting for truth, justice and the Canadian way as he battles Islamophoboman, the deranged Maclean’s columnist whose evil powers grow stronger with every human rights complaint against him. Canada is just a place Wolverine happens to come from, not something he embodies. Back in the seventies, Marvel Comics introduced Captain Britain, with, first, a Britannic lion on his chest and, later, a modified Union Jack, a conscious hommage to Captain America’s star-spangled pectorals. It never really worked, in part because it seems an alien cultural vernacular: the Union Jack is fine on Austin Powers’ Y-fronts or Ginger Spice’s knickers, but looks very foreign on the rippling chest of a superhero.

So the conventions of the genre seemed quintessentially American in their expansive confidence. Or so I thought. Now, as last summer’s superheroics are succeeded by this summer’s, I’m not so sure. Recently, in Reason magazine, Jesse Walker mocked me for claiming to have detected Bush Doctrine subtexts in the first Spider-Man movie while entirely missing the masturbatory metaphor. Well, I saw Spidey in 2002, the day after visiting the World Trade Center site on what was the last chance to see it “as is,” before the authorities closed it for redevelopment (if that’s the right word for a decade of bureaucratic sclerosis). So perhaps my emotional compass was pointing elsewhere. I thought Spidey’s big-screen debut made a case for Bush-style pre-emption in that “the men who killed his Uncle Ben were small-time crooks Peter could have stopped earlier but chose not to.” On the other hand, apropos his uncle’s famous advice to Peter Parker—“With great power comes great responsibility”—I seem to recall my colleague Paul Wells defending Jean Chrétien’s 9/11 anniversary plea for the Americans to “be nice” to foreigners as simply a Shawinigan variation on Uncle Ben: “Wid da great power come da great responsibilities.”

Who’s right? Me? Wells? Both? Neither? Well, it’s seven years on, and I can’t remember a thing about the movie except Kirsten Dunst’s clinging shirt in one rain-sodden scene. Mr. Walker is right that too many of us went looking for messages in the superheroics, and seized too eagerly on the slim pickings. As he says, the superhero genre has a “philosophical flexibility.” Spider-Man himself compared biceps with Don Rumsfeld on stage as part of some Pentagon war promotion. But in January he was trading fist bumps with Barack Obama in a presidential inaugural special. Boy sidekick to Rummy, arachnid ivory to Obamessiah ebony: which is the real Spider-Man?

Er, well, there isn’t a real Spider-Man, is there? Look, I know several comrades of mine were very taken by Michael Caine’s speech as Alfred the butler to Master Bruce—“Some men just want to watch the world burn . . . ”—hailing it as an incisive analysis of al-Qaeda et al. But I don’t think so. Terrorists enjoy the body count, yet, unlike the Joker, they do have an end rather than just means. The notion that they merely “want to watch the world burn” is more readily applied to your average Hollywood studio. For almost a decade, the summer blockbusters have avoided saying anything about terrorism, Islam, 9/11, Bali, Beslan, Madrid or London, but they do like to “watch the world burn.” And so they opt for explosions and fireballs and shattering glass and screaming civilians unmoored from any recognizable reality. Hence, the Age of the Superhero: the Sharpie-bright spandex boys helped the movies off an awkward hook.

In the eight years American troops have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the studios have failed to produce a single film on the subject, other than a handful of unwatched flops about rendition and torture. The Tom Clancy novel The Sum of All Fears was about Islamic terrorists, so naturally the cinematic version made them neo-Nazis. The Nicole Kidman yawneroo The Interpreter was originally about Islamic terrorists attacking New York, so naturally they were rewritten into terrorists from the little-known African republic of Matobo. If a thriller’s set on a hijacked plane, the hijacker turns out to be a bespoke minion of some obscure Halliburton subsidiary. A couple of years back they made a high-tech action thriller in which the bad guy is the plane. That’s right: an unmanned computer-flown aircraft goes rogue and starts attacking things. The money shot is—stop me if this rings a vague bell—a big downtown skyscraper with a jet heading toward it. Only there are no terrorists aboard. The jet itself is the terrorist. This is the pitiful state Hollywood’s been reduced to: let’s play it safe and make the plane the bad guy. In the nineties, upscale Brits made a nice living playing the exotic foreign evildoer in Hollywood action pics. But, unless Jeremy Irons has been practising twirling his fingers like propellers and taxiing down the garden path with outstretched arms, he’s not going to be getting many roles as the psycho aeroplane.

Some studio vice-presidents just want to watch the world burn. So we have movies about nothing. You can discern subplot if you wish, but in the end what 99 per cent of moviegoers notice is the stuff that’s not sub-: he’s dressed like a bat! He has a groovy car! Whoa, did you see the way the Joker jabbed that guy’s eye out? You can debate allegory and metaphor, but once upon a time you didn’t have to—even with superheroes. The very first issue of Captain America showed our hero punching Hitler in the kisser right on the front cover—and look at the date: March 1941, months before the U.S. even entered the war.

The critic James Bowman thinks the current vogue for big screen superheroes helps to “isolate and quarantine heroism in fantasy-land.” “Heroism” is what people who’ve been bitten by radioactive spiders do. Until that happens to you, best to steer clear. And so a world of superheroes leads to a world without heroes. Gone now are the amateur adventurers of 19th- and 20th-century fiction, chaps who’d find themselves caught up in something, and decide to give it a go, initially because it’s a ripping wheeze but also because, in some too-stiff-upper-lipped-to-say way, they understood honour required it. Now the conventional romantic hero is all but extinct, and as giants patrol the skies those of us on the ground are perforce smaller. In The Incredibles, there’s a famous line aimed at the feel-good fatuities of contemporary education: when everyone’s special, nobody is. The failure of storytelling in today’s Hollywood teaches a different lesson: when everyone’s super, nobody’s a hero.

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