July 03, 2008

Why is a superhero story film like a WWE wrestling match?

There are those lines of academic thought which argue that the superhero takes the place of the demigod of previous ages, the divine brought down among us and made human. To this, I remind that the morality of demigods was quite a bit different from that of most superheroes other than Hancock in his starting image: and Hancock is an utterly original creation. (Though he may owe more than a bit of his personality to Herakles -- the original Greek tales, not our modern revisionist retellings.)

Unlike the old demigods, a superhero must always be or become the protector of humanity. What exact form that protection takes changes from decade to decade as our ethic and understanding of our world and especially acceptable self-image changes also. Black-and-white superheroes from the 1940s stepped easily across the years to the 1980s and now again into the post 9/11 world, finding fertile ground in a world divided between Good and Evil (and taking care not to touch more than a toe into the murky waters in between). Similarly the superheroes of the 1970s were dusted off for short stints in the 1990s: but in a world where the idealistic baby boomers were known to have become the yuppies of the 1980s, this was much more problematic. Knowledge breeds understanding, and sometimes unwanted self-awareness. Understanding is the antithesis of blunt action. In the world of superheroes, it is possible to know too much.

Thus to be acceptable to a large enough audience (or repeat audience) to be successful, the re-invention of the superhero must tap into some current version of wish-fulfillment, but without contradicting the self-image of the society. Ambiguous is acceptable only so long as the final outcome is something with which the audience can identify.

The two cornerstones of the superhero world are Superman and Batman. Neither is an ambiguous figure. Each embodies a different aspect of the American ideal: the first of America The Good, the second of America The Avenger. They come from the extreme social opposites which define the spectrum of the fulfilled promise of the American dream: Clark the decent farmboy from heartland America who becomes a seeker of truth and justice in the big city, Wayne the rich son of successful and socially conscious capitalist parents. Their respective villains are the embodiments of the opposite side of the American dream to the one they represent: Lex Luthor the ruthless and amoral capitalist, and all the various failed dreams which oppose the Batman, lash out in anarchy or agony against a system which deems them insane. Superman, the near-immortal, respects life. Batman, the purely human, respects only justice he himself continually re-defines.

Both perspectives resonate strongly and simultaneously within American self-image, without contradition. Where personal safety, domestic and abroad, seems reasonably secure, it is safe to indulge in the generosity and primal innocence of Superman. Otherwise, self-preservation within a hostile world seems to make the Batman response only common sense.

Yet in a world of Batmans, mankind would quickly go extinct.

Hence, "Batman Begins" plunges into a sharply different approach right from the dawn of the story, in robbing Bruce Wayne of his revenge and simultaneously offering him a chance at a world judged coldly -- and where found wanting, destroyed. The Batman of previous incarnations would have accepted this choice (and maybe that was why it was never offered him). This Batman is given to understand what absolute, unbending justice must mean -- and his, too, had been so unbending that even in trying to understand the criminal mind, he can steal only from himself -- and finally chooses instead the path of compassion. At the same time, the "Smallville" interpretation of Superman plunges Clark into some very pragmatic and increasingly dark choices which themselves help to draw Lex ever deeper into the shadows, yet all of which are acceptable against the increasingly primal and fatalistic polarity of Good vs. Evil. Compassion has no place here, only crusade.

Thus the acceptable self-image seems to have shifted. Batman is now a gleam of hope in a world which is not perfect but only human, and which might just not be so very dark after all. Superman's light now shines so very bright that the shadows he casts are that much darker: responsibility for dealing with them yes, but no perceived responsibility for having had a hand in creating them. For the first time ever, it is the Batman vision which offers real hope for a future here and now -- because now the only way out of the Superman vision is the rapture.

The third of the trinity of highly popular superheroes, one which occupies a much more average place between these two giants (and thus resonates with many of us average people), is Spiderman. It has been said that Peter Parker is an average person first, with an average person's life issues and dilemmas, with the "superhero-ing" making a reluctant footnote, an extra responsibility thrust upon Peter by dint of having the power to make a difference. (Consider, by contrast, the initial attitude of Hancock, before he learns to see himself as actually belonging to his society.) More than perhaps in any other superhero envisioning, the villains of Spiderman are reflections of himself: friends, average people thrust into situations beyond their control or driven just a little too far. They do die, but usually it is because they have brought about their own destruction. Many achieve insight or redemption, even if too often it is just before they die. The only utterly evil villain of Spiderman is the alien Venom, which willingly latches onto the darkness within anyone who comes into its reach. (Shades of the dark side of the Force!)

While we do like to see ourselves as somehow a cut above, deep down we know that we are average, something which most often manifests itself as a perceived helplessness to make a difference. Spiderman shows us a moral compass we would like to see ourselves as having: with great power comes great responsibility. Hancock, in contrast, shows us as we secretly or not so secretly suspect we really are -- after all, what has the world ever done for us? -- but Hancock also shines a little ray of light into our own self-absorbedness, that just maybe we might be able to grow to live up to what we have been given. We would like to think so, anyway.

Of course, so long as we are not ourselves superheroes, this still frees us to be utter curmudgeons at best, and -- much worse, at worst. After all, if we don't have the power to make a difference, we also don't have the responsibility to try.

The responsibility in the Incredible Hulk is turned on its head: no longer so much a power to use appropriately, as to keep it from breaking loose when it is not appropriate. ("Control, control, you must learn control!") Thus a justified or unjustified or out-of-all-proportion anger that can take on tangible form and bring about destruction far beyond the original catalyst is another image that is very regularly re-visited and re-interpreted for our times. While the premise seems to be universally captivating, different timeframes have had very different perspectives on David and Bruce Banner. Is the transformation the result of an arrogant self-experimentation? a desperate attempt to prove a hypothesis? an accidental genetic consequence? a deliberate genetic manipulation? Was the initial awakening of the Hulk potential one's own responsibility, or an unwanted inheritance from the father? For all that the 1970s are so often called the irresponsible decade, these interpretations of the Hulk, echoed also in "Quantum Leap", tend to be all about taking responsibility for one's choices. Today, the popular view of the Hulk seems to be as just another (secretly) wish-fulfillment power, albeit one that often has unintended consequences. We seem to be harbouring a lot of repressed fury at the world.

Ironman is one who was able to do something about it. This superhero role almost defines wish-fulfillment: rich through his own merit, a true playboy, able to act -- or not -- entirely to the dictates of his own will. No one dictates morality to him, he has utter freedom to choose -- but then he chooses as we want to think we would have chosen. Even then, he is continually able to see what he does, just a little, as just another awesome game. He wisecracks his way through his discoveries of an increasing ability to make a difference ("technically he ran into me"). Isn't this the kind of superhero we could all easily fantasise ourselves as being?

Daredevil is sometimes called the poor man's Spiderman. On this basis alone, it may have been doomed to failure: for the world it portrays is not one we wish to acknowledge as ours. It doesn't even have the high-class bleakness and decadence and corruption of Batman's Gotham City. Rather, it is a weary grinding down of lives in a world where law is a high-priced technicality and justice is just another word for money, the fundamental failure of the American dream (but not in any spectacular manner, either heroic or anti-heroic). The stumbling of the film was based on many things, from direction to story to acting: but I don't know if anyone could have made this premise into a great success, either box office or critical.

It makes an interesting footnote that Daredevil is one of the very few superheroes for whom organised religion plays any significant role, or in whose stories it is even mentioned. The typical superhero is a crusader within his own moral sense, which is most often shaped by his guardians, his parents, or the manner in which they met their deaths. Yet in American society, the church is the heart of the community, to the extent that it is not currently foreseeable that a president could be elected who did not belong to a church. Thus the absence of organised religion in superhero film environments rings very loudly, the more so because the stronger the religious note, the less well the film seems to do. Perhaps this is because where it does come up, it is almost always a religion of the minority, the fringes, the oppressed, or all three together?

The question of religion will arise again only in one other superhero film context, "X-Men". There it is never shown as a societal force or even as an organisation at all, a background shaper of individual personality rather than a societal binding force. It seems that we can accept the quirk in another -- especially if it is shown to us in such a way that we need not think too deeply about the implications and manner of such shaping -- but not an organised spiritual force which may not be our own as a significant actor in society.

What we find in X-Men in its place is three separate perspectives within a humanist crusade. Certainly the emotions raised within all three have the power of religion, even if only Eric is honest enough to draw the comparison. Are the mutants to be a ruling chosen people, an enlightened elite (watching over humanity in the nature of traditional solitary superheroes), or a force to be feared? A large part of the genius of the first two X-Men films was to give fair representation to all three points of view ... which originally made it very difficult to assign traditional villain roles. Many of us finally turned against Magneto in the first film when he demonstrates his willingness to sacrifice Rogue to his cause in his place -- but is Charles Xavier's segregation of "gifted youngsters" so very different? He has no interest in allowing naturals and mutants to grow up together and know each other as friends, growing up. Xavier's powers are no less domineering than Magneto's, yet only Eric knows to guard against him -- and does. Xavier's X-Men are just as elite as Magneto's chosen few, a force above standard humanity, which seems to have no purpose but a self-defence which one way or another requires the policing of standard humanity.

(Constrast this to the tiny island nation of Orb in the Gundam Seed universe, which strives continually for the ideal of naturals and genetically enhanced coordinators living together in harmony: even though again and again they find themselves having to fight against the extremes of both to preserve those ideals.)

On the surface of it, the question of self-image might seem to fall short in "X-Men". However, in a superhero fantasy, the audience is invited to identify not with the average human but with the superhero, which in this case means the mutants and even specifically with the elite among the mutants themselves. We dream of being elite. (Heck, we know ourselves to be unjustly ... well, not persecuted really, but certainly society judges us unfairly. After all, how many times a day are we told that we deserve the best?) If we had power, what could we not do?

(But would we follow Magneto's pragmatic vision or Xavier's idealistic one? and does it make a difference that Xavier's powers, both mutant and mundane, are those of influence? Do either of them have any real compassion for a general humanity?)

Besides X-Men, the other major "team" superhero franchise to date is the Fantastic Four. This is the first time in a superhero film that we find a simultaneous failure of identification, wish-fulfillment, and even canon -- which, however, happens to occur within a story structure and script that were panned far more than they deserved. To a mainstream audience, the film re-telling of the origin story makes more sense than the canon version; but it is very difficult to identify with any of the heroes. The transformation of the Thing immediately shifts the new powers into the context of something unwanted which has to be neutralised, a theme also touched upon in X-Men. However, unlike X-Men, the Fantastic Four approach their transformation as an all or nothing issue: either all are to be considered diseased or all are to be considered gifted. Most of us don't care to see ourselves as having quite that much conformity in our thinking, and in such a transformation we certainly wouldn't consider ourselves diseased ... and so our sympathies and our identification sneak over to the non-conformist, whom the structure of the story requires us to see as the villain. It seems also that the heavy filmgoers of the United States have become more of an immigrant culture than they perhaps realise: since the continual prejudiced mockery only draws our sympathies more to the side of the "villain". Even medical reaction to his transformation is different from reaction to the team: who, after all, have exposed far more people! -- yet only he is threatened with a de-humanising quarantine.

A structural difficulty within the entire concept of the Fantastic Four makes it difficult to conceive of too many further films. The nature of their transformation makes them unique on earth, which means that their only meaningful villains have to come about either as a parallel result of their own transformation or from other worlds. In the canon this led to an unending fight-fest against outside threats, which probably won't be sustainable in films that have shown a willingness to think their subject through.

Thus, this approach to understanding the superhero genre makes predicting the popular success of future superhero films possible. Taking as a given that story and directing quality are at least average, the testing questions are simple:With a "yes" to one, the film will probably make its money back, but little more. With a "yes" to two, the film will be a reasonable success. With a "yes" to all three, the film is potentially a blockbuster (dependent on its quality of direction, music, storytelling, and CGI). Without a "yes" at all, the film will crash at the box office, although as the months and years go by it may possibly attain a second life as a quiet cult classic. (Add in a poorly structured storyline and weak script to three "nos", and you have another "Ghost Rider".)

And perhaps, in a few comfortably removed generations, the self-portrait unmasked by our most popular wish-fulfillment films will be one that we will finally be willing to see.

(WWE wrestling is far more self-honest!)

Comments:
I just can't leave it...while I think this is a very interesting look at Superheroes, I have to add that an analysis of Superheroes (in mainstream media, as I'm sure there are many great, unique characters in comic books that I'm unaware of as I don't read comic books - the movies have been thrust upon me by my spouse) wis incomplete without mentioning that they are all male. The only female I can think of is Wonderwoman...who if I remember, has magic bracelets? The females never get any good powers. Even in X-Men (again, I'm talking about the movies and I would be pleased if the comics were different) Rogue only got powers when she sucked them from others (so effectively can't use them) and the doctor - sorry, can't remember her name - used her powers basically just for "healing" until she turned evil. As I didn't watch The Fanstasic Four, I can't comment on that one, but frankly, I'm not holding my breath.
I don't relate to the male characters at all, especially as I am too busy trying not to be irritated by the screams of the boring girl they cast as the love interest, and I always feel unsatisfied that I don't get to see any women shooting fireballs. Please, make a movie with a Superhero female that flies, shoots fireballs, has a real job, and after defending women, teaches them to defend themselves!
 
Re X-Men: what about Jean Gray or Storm? In X1 & 2 anyway; in X3 I could swear the writers were trying to get revenge for the Halle Berry contract issues, and in the process the potential of the Phoenix plotline was largely lost.

Which, interestingly returns to your point, because (under a different director) X3 chose to make Jean Gray the most powerful of the X-Men, but one who must never be allowed to express that power.

Why so few solid female superheroes on the big screen? The answer goes back to the early days of the comics. In a world where the head and protector of the family was always assumed to be male, it was natural to model superheroes similarly. Boys bought the comics, creating a target market. Comic creators started actively targeting that market.

Fast-forward about thirty years. When Star Wars came out, the financial power of the young male repeat-viewer demographic was revealed to the film market. Since film producers always keep their bottom line in mind, the new fantastic stories which came to the big screen began increasingly to be made to appeal primarily, even solely, to young adult males, who by now were by far the largest demographic in movie-going.

The second lucrative demographic film producers keep in mind specifically for comic-sourced superheroes is the middle-aged husband who often remembers the old comic book collection with nostalgic fondness.

Between these two powerhouses, the female viewer comes in a distant third.

Can this pattern be turned around? Businesses follow the bottom line. As it stands, young males spend a much greater part of their disposable income on films than any other group, including any of the female demographics. So entrenched is this relationship that it goes far beyond cause-effect into full positive-feedback: there can be no blockbuster which does not appeal strongly to the young male audience.

Still, for an intelligent look at a female superhero who, unlike Wonder Woman, is not a dominatrix in disguise, may I suggest Buffy (the Vampire Slayer)? Or, for a less "super" but still kick-ass female hero, Zoƫ from Firefly?
 
Since I wrote that last comment, I have finally seen "Elektra". Besides the regrettable "Catwoman", to the best of my knowledge "Elektra" is the only purely female superhero film to have been made in the past two decades.

The critics were unfair. Although it has its weaknesses, overall the film is a beautiful thing, in the same way "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is beautiful. But it is not what people expect or want to see, going in to see a *superhero* film, and it failed so badly at the box office that for once even the by now compulsory videogame was not released. (It seems to have done a bit better in the DVD release.)

So let's test it against the three questions.

Self-image: not societally acceptable. Elektra is an assassin, and remains morally ambiguous character until the very last scene. Only then, just maybe, she might have found a particularly female resolution. Yet until that moment she is ruthless, efficient, an all-around not-nice person who shoves away all around her. She was driven to her limits, not nurtured, as a child; and as an adult she is very nearly the exact opposite of any of the female figures we have come to expect, even in our most independent female heroines. She has no compassion, no nurturing, no empathy, no sexuality in her attitude (so much more important than her clothes). It would not be an exaggeration to label her the Wolverine of her film: but while male Wolverines are found endlessly fascinating, society is ... less than comfortable ... with female Wolverines.

It is actually far easier to identify with the Treasure than with Elektra: but this too is quickly undermined. Unlike the battle in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", it takes only seconds for Abby to learn that while she may be a prodigy, she is not in Elektra's league. At least CTHD's princess gave us a decent fight of it.

Wish fulfillment: not for the large majority of the film audience. Elektra is not a character who is easy to identify with, and most won't. Her powers are ambiguous, and come with unwelcome strings. Finally, there are only three significant male roles in the entire film: Stick (the sensei), Kirigi (the head bad guy), and Mark Miller (first her target and then one of the people she winds up protecting). It is almost the exact opposite gender casting of the vast majority of superhero films.

Canon; yes and no. Not too much information for those not in the in-crowd (of whom I am one), but probably more information than is wanted, and with little of that information being given explicitly, in the plain style becoming increasingly popular. Call it the polar opposite of "Fantastic Four" for approach. I gather most of the canon in "Elektra" is accurate, but it can be somewhat off-putting to non-fan audiences: which is also in direct contrast to the choices made in the "Fantastic Four".

Two clear "no's", one almost "no": the film should not do well at the box office -- and it did not.

Which leaves us with a new question: while the reverse has been taken for granted for decades, is it even possible to make a fairly female-based superhero film which can appeal to male audiences without descending primarily into sexuality?
 
First off, I had completely forgotten about Storm...which kind of says something right there.
And I'm not convicned that if movies weren't made without the typical female roles then they wouldn't make money. I guess it's the chicken and the egg...do we make movies and comics for men because men spend more money on comics and movies or do men spend more money because they are made for them.
Even movies that pretend to have "fiesty" females - Star Wars for example, only really has the token girl, she always has to be rescued and ends up either with flowing hair in the forest with furry creatures or doesn't have anything to live for since "her man" is evil (I guess living for children or the fact that she could rule a planet doesn't compare).
As for Buffy or Elektra, I haven't seen either (also says something about the Elekrta movie) but think I might try it out now. Zoe was good (although still wasnt' the captain), I guess I always just got sidetracked watching River (? I think) have the most kick buttness but was turned into a crazy girl that had to be rescued and protected all the time.
So I guess I'll just keep waiting...
Thank you for your interesting thoughts on this.
 
As for Buffy or Elektra, I haven't seen either (also says something about the Elektra movie) but think I might try it out now.

Did you notice how this statement undermined your "chicken and egg" statement? Because here were two examples which fit almost perfectly within your requested ideal, strong female superhero roles which fit your criteria of appealing to women ... and you had not watched them? had not contributed to the ratings/box office -- and then shrugged your not having watched as "says something about the Elektra movie"?

At least you are among those willing to give them a try -- and that makes you much rarer than you might think -- but where were you when the numbers were being tallied and found inadequate to merit a sequel?

At the same time, you did go to at least a few films in the existing molds: which meant that your discretionary dollars went entirely to support established images of women in the superhero genre.

No one will be your guide in this. It is up to you to look closely at upcoming television and films, to support with your dollar and your viewing time those that come closer to fitting what you would like to see. It is certain that marketers -- who have learned to look only to the established markets -- won't do it for you.
 
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