In a recent post, I came clean about my feelings regarding Star Wars. Today, as I idly scanned io9, I felt another stirring of long-suppressed fatigue and annoyance. This time, it was about superheroes. I decided it was time to be honest about that topic too.
IMO, superheroes are lame. There, I said it. This much-loved iconic style of good-versus-evil storytelling that has informed my generation and inspired millions, just isn’t very good. But before you condemn me as a cape-hater, I encourage you to let me explain why I struggle with it, so that you can dismantle me in the comments. And please do that, because nothing would make me feel more at peace with this genre than finding some kind of meaning in it.
First, though, I will happily admit that there has been some truly great writing in this space. The Incredibles, for instance, is a near-perfect movie. I like Megamind too. (I’ve never encountered a movie character I identified with so deeply, except maybe Dr. Evil.) How to Succeed in Evil by Patrick McLean made me laugh out loud. So did Mystery Men. Kick Ass was both brutal and surprisingly deep. But you may be noticing a pattern here. None of what I consider the great work in the superhero genre takes it seriously. There’s a reason for that.
Here are my top three problems with the genre.
1: There’s no science. But the genre pretends to have science.
Superhero stories are science-ish. People invent machines that do transparently magical things. Nobody ever bothers to explain them. Nobody even cares. This makes my skin prickle for the same reason that Star Wars does. It’s lazy. But who cares, right? So long as the machines and suits are cool, whatevs. And that brings me on to my second point.
2: It’s all about cool. Just cool.
Cool suits. Cool powers. Cool machines. Yawn. Attending to a cosmetic notion of ‘cool’ is like flipping through a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room. It’s an empty experience, IMO.
Years ago, my brother came to me asking for suggestions for a role-playing game he was involved with. Players created their own super-heroes to battle evil. He asked me for ideas. Here are two characters I came up with on the spot.
Mr. Entropy: His power is to accelerate the inevitable process of decay that dominates all things. He touches you and trillions of years scroll forward in the blink of an eye. You turn to dust. Then your protons decay. Then your proton byproducts decay. Mr. Entropy’s weakness is that he’s incredibly depressed all the time. It takes him a huge amount of effort to engage with any conflict, because he knows the outcome is both inevitable and sad. Mr. Entropy always wins, because entropy.
The Hellmaker: She looks like a timid school-girl, but there is horror in her eyes. She can fire a bolt of energy that traps a person in a sphere of personal hell. That hell seemingly lasts forever, and their suffering keeps her young. They scream without end, and she can always hear them. Nobody deserves the amount of punishment that she can deliver, because it’s obscene, just like any notion of Hell. Her weakness is that she’s used her powers only once, and that was by accident. She’s been traumatized ever since and will run away from any conflict because no amount of evil is worth her using her ‘gift’. The only person who can defeat her is Mr. Entropy. Because entropy.
Surprisingly, my brother didn’t like either of these ideas. But here’s the thing, they’re both as legit as anything else in the superhero genre. They’re both potentially interesting characters. They just instantly explode the idiocy of ‘cool’ powers that aren’t particularly powerful, or novel, or complicated. Because, let’s face it, ‘cool’ powers are just a vehicle for fights. Which brings me to my third point.
3: It’s low-budget empowerment.
Superheroes are fantasy embodiments of the abilities we’d like to have. A lot of the genre’s appeal comes from seeing someone larger than life who we identify with have a big, symbolic punch-up with someone who’s face we’d like to punch. And who doesn’t like a punch-up now and then? But there’s a difference between, say, kung-fu movies and superhero movies. Martial artists have done some work to acquire their awesome rather than simply being bitten on the ass by a spider or some such. Part of the glee in superhero stories comes from how easy their power feels. There’s that rush of discovery that they can suddenly do an impossible thing, without having to pay for it.
Of course, there are plenty of stories in which heroes discover the costs afterward, and subsequently become deeper more responsible people. And that’s better, certainly. But even stories with this kind of arc still elevate the idea of special individuals with awesome advantages kicking ass because somehow they’re just right. Social checks on their behavior are not required.
At root, the superhero genre feels to me like a salve for people who feel powerless in real life, as we all so frequently do. But, frankly, fuck the salve. Which is better, investing in stories that encourage us to not be powerless, or slathering on yet more salve? And how do ordinary people become not-powerless? By organizing. By learning. By getting better through struggle. By preventing the assent of bullies who didn’t pay for their powers. Certainly not by waiting around for a spider to bite us on the ass. That’s what I want to read and write about: making ourselves super, through effort and cooperation and a refusal to lie down and be salved.
So, there you have it. Now, it may be that I have the wrong end of the stick. Perhaps I’m not doing a vast and sprawling creative arena justice. I’m ready for that to be true. But if that’s the case, then please explain and end my torment, because if someone wedges another Marvel character promo in my face today, I think I’m going to scream. I urgently invite your rebuttals.
2 thoughts on “On Superheroes”
How do you feel about Watchmen? Arguably one for the “actually quite good” list, and Dr Manhattan actually has something of the characteristics that make Mr. Entropy such a challenging proposition.
Thanks for your comment! In short, I like it. I don’t consider it a work of genius, as some do, but it has real strengths. I particularly like the Ozymandias character, and the subversion of the super-intelligent villain trope that he represents. Another thing that bugs me about the mainstay of superhero narratives is the common association of intelligence with corruption, while brute force is generally associated with good. Watchmen makes a good stab at dismantling that. I also enjoy how his only really ‘super’ character is massively lonely and fundamentally checked out.
If I have any issue with Watchmen, it’s the question of what do with what we’ve learned. Is there a vision there for a better way for people to operate? We’ve taken a grim, insightful look at the human condition, and now what? Admittedly I read it a long time ago, so I may have forgotten. But I kind of yearn for people to actively seek for a viable, collective definition of super and to pursue it. Seeing how super we aren’t, given our current modes of folly, strikes me as only one step on that path.