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The Assured Place of Superheroes in American Popular Culture

Friday, March 15th, 2019 | Posted by Nick Ozment

avengers assemble!Some people, 24 (or 25?) movies in, are expressing MCU superhero movie fatigue. (Certainly not me or most of my friends — the films continue to be some of the more fun, thrilling entertainments to be had at the cineplex two or three times a year. Is the quality dropping off? Hell no — try to rank ‘em; I’ll bet several of the ones at the top of the list came out just in the last couple years.) I’m talking about a few critics (some of whom were saying the genre was getting “tired” and “played out” 15 films ago), and a few newcomers who didn’t grow up on four-color comics but jumped on the bandwagon when the culture went crazy for costumed crime-fighters.

I can imagine how it must look to them: Now they turn on their TV and it seems like a dozen streaming and broadcast tv shows are about caped crusaders; they check the movie listings and half the films filling up theater screens are about super-powered beings.

They suggest it will eventually play out. They think audiences will finally be sated, the fad will pass. Everyone will grow tired of beautiful people in spandex.

I’ve got news for them.

puny godhulk smashSure, the current incarnation of the MCU will eventually wind down. Every era comes to an end. But there’s no putting the “supes” back in the box — or relegating them back to their original source, cheap newsprint paper, so to speak. They’ve made the leap from comics into our society’s collective unconscious. They are now a firmly established manifestation of our hopes and aspirations. They’ve become our mythical heroes.

They were always photogenic, with their colorful costumes and envious physiques. And underneath all that, they turned out to be just like us — only with powers granted them to right the wrongs and mete out the justice that we wish we could when we witness unfairness and cruelty. They are an intoxicating wish fulfillment when we feel frustrated and powerless.

So, even if Disney shelves the grand MCU (as they will inevitably do, at some point, in its current form), you’re going to keep seeing these characters everywhere you look for the rest of your life. They have become an entrenched part of American pop culture, like giant robots and kaiju in Japan, like masked wrestlers in Mexico. They’re here to stay.

ADDENDUM: I should further clarify, I’m not contending that we’ll always be having half-a-dozen big-budget superhero blockbusters coming our way for the rest of our lives. Like I said, this is a particular era, and it will draw to a close. But superheroes have become so saturated into our culture that, I think, they have become a permanent fixture and a touchstone for our society. Per Thomas Parker’s westerns analogy in the comments below, westerns certainly don’t dominate the theater and television screens like they did for the first 80 years of cinema and the first 30 years of TV. But <i>everyone<\i > knows cowboys; they are an archetype that immediately resonates for virtually every American. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, a guy with boots, a hat, and a six-gun immediately calls up all kinds of references, shorthand for the Wild West myth that is in our blood. Sure, only one or two major western films come along now every couple years (<i>True Grit, 3:10 to Yuma<\i>), but they are also in the DNA of many of our modern narratives in contemporary settings (<i>No Country for Old Men; Longmire<\i > on TV). It is in that more general, broadly pervasive way that I mean they’re here to stay.

15 Comments »

  1. “They’re here to stay.”

    I’m sure that’s correct . . . for the very near future (i.e. quite a long time, more than likely beyond our lifetime).

    But history is full of such bold claims and can greatly surprise us. What was once thought of as unthinkable can become common sense. It might be in the future people will wonder what all the superhero hubbub was about.

    Or, it might go down deeper cultural paths where some people view the old comic book stories like transcendent texts and treat people like Stan Lee and Mike Ditka like prophets. In that scenario, “They’re here to stay” might be truer than you have imagined.

    Comment by James McGlothlin - March 15, 2019 7:48 am

  2. If anyone is fatigue they are either seeing every superhero movies that comes out or weren’t really into superheroes as a concept.

    I only go to the movies if its something i’m really interested in. I haven’t seen any of the DC movies in theaters, but I always go out of my way to see the Marvel ones the week of release.

    My desire for more movies comes from the fact that I became a Marvel comics fan sometime after the first Avengers movie. I had already been reading Manga and the Dark Horse star wars comics off and on.

    Marvel Unlimited is what turned me into a marvel zombie. The more comics i read the more i want to see them on the screen.

    Comment by Glenn - March 15, 2019 8:04 am

  3. I have very much enjoyed the recent spate of superhero movies, and I agree that they are getting better.

    But, as a fantasy fan, I would rather my eyeballs be assaulted by men and women wearing chainmail than by men and women wearing spandex.

    I would also caution that if you don’t think superhero movies could go away, consider that there were essentially no mainstream, live action fantasy movies made for an entire decade (the 90s).

    Comment by everydayshouldbetuesday - March 15, 2019 9:10 am

  4. You might be right, Nick. Then again, you might be wrong. Someone living in the 50’s would probably have been justified in thinking that westerns would never lose their cultural dominance – which was arguably far greater than that enjoyed by superheroes today – but while the form hasn’t vanished completely (nothing ever does) the dominance is long gone.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - March 15, 2019 2:11 pm

  5. JAMES McGlothlin, True!

    Glenn, the transfer of practically the entire canon to digital has been a huge boon — my friend Gabe Dybing also loves it. I used to think about all those comics with runs of hundreds of issues and think that most of those stories, except to hardcore collectors, are lost. Ephemeral, throwaway tales here for a month and gone, unless some of them get reprinted in omnibuses. But Marvel rightly said “Look, we have these literally thousands of comics in our archives; we’re sitting on a nearly unlimited supply of content!” And it’s become something like syndication for old TV series.

    Comment by Nick Ozment - March 15, 2019 2:41 pm

  6. Thomas Parker and everydayshouldbetuesday,

    I should further clarify: I’m not contending that we’ll always be having half-a-dozen big-budget superhero blockbusters coming our way for the rest of our lives. Like I said, this is a particular era, and it will draw to a close. But superheroes have become so saturated into our culture that, I think, they have become a permanent fixture and a touchstone for our society. Per your westerns analogy, Thomas: westerns certainly don’t dominate the theater and television screens like they did for the first 80 years of cinema and the first 30 years of TV. But EVERYONE knows cowboys; they are an archetype that immediately resonates for virtually every American. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, a guy with boots, a hat, and a six-gun immediately calls up all kinds of references, shorthand for the Wild West myth that is in our blood. Sure, only one or two major western films come along now every couple years (True Grit, 3:10 to Yuma), but they are also in the DNA of many of our modern narratives in contemporary settings (No Country for Old Men; Longmire on TV). It is in that more general, broadly pervasive way that I mean they’re here to stay.

    Comment by Nick Ozment - March 15, 2019 2:54 pm

  7. Thomas Parker, the western angle you bring up is such a good point that I went back and appended it to the original post.

    Comment by Nick Ozment - March 15, 2019 2:59 pm

  8. I agree with your clarified point Nick – it’s what I meant when I said that nothing ever vanished completely; some elements of one form are always subsumed by another succeeding form. Indeed, some people believe that superhero movies are themselves in many essential ways nothing but transmogrified westerns. There’s some truth in that, though I think that there’s more social acuity and moral maturity in an even average western (or 40’s film noir, for that matter) than there is in today’s spandex cinema, but that’s another issue.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - March 15, 2019 3:30 pm

  9. I think, with Captain Marvel, it’s 21 movies in. Frankly, as long as they maintain this level of quality, I’ll probably never get tired of them any more than I would any other type of movie.

    Think of what Marvel Studios have accomplished: a series of 21 movies that are good or better, a few with some literary merit, like Black Panther, Captain America: Winter Soldier (surprisingly, to me), and even to some extent Captain Marvel.

    Has anything like that ever been accomplished before? The wisdom came in hiring diverse directors and writers (diverse as in what their prior work had been, though the other types of diversity are useful too) to produce a string of related but stylistically varied movies.

    And I appreciate the humor as well, from the outright comedies like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and Thor: Ragnarok to just having healthy doses of humor sprinkled throughout the rest.

    Comment by Allen Snyder - March 16, 2019 10:05 am

  10. Allen,

    It really has been a remarkable run. And one without Marvel’s best superheroes (although they eventually got Spider-Man).

    Comment by everydayshouldbetuesday - March 16, 2019 2:48 pm

  11. Two comments, on Westerns first:
    I’ll be 69 by the end of the year, and I’ll bet I saw at least one episode of nearly every Western on TV in the ’50s and ’60s (and some Westerns I watched as often as I could, like “The Rifleman,” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” “Wyatt Earp,” and many, many more. My parents took us to the drive-in theater for almost every John Wayne Western made after 1955; one drive-in even resurrected 1941’s “They Died with Their Boots On,” about Custer’s last stand. My oldest daughter, soon to be 25, saw the Clint Eastwood spaghetti trilogy in 2016, and not long after, wanted to see more, so we started a “Western Wednesday” movie night, and almost every Wednesday for the last two years, we sit and watch a classic Western (right now we’re in Season 2 of HBO’s “Deadwood”). Out of the “Top 100 Westerns” on a recent online posting, we’ve seen nearly 70. For me and my daughter, the Western ain’t dead yet.

    As for super-heroes — Well, has there ever been a time when Americans haven’t craved a special person who could lift us out of our day-to-day miseries? How many wars have we fought since we gained our independence? How many of us have struggled daily with poverty, hunger, prejudice, injustice, hatred, bigotry, political chicanery, white collar crime, murder, and anything else that compels us to hope for heroic rescue from someone, somewhere? So long as we find daily life tedious, dangerous, or overwhelming, we’ll want to hold out for help from someone whose taken on the impossible task of rescuing us from our troubles, even if it’s only vicariously through movies and comics and TV. I’ve loved almost all of the Marvel films, and I love seeing the good guys win, especially since the disaster of November 2016.

    My daughter and I have a list of Westerns we haven’t seen yet that’ll last us through 2020. We’ve also enjoyed watching TV’s “Elementary” together since the start of Season 3; maybe we’ll start on detective films after that. My God — think of how many Sherlock Holmes TV shows and films there are out there!!

    Comment by smitty59 - March 17, 2019 10:42 am

  12. Smitty59, I’m with you 100%.

    Comment by Nick Ozment - March 17, 2019 1:37 pm

  13. Personally I’ve never understood why experienced superhero and speculative fiction fans like all these franchise films, I find them terribly bland, predictable and have the possibly hopeless hope that they will go away in the foreseeable future.

    One of the reasons I follow Black Gate regularly and only go to Tor and File770 on occasion is that heavy coverage of franchise film & tv bums me out.

    Looking back at old sff magazines and seeing these quite weak sff tv shows as the cover feature when there’s so many talented authors taking back seats is kind of embarrassing.

    Back then these were the only magazines covering these tv shows but now they and the current generation of superhero/sff films have mainstream coverage and dedicated sites.

    So is this extensive coverage on Tor and File770 bringing new people in when there is extensive coverage elsewhere?

    Should also say that I really appreciate Surridge’s coverage of Fantasia, as those films are not covered elsewhere so extensively and occasionally have some real gems.

    If there is an interesting evolution in superheroes it probably wont come from DC or Marvel.

    Comment by Robert Adam Gilmour - March 17, 2019 2:51 pm

  14. I used coverage/covering/covered 8 times. Sorry about that.

    Comment by Robert Adam Gilmour - March 17, 2019 2:57 pm

  15. In response to Robert Adam Gilmour:
    I was a college English prof for 31 years, the last 25 of those at an institution that gave out scholarships by the boatload for young men who truly believed they’d be scouted, and signed, by reps from the NBA, NFL, Major League baseball, etc., to the extent that they rarely engaged themselves in their studies, and spent their textbook money on phones, athletic shoes, baseball caps, etc. Many of these students, and a large percentage of the non-athletes — male and female — graduated from high schools that did a miserable job of preparing them for college. In addition to teaching composition, I helped create a basic literature course that I taught at least 50 times over 23 years; I routinely asked the students in this course, “How many of you actually like reading?” I rarely saw more than two hands raised — out of some 20+ students in every class. But many of them could answer questions about movies. And quite a few of them were more than casually familiar with graphic novels and comic books. Novels take time and effort, and require you to think, to use your imagination; movies don’t. Comic books don’t. Graphic novels don’t. It’s all there in pictures, with or without minimal text. Lots of the students I encountered came from low-income neighborhoods, families who had limited financial resources, schools that were more interested in teaching to achieve test results, rather than to encourage, or even develop, critical thinking skills. These are perfect audiences for superhero movies. Do any of our politicians offer hope to these kids about their futures? Certainly not the party in power in the senate, which seems to be out of touch with reality, and lacking any sort of moral compass. When teachers have to strike for better pay, when people can’t even go to worship without looking over their shoulders to listen for guns cocking, when kids are put in cages because they don’t speak English, when single-parent kids aren’t read to or tucked in at night because mom, or dad, is working that 3rd job, when children are bullied to suicide by online slander — don’t we welcome a respite from this, and so much more, in the form of superheroes? I think these films will always find an audience, because they help us escape from the real world, even if only for a couple hours. Even those of us who read a great deal — and I usually read 2-4 books a week — enjoy seeing my paperbound heroes come to life on the big screen. I do agree with you, about the stuff the older mags covered of embarrassing TV shows (the original “Lost in Space,” “My Favorite Martian,” “It’s About Time,” “Land of the Giants,” and more), but some of these may have turned a few viewers into SF readers, if only to find stories better than those on the screen. I watched a lot of those shows, always hoping they’d get better, and when they didn’t, I shut off the TV and picked up an Ace double, or “Forbidden Worlds,” published by ACG comics (there’s a group of comic books no one seems to write about!). If it helps spark that sense of wonder — no matter how juvenile, how poorly written, how badly conceived — I think fans like me will respond. Like sex, bad SF is better than no SF at all. Maybe we do need someone else in the game besides Marvel or DC; until that happens, I’m happy to watch the bad guys get clobbered, and the good guys — male, female, black, white, LGBTQ — stagger off, a little the worse for wear, but triumphant, and ready for the next battle.

    Comment by smitty59 - March 18, 2019 10:13 am


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