Superhero movies, and why escapism matters

Might it be time for a few more lighter superhero movies? Is Batman V Superman as dark as they will get?

It’s not been a good year to switch on the news, whichever way your politics lean. And sadly, there’s no shortage of atrocities at the moment, and a feeling that all is not well with the world.

With all this in mind, shouldn’t we end our desire to see our heroes thrust into the ‘real world’ and embrace the notions they were created to represent?

Since the 1980s the comics industry has been obsessed with deconstructing our superheroes and bringing them down to our level. With the release of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, we saw our heroes filtered through the prism of ‘realism’ – one in which politics and existential struggles governed the use of their abilities and their place in the world. This was a breath of fresh air for the industry at the time, though it can be argued that the reverence of these iconic stories has had negative ramifications on the industry and its outreach to new audiences. DC in particular has decided to embrace the wholesome nature of their characters once again with its DC Rebirth initiative after fans feared things had gotten too dark.

Hollywood, on the other hand, eschewed that interpretation initially, filling the 90s with kitsch and camp adaptations culminating in my favourite boozy treat – Batman And Robin. For the longest time studios stayed clear of the Superhero genre altogether as B&R proved a commercial and critical flop for Warner Brothers. Blade went a long way to proving that comic adaptations could be hits for the studio system once again and Bryan Singer’s X-Men confirmed that. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man cemented their place as the summer blockbuster genre of choice with audiences yearning for escapism in a post 9/11 world.

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After the success of The Dark Knight, ‘grounded and gritty’ was the preferred phrase used by studio execs to sell their latest property. This was rife throughout the industry and the after effects of Nolan’s deconstruction of the superhero can be found as recently as this year’s Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice and last years critical punch bag – Fantastic Four.

Man Of Steel (produced by Christopher Nolan) saw Warner Bros doubling down on the real world stakes and the deconstruction of the hero. The Zack Snyder helmed production featured a Superman conflicted about his place in the world – unsure if he should heed his fathers warnings or be the bridge between two civilizations, inspiring man to be better. With heavy-handed Judeo-Christian imagery and a soul-searching Clark Kent, Man Of Steel found itself having a mixed reception upon release. Many criticised the wanton destruction and murderous protagonist of being the exact opposite of what the world wanted from its premiere superhero. Others lauded Snyder and the real world filter through which he portrayed Krypton’s last son. In this day and age is it not fitting that we see truth and justice brought down to our level?

In the years since, we’ve seen both the motion picture adaptations and the comics embrace the idea of our heroes fighting each other as the result of the real world ramifications of their actions. Villains themselves have taken more of a backseat as the ideas of government oversight and mass casualties have moved to the forefront. This summer we saw Captain America: Civil War and Batman V Superman deal with these exact issues to varying degrees of success. The genre needs variety in terms of tone and diversification will ensure its survival, but we are hitting a point where the heroes are more representative of our own failings as opposed to being the beacon of hope they were intended to be.

What I believe we need, is a return to unabashed escapism. Adventure, action and maybe, just maybe a genuine smile. The golden age of superheroes.

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Some may call me an optimist but the majority of our heroes were designed to be above the ideals of the common person and that is something I want to see on screen again. There were no senate committee hearings to determine whether or not Superman should operate beyond US borders. Batman would brutalise the criminals that deserved it but even in his darkest moments, would stop shy of unashamedly mowing criminals down in his Batmobile. They were created to be aspirational and inspirational and not act as real world analogues for our greatest failures and fears. Sure, the majority of Marvel’s most iconic heroes were created in the face of the nuclear fear but even then, they went on to inspire millions of kids and adults with their triumphant brand of heroism.

Upon the press’ visit to the Justice League set in London, producer Deborah Synder was quoted as saying:

“I think the main thing we learned is that people don’t like to see their heroes deconstructed. I think that’s hard because it’s people we’ve grown up with and that we care about. They like seeing them in all their glory.

I think the darkest where we’ll be is where we’ve been.”

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Now the Internet can (and will) argue until it’s blue in the face as to whether or not Batman V Superman was a true ‘deconstruction’, or its levels of success, but the main criticisms of the film surrounded the tone and lack of heroism from our main characters. It would seem the public at large is also yearning for larger doses of escapism. It’s time to ditch the real world allegories and the disaster porn imagery. I can’t be the only person that feels a knot in their gut seeing CG skyscrapers knocked down with the aftermath looking like September 11th stock footage. Escapism is the name of the game when spending two hours in front of an enormous screen. Audiences are beginning to show their distaste for such notions and the studios appear to be listening if Deborah Snyder’s quote is anything to go by. Reactionary or not, we need our heroes to be better than us.

I’m not for one minute suggesting that we head back into Schumacher territory, but it wouldn’t hurt to see Superman more reminiscent of Grant Morrison’s now legendary take on the all American icon. One minute he’s talking a girl out of a suicide attempt, the next he’s building an artificial heart in the middle of the sun. No job proves too big or small for the man faster than a speeding bullet.

As a child I stared with awe at the heroic feats my idols accomplished on the comic page and big screen. I dreamt of being like them one day – inspiring the world and mankind to do better. Sam Raimi nailed escapist superhero cinema – Spider-Man swinging triumphantly through the sunlit streets of New York, gracefully landing on a skyscraper, whilst in the background, the stars and stripes billows. 12-year old me couldn’t pick his jaw up from off of the floor. How about Christopher Reeve leaving our atmosphere joyously embracing the thrill of entering space, before cheekily smiling at the viewers and heading back down to earth. I could never accomplish these feats myself, but never has a young man left the cinema so emboldened to do better. That is what our superheroes are here to do: inspire.

It feels like it’s long overdue to see our superheroes soar once more and leave the trappings of our very real world problems behind. With our day to day lives changing rapidly and arguably not for the better, it may take our heroes to show us the way once again. Real life may not always end happily ever after, but maybe they can help us believe once again.