Superhero movies hold a mirror to our times
The numbers are in and as expected, "Avengers: Age Of Ultron," the sequel to 2012's first super hero super band film "The Avengers," has hit the $100 million mark in the United States.
The success of "Age Of Ultron," and nearly every other Marvel or DC Comics film that hits the market, can be attributed to a number of obvious factors such as massive special effects, high quality production values, and the obvious cross-generational affection for the stories' characters.
But if cinema, like most popular culture, can be used to take the pulse of a society, the massive success of super hero movies in the last decade reveals how we live in times yearning for heroic stories and heroic characters, and how our daydreams are dominated by apocalyptic fears.
Superhero movies have the ability to put on screen some of our darkest national fantasies and nightmares, and also some of our most romanticized ideals. In "Age Of Ultron" a band of imperfect but noble heroes unite to take down a merciless machine birthed out of artificial intelligence.
But "Age Of Ultron" is only the latest in a string of major Marvel and DC releases that also serve as conduits for our national psyche. Comic books themselves have always served this function. Characters like Captain America were created during the scorched earth days of World War II while the X-Men's discriminated mutants were products of the restless 1960s and the era of the civil rights movement.
In our time films like Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight Trilogy" and "Captain America: Winter Soldier" respond to the anxieties of a post-9/11 world.
In the documentary "A Pervert's Guide To Ideology," Slovenian philosopher and critic Slavoj Zizek draws a direct connection between 2008's "The Dark Knight" and the Bush era. If The Joker in that film represents the unchained chaos of fanatical terrorism, Batman's decision to create a computer system to monitor every phone call in Gotham City is parallel to the real world Patriot Act, NSA and other forms of mass government spying justified by the government with the excuse of combating terrorist threats. "The Dark Knight" went on to gross $1 billion, much more than the 2005 "Batman Begins" and miles beyond the last "Batman" film of the 1990s, the atrocious "Batman & Robin."
It is quite possible that the reason superhero movies are such successful product is because they reflect the feeling that we live in a time without heroes, yet we still yearn for them. The world since 9/11, marked by wars, deep national divisions and disappointments has left us with few icons that survive past their initial start time.
George W. Bush had sky high approval ratings immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks when the country fell into a patriotic fervor, but when the subsequent Iraq War turned into a bloody quagmire, he left office shadowed by pure notoriety. His exit from office was marked forever by having to dodge a shoe thrown at him by one of the Iraqis he claimed to have liberated.
Even the whole 2008 Obama "Hope" campaign was a desperate plea for a heroic savior. As journalist Max Blumenthal wrote on his blog in 2009, "During a time of economic decline, persistent cultural strife, deepening American involvement in far-off military conflicts, and rapid environmental deterioration, is there any wonder that so many Americans believe in salvation fantasies promising them both a transcendent, everlasting future and violent retribution against perceived evildoers?"
Consider this line liberal columnist Ezra Klein used in 2008 to describe then candidate Barack Obama, who was renowned for his eloquent (yet vapid) speeches: "not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of the word over flesh. Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our higher selves."
Since then the Obama years have seen some liberal polices passed but nothing earth-shaking, and the hopes of an almost New Deal-style change in American politics have proven hollow while the Middle East burns and new, dangerous conflicts arise. One man can't be blamed for it all, but the point is that in such times, popular culture reflects how all these recent events influence what we look for in our entertainment.
Films like "Age Of Ultron" give us images of cities facing absolute destruction from inhuman threats. "Iron Man 3" featured a villain dressed like an Islamic radical, complete with a beard reminiscent of the stereotypical image of extremists. The film's arch villain, the Mandarin, even records videos reminiscent of the kind of propaganda we see in videos released by groups like ISIS.
And in a post-Edward Snowden world, the theme of government secrecy is present in these films as in "Captain America: Winter Soldier," where a fascistic movement known as Hydra cloaks itself within the government institutions we are meant to trust. And in a film like "Man Of Steel," the original color and cheerfulness of Superman is replaced by a brooding, dark world where government can't be trusted but the hero is forced to make tough, even murderous choices to stop a major alien threat.
Good movies are in the end, defined by how well they can capture an audience's attention, and the films listed above are entertaining above anything else. As the summer season comes around, let's eat popcorn and enjoy the spectacles on the big screen, but it is still worth looking deeper at what the movies we love, say about the times we live in.