NOTE: Sorry for posting this a bit late. The only excuse I’ve got is that I was busy at the movie theater doing more research for this blog post (honest!).
Despite the fact that the comic book industry bemoans its sad state on average once every nanosecond (more frequently than the book industry, believe it or not!), they must be doing something right if mass market narratives like Marvel’s The Avengers can just elide backstory, origins, or explanations and expect audiences to accept their characters as given. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Superman, Batman, Spider-man (note the sustained and sad preponderance of the male adjective in there) have become so integrated into Western culture that their mythos are omnipresent. But why? Why do we love super heroes and why – after two decades in the weeds – are super heroes flying off movie screens and DVD racks?
Super Heroes as Archetypes Embodied or Applied
There are a great many different kinds of comic books, from the spandex-clad super heroes we think of by default, to fictional slice-of-life stories, to crazy experiments in form and narrative. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the super hero genre – the others operate within entirely different conventions.
Let me start with a disclaimer: My name is Chris, and I am a lapsed comic book reader. As a kid, I must’ve spent a small fortune in birthday and couch cushion money at my local comic book shop. Every X-book, all the Spider-man books, the Batman line, Superman, Image’s early stuff, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, etc. etc. The list of books I inhaled uncritically is kind of embarrassing (and my bagged and boarded long boxes are still taking up space in my parents’ basement more than a decade after I moved out). It wasn’t until I got a lot older (and abandoned the super hero genre due to the fact that it generally did not and does not care about quality writing) that I started to really think about why certain comics appealed to me more than others.
Like any fictional conceit, super heroes are concretized metaphors. This applies just as much to Superman as it does to the X-Men. Only some metaphors are more transparent than others. It doesn’t take a doctorate in semiotics to label the archetypes that some characters represent: Superman, Batman, the Hulk, Captain America, Daredevil are idealized symbols for our collective imagination. These characters embody a particular ethos, and we enjoy their stories because they allow us to vicariously partake of a
Other heroes – Moore’s Watchmen, Spider-man, the X-Men, or the Fantastic Four – do not so much embody an archetype as provide a lens to examine its aspirational application. Through Peter Parker’s struggle to balance his heroic aspirations against his family life, we can examine what happens when one strives towards the archetype in a more realistic world.
At their core, this is what gives certain super heroes staying power within our culture. And story arcs that tap into this core are those that will resonate and stay with us. But that is the deeper, unspoken truth about comics and about super heroes. It speaks to our psychology as an audience, and to the creators’ philosophy as artists. But identification and concretized metaphor does not explain why audiences shelled out over $300 million to see spandex-clad divas smack each other around.
The answer lies in a dirty word: escapism.
Escapism Can Be Our Friend
That’s right. I said the e-word. I think of it as dirty because it is how “serious fiction” sidelined speculative fiction for decades. But escapism is a powerful narrative tool. It is a release valve for societies, and it is one that Marvel’s The Avengers employs flawlessly.
Regardless of whether it is in sequential art or film, ensemble narratives like The Avengers, or the Justice League, or the X-Men cannot possibly focus on their characters’ underlying archetypes: there are too many characters playing upon too many archetypes for that kind of narrative to hold together (despite the industry’s love of over-played crossover arcs). Instead, they tap into the audience’s yearning for entertainment and the abrogation of responsibility.
As human beings we like to have someone else do the work. We work hard all day long, we are stressed, we take tough phone calls, and we have difficult conversations. Most of us don’t need to fight giant robots or aliens or monsters, but we all struggle anyway. And there is something cathartic about watching someone else do the struggling for a little while.
This is the same desire that makes us appreciate eucatastrophe in fiction when executed well. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t much like (or really believe in) eucatastrophe as a narrative device, but when done well it is satisfying for the same reason: it places the hard choices on someone else, someone “extraordinary” with whom we can never wholly identify.
Come Away with Me, oh Human Child
Ensemble super hero narratives rely on Othered saviors rescuing us from Othered villains. Though in a more focused narrative the villains might well play archetypal roles, they are simply external threats which we (collectively) are not responsible for.
Sure, Magneto is responding to anti-mutant bigotry. But we, the enlightened audience, are never responsible for that: we like the mutants…or why would we buy their books? And Lex Luthor might be a product of capitalist laissez-faire society, but hey…he’s one egomaniacial super-genius. And Loki…well, he’s a demi-god, an alien, and crazy to boot. And lest we forget, if something goes wrong in comic book land you can bet the Government (or its sunglass-wearing agents) had a hand in it somewhere.
Ensemble super hero narratives are summer blockbusters, meant to briefly entertain, not change the world. And they do so by presenting us with problems that are not ours, and then parachuting someone else in to fix them.
Why are they resurgent now?
Yes, yes, I know that comic books as a medium are struggling for a host of economic reasons. And while I personally think that’s because it is hard to grow an audience solely by focusing on art with scant attention to writing, it is fair to say that the super hero genre is doing better today than it ever has.
Could a movie like The Avengers have been as successful twenty years ago? No. Because we as society were not in the mood for it then. Today, that kind of escapism is in the air. It is something we need.
Thirty years ago, Moore’s Watchmen showed us that heroes and villains need not be archetypal or aspirational. That they can be flawed, and human, and with all of the ugliness and beauty that entails. What followed was three decades of increasing grit, and darkness, and hard-edges…perhaps a counter-reaction to the Cold War’s end and the ensuing economic, technological, and social boomtimes of the ’90s.
But today is a very different world, beset by very different problems – environmental, political, social, economical, and diplomatic. And over the course of the last decade, it seems to me that the super hero pendulum has been swinging back in the direction of greater escapism: to offer a soothing balm to the challenges of our real world. In real life, there are no heroes able to step up and deal with these very real problems on our behalf.
And when – as these days – we see our leaders failing to do so, when we see our neighbors failing to do so, and when we see ourselves failing to do so, it is only natural that we should fantasize about a group of different people, with different backgrounds, different beliefs, and different skills doing the impossible.
In the United States, at least, we mythologize our cultural heroes. Whether it is the revolutionary militias camped at Valley Forge, the Founding Fathers in a hot Philadelphia State House, the pioneer settlers pushing west, or the Greatest Generation, we expect someone in our society to step up and fight the hard fight. Only for our generation, nobody is really doing so. Which is why we need it in our fiction.
In The Avengers, Maria Hill at one point asks Nick Fury why the heroes would come back to save the day. And Nick Fury’s answer is poignant, relevant, and sad: “Because we’ll need them to.” That is the dream and the yearning that drives super hero narrative, and which underlies our fascination with the archetypes it exposes.
Because we always need heroes. And today, in our world, it has become awfully difficult to spot them (at least among our supposed leaders). And we need heroes today, in places of great power, on local street corners, and in our schools. Because Cap and the Avengers, Supes and the JLA, are just stories. And they won’t save the day, no matter how much we may need them to.