Why Superheroes Matter More Than Ever In 2016


(Warning: This is a spoiler-filled post discussing plot points and reveals from Captain America: Civil War, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, DC Rebirth #1 and the already-infamous Captain America: Steve Rogers #1)

Superheroes are a means of control. What if you could control the weather? What if you could read minds? What if you were a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist with dead parents and a guilt complex? What if you could fly?

But more than that, they assert that we can change the world not only with the right abilities but also with the right character. What would you do? What would you accomplish? Would you still be you? Through superheroes, we confront our reflections and grapple with both our potential and our limitations. And right now, keeping it 100 after dealing with trolls myself in the last few months, fandom is broken.

Let’s not assign blame, other than a deserved heaping on the compassionless who harass and/or send death threats to anybody. A profound lack of happiness drives those people to spread vitriol at the slightest provocation. Instead, let’s talk about and analyze why superheroes are at the center of these controversies, what our current iterative crop says about our culture and ourselves.

Steve Rogers aka Captain America has to teach a hard lesson to Scarlet Witch about the limitations of heroism in Civil War, a lesson that’s particularly hard for Tony Stark aka Iron Man to take – they cannot save everyone. Cap’s central argument in the film is that their individual freedom is not something to be traded away for false promises that they can. But that’s not enough for the billionaire with the guilt complex exacerbated by Scarlet Witch’s apocalyptic vision. He wants to save everyone. Both are heroes at odds over the right method of hero-ing. Psychologists David A. Pizarro and Roy Baumeister argue in their book Our Superheroes, Ourselves that the superhero stories are “moral pornography,” offering repetitious resolutions to various moral quandaries.

This lesson is ingrained deep in Batman v Superman as well, but it’s illustrated in such a depressing and nihilistic way. See, it’s not that Bruce is wrong at the end of Batman v Superman when he darkly intones men “fight,” “kill” and “betray.” Civil War is not different from BvS in that regard but the difference is that the former never compromises the heroes’ moral integrity (which incidentally are what’s supposed to make them heroes in the first place, not the nicknames, gadgets or powers).

They get close, because that’s what good drama is. When Tony attempts to kill Bucky at the end of Civil War, the fact that he’s literally trying to kill him has emotional weight because Tony is not a guy who usually commits premeditated murder. When Steve prevents him from killing Bucky, he’s as much saving Tony as his friend. Tony indulges vengeance as a vice i.e. something that feels good but has no ulterior motive than personal satisfaction.

This point is hammered home all the more when, outside, T’Challa confronts Zemo and witnesses the full cycle of revenge just as he is on its precipice. He not only stands down, letting go of the destructive anger Tony can’t, but prevents Zemo from killing himself, because he understands death only begets more death and should not be indulged for mere pleasure’s sake no matter the crime.

In Civil War, Steve is shown constantly saving people, for example when he’s rescuing Bucky in Germany and constantly distracted saving armed guards Bucky puts in danger to slow him down. In contrast, Batman v Superman has Superman only seen saving people in a short montage, meant to translate his superheroism.

But how about actually showing and detailing his heroism? Why is this what we’re skipping through rather than forming the spine of the story? Regardless, this film forgot what superheroes were supposed to be way earlier, during the Africa sequence. What a film doesn’t show is is as important as what it does and you know what it doesn’t show? Superman saving Jimmy Olsen.

The man who’s “faster than a speeding bullet” doesn’t save Jimmy Olsen from a headshot? I remember sitting in the theater as that moment teed up thinking it would be a great way to establish that Superman (and the creative team) had learned from the backlash to Man of Steel. I also remember sitting in shock that they way the filmmakers chose to demonstrate his character “development” in the two off-screen years since Man of Steel (which ended, you may recall, with a raging battle cry of ‘What the f*#% were you thinking Superman???’) was to show up late and wordlessly plow a guy through a wall. This all-powerful being can’t seem to think of literally any other solution to that problem, given his godlike abilities.

Superman has the power to do almost anything he wants. But his real superpower is that he chooses not to. For a film that was supposed to learn this lesson from the previous one, this one somehow ended up in the opposite direction, even weirder even darker and even edgier. Yes, Superman can’t save everyone, everywhere. This is the fair point also raised by Cap. Does that mean Jimmy Olsen had to be executed?

According to Snyder, yes because he couldn’t think of anything better to do with the beloved character and thought he’d “have fun with him.” It’s utterly fascinating some of the decisions here and while they were undoubtedly many cooks in this kitchen, this is an auteur’s vision, from the big stuff to the small. Granny’s Peach Tea? Classic Snyder. Hell, he couldn’t even resist the whole “cut a false god’s cheek with a spear” bit. Blaming him for Batman v Superman is like blaming a monkey for throwing his feces. He did exactly what was expected of him, to a fault. He told EW back in 2008 that comics without violence and sex bored him. He also said The Dark Knight Trilogy, the best example of the “dark and gritty” era of comic book movies, wasn’t dark enough because Batman didn’t get prison-raped. Seriously.

You could call it ”high-brow” comics, but to me, that comic book was just pretty sexy! I had a buddy who tried getting me into ”normal” comic books, but I was all like, ”No one is having sex or killing each other. This isn’t really doing it for me.” I was a little broken, that way. So when Watchmen came along, I was, ”This is more my scene.”

Everyone says that about [Christopher Nolan’s] Batman Begins. ”Batman’s dark.” I’m like, okay, ”No, Batman’s cool.” He gets to go to a Tibetan monastery and be trained by ninjas. Okay? I want to do that. But he doesn’t, like, get raped in prison. That could happen in my movie. If you want to talk about dark, that’s how that would go.”

He got direct a superhero movie with that stuff. It was called Watchmen. And his problem on display on film is still around for Batman v Superman: he transforms deconstructionism into glorification. In many ways, this core Snyder feature encapsulates the dark age of comics ushered in by the likes of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (incidentally a major influence on BvS). Those deconstructions were specific to that age, almost photographic in a way to capture those moments, whether by including real historical context or themes of the time. This storytelling became popular, really popular, so people copied them throughout the 90s and 00s, taking apart concepts, heroes, villains etc. The very concept of storytelling was questioned in new and “meta” ways.

But sometimes, you have to put it back together again. Moore now decries the impact of his seminal work. He showed the violence and wrecked psychology underneath the superhero facade and the frightening implications of their existence. However, Snyder’s translation celebrates the dysfunction and fetishizes the “violence and sex.” It’s the difference between having a point and doing things because they “look” or “feel” cool.

In The Mindscape of Alan Moore (available on YouTube), the famously reclusive author offers his unvarnished thoughts on this.

“The alchemists had two components to their philosophy. These were the principles of Solvé et Coagula. Solvé was basically the equivalent of analysis, it was taking things apart to see how they worked. Coagula was basically synthesis, it was trying to put disassembled pieces back together, so that they worked more efficiently. These are two very important principles which can be applied to almost anything in culture. There has recently in literature for example been a wave of post-modernism, deconstructionism. This is Solvé. Perhaps it is time in the arts for a little more Coagula. Having deconstructed everything, perhaps we really should be starting to think about putting everything back together.”

His later work, such as Tom Strong and Supreme, was free of the cynical and nihilistic tone of his earlier work, the lingering influence of which returned to the fray this week with DC Rebirth. The comic rebooted DC comics’ current universe “the New 52” aka exactly the kind of over-the-top, missing-the-point dark stories that have overwhelmed comics and movies. It’s hard to go farther than Joker wearing his own his decaying face after cutting it off. That’s about as dark as you can go.

So the writer of DC Rebirth, Geoff Johns (the DC figurehead who also happens to be taking the helm as co-head of DC Films) literally reveals that the whole reason the New 52 sucks for its heroes is because Dr. Manhattan, operating from the alternate DC universe where Watchmen exists, interfered by taking away the New 52’s ‘hope.’ It’s brilliant and absolutely cutting meta-commentary on the downside of Watchmen‘s legacy.

My boss Umberto broke down the post-BvS behind-the-scenes musical chairs currently going on at Warner Bros.’ DC Films division in last week’s Heroic Insider (embed below and if you haven’t watched before, fix that immediately in time for today’s new episode).

As Umberto says, hope and optimism are the new operating words in regards to righting the DCEU ship. Hope is a powerful word in the DCEU already. It’s what Superman’s symbol is supposed to stand for. And optimism will come down to directorial vision. But he also added a third word – redemption.

It makes sense in and out of universe. Writer Chris Terrio previously described BvS as an Empire Strikes Back-esque middle entry in a trilogy begun with Man of Steel and concluding in Justice League. The characters, like Batman now recovered from his Superman-hating haze, are itching for redemption and the creators are looking for the critical and commercial smash they thought Batman v Superman was going to be. By all reports, they had no idea what was coming when the reactions poured in.

No doubt Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 writer Nick Spencer had a notion their twist of making Captain America a longtime secret Hydra agent would be controversial, but they saw probably didn’t expect the sheer venomous uproar upon arrival. It became part of broader comic and cultural narratives, the same way Batman v Superman did. Both seem to undermine the very concept of their title characters and because of that, it feels to some fans like a personal betrayal.

Cap and Supes are products of their time, the quintessential superheroes with the quintessential characteristics. At the very beginning of Hollywood’s Heroic Age, there emerged the estimable 1978 Superman with the towering performance of Christopher Reeve as the Man of Tomorrow. Over time, the cultural winds turned against the character. What was fresh, light-hearted and fun became stale, naive and tired in the post-Watchmen era of “dark and gritty.” The failure of Superman Returns seemed to affirm that people didn’t want that Superman. But Superman Returns failed because it’s not a very good film, let alone blockbuster.

Enter Captain America, a character who a decade ago was dismissed as a jingoistic anachronism who now has three films and nearly $2 billion in box office alone to his name. Captain America: The First Avenger is a much better Superman film than any since the Donner days, thanks largely to Chris Evans’ amazing portrayal. But what the sequels The Winter Soldier and Civil War do is even more astonishing: they prove a story about an all-powerful goody-goody can be morally interesting and dramatically compelling without compromising the character.

When people thought about “patriotic boy scout,” they used to think Superman first, champion of truth, justice and the American way. Today, that Superman is seemingly dismissed as outdated, in his own movie no less. And in that void, Captain America stepped up, our 21st century Superman.

So I understand why the twist hurt. After all I’ve listed, the heroes failing at basic hero things (Batman v Superman) and heroes unable to agree on anything (Civil War), the idea that yet another hero had turned ‘evil’ in comic-dom, especially the Star-Spangled Avenger, drove people up a wall. My interpretation of the backlash, underneath its ugliness, meanness and spite, was impatient hurt. Exhaustion from being let down by our heroes and this was seemingly another idol fallen.

And yet. While our heroes may stumble and fall, what they stand for is eternal. These are the character values we gather around, the fandom that connects us all. Whatever changes Superman and Captain America face, their legacies remain – legacies meant to be lived up to by us, the audience.

So ask yourself, in this time of great access to our personal heroes, why alienate them? Why blow up their lives with hateful messages? Why allow the same negativity in your own world? Is that what Cap would do? Is that what he would stand for? Ultimately, all the hateful outrage is not only mean-spirited but meaningless; the issue sold out and went back to the presses. It’s called voting with your wallets for a reason. We’ll see how real the outrage is when the second issue comes around.

In the meantime, being a hero is as simple as treating others with basic decency. Giving into hate, fear and anger, letting them corrupt our souls and make our decisions, hurts ourselves as much as others. That’s the message Black Panther, Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne learn. Our heroes are our role models. And today they matter more than ever.

Sam Flynn

Sam Flynn

Sam is a writer and journalist whose passion for pop culture burns with the fire of a thousand suns and at least three LED lamps.

  • Napi

    This article is pointless from the birthmoviesdeath link (“fandom is broken”).

  • I love the sanctimony of something like this, or the utter hypocrisy and complete and hilarious obtuse writing from someone like Faraci, who has spewed so much vile hatred into social media over the years.

    “Fandom is broken”?

    Why, because a very, VERY small percentage of “fans” act like unhinged idiots on social media, often mirroring the way the people they target often act in the same space, like, once again, Devin Faraci?

    It is Faraci who is often one of the single most unhinged people on social media at any given moment. The man who has offered to help someone kill themselves; actively wishing death on another human being over a disagreement? Who viciously attacks people who think differently than he does on ideological matters?

    That is the guy you hold up here as some kind of call for peace and harmony?

    Come on, Sam. Be better.

    • Samuel Patrick Flynn

      I’m sorry your hatred of Faraci overwhelmed everything else I had to say. It makes me sad that I spent all my time writing this piece for others’ to dismiss it just because Faraci is referenced indirectly. I wasn’t commenting on Faraci’s past but using one of his articles as a jumping off point for my own article.

      I don’t know Devin but I know friends of his, I know he runs a pretty good website and I think he’s a good writer. I don’t know what Devin thinks today, whether he regrets stuff or whether he’s made apologies. I have an inkling hes done those things but I’m not sure and I don’t support everything the man does. But I do know that his article got me thinking, which is the work of any good writing, and it added a lot to my thoughts about where superheroes stand in 2016. For that, I’m grateful. Thanks for commenting!

      • I don’t hate Devin Faraci. Life is too short to hate, Sam.

        But his article was referenced and became a jumping-off point for what you wanted to say. I know he and El Mayimbe are friends, and that’s cool and everything, but anything else you reference involving this particular article he wrote is completely invalidated by the person he actually is based upon his actions. Faraci can write a pretty sentence about how he thinks things should be, but that doesn’t reflect the man he actually is. He doesn’t even follow his own advice!

        I don’t know if it’s hubris or obtuseness (going to assume obtuseness) for someone who has done the things he’s done and continues to do to write about how “fandom is broken,” but it’s a bunch of hyperbolic nonsense.

        Again, there is a very small number of very vocal idiots on social media who act in a disgusting manner, and at this point, we need to stand up and say, “Enough,” to those who want to tar and feather all fans because of this very small number of vocal idiots. Just because social media amplifies everything anyone says doesn’t mean those things are being said or believed by “everyone.”

        Like how Donna Dickens wrote so many inane blog posts on HitFix about Star Wars fans being “racist” because of YouTube commenters saying racist things about a black Storm Trooper; as if all of those idiots compromised the entirety of Star Wars fans.

        We have a very illogical tendency as a culture to look to social media to provide confirmation bias for whatever it is we happen to want to believe about whatever groups of people we don’t like. Politics. Sports. “Fandom.” Donna Dickens WANTS to believe much of fandom is comprised of misogynistic, racist, angry white males, so that is what she goes looking for, and thanks to social media, is able to find. Yet her postulation that all or a majority of fans are the way she so desperately wants them to be based on her personal ideology is false; it’s confirmation bias produced from an actual small number of people she then uses as “proof” to paint an entire group of people with a broad brush.

        Some idiots send wishes of a painful death to Faraci (after he’s done that to others, btw), so that means, “Fandom is broken.”

        Someone at Rolling Stone writes an (false) article about a rape at UVA, so that means UVA has a rape culture problem (it doesn’t).

        People in the media, driven by the instantaneous and amplified nature of social media, keep playing this dangerous game of confirmation bias based on little to no actual, factual evidence.

        As well-intentioned as you may be above, you also delve into hyperbole, and when you do that, you actually wind up alienating people who are not anything like you’re describing because you paint with a broad brush.

  • Ned Scneibly

    “he transforms deconstructionism into glorification”

    Yup. Watchmen the film always left me cold. It seemed to be missing the point somehow. This is the most succinct way to describe why. Snyder’s Batman And Superman would slip right into his Watchmen world.

  • LupeX

    I came here to read an article about what superheroes mean to different people and instead got a thinly veiled Marvel worship piece that bashes Snyder and the DCEU.
    It’s disappointing to see how you have botched the central themes of Batman V Superman & Watchmen in spectacular fashion.
    Simply put – you are wrong.
    Your take away from Batman V Superman and Watchmen is that Snyder glorifies violence? This is a shallow analysis, I encoruage you to dig deeper within yourself. Both films are actually critical of violence on a subtext level.
    They deal with the irony of using violence to achieve peace, the heroes loose their innocence along the way, thwir morailty, a piece of their soul and at times their lives. On the other hand most comic book superheros go about destroying lives and hurting people with a wink and a smile and a complete ignoring of how they affect both the people they comw into contact with and themselves as heroes.
    Snyder also portrays violence in a visceral aggressive brutal way, much like violence is portrayed in Greek drama/ Homeric literature. It is not like the over choreographed stylistic violence in other comic book movies which is attractive and makes us want to fight like Captain America. It is done this way to show that violence is not fun, it is not cool, it is dangerous and when you apply it, there are dire consequences.
    I do not wish to write an entire article as a rebuttal since I’m not a member of your staff. But I would encourage that a person who has a platform such as yourself should look deeper than the shallow analysis and misinformed perceptions that the average fan boy would bandy about. You’re better than that.

  • Darthmanwe

    Only the introduction and the conclusion paragraphs relate to the topic sentence of this piece. The entire body narrates how two seperate universes are behaving these days and why.

    You didn’t address WHY fandom is broken.

    ARe you afraid to comment on the WHY of it? You don’t know WHY it is broken?

    Or, as I suspect, you know the reason why it’s so broken is how you earn money.

    Technology without social advancement, in this case being, super advancement of internet lapping moral advancement of human race by ten thousand times, is why fandom is broken.

    It’s why ISIS can murder people by tonnes and still garner %18 approval overall, it’s why Trump is basically president, it’s why far right parties EVERYWHERE are getting stronger, why racism and religion based discrimination is at an all time high, it’s why even gays are hateful to their fellow men.

    Fandom being broken is just a symptom how humanity is broken altogether.

    You just don’t want to go into this detail because it would basically shine light on how your source of income is just the part of the problem overall.

    TL DR: Let’s all stop pretending to be good people and just admit we are all basically bad people only stopped by social conventions. As those conventions get weaker in the face of advancing technology, so do our conviction to be better people.

    • Yeah… except for the ISIS part, not much of what you say is true or based in any fact.

      Like I say below, you’re looking at the very small vocal minority compromising the worst of social media to confirm your bias.

      Everything you say here could be flipped and turned around and said about the things which you agree instead of oppose. About Bernie or Hillary. About the far left and the cancer of socialism. About the intolerance and online bullying of progressivism.

      In other words… “Lighten up, Francis.”