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.