TERRA INCOGNITA: Superhero movies and the decline of America

The presidency of Donald Trump is one result of that, but Trump isn’t the only product of this superhero-infested culture.

Cinema concept of vintage film reel with popcorn and movie tickets (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Cinema concept of vintage film reel with popcorn and movie tickets
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
When asked about the new Avengers film, one of my work colleagues wondered: “I don’t understand how this suddenly became acceptable entertainment for adults.” Indeed. Yet CNN included a long profile of the new film on its homepage. “Read this before you watch Avengers.”
So I read it. It walks the reader through the Marvel cinematic universe and explains that it is “more than just action-packed fighting, cool super suits and memorable one-liners.” Is it? Well, it turns out that over the past 10 years all these superhero movies have been leaving hints along the way to some new movie called Infinity War.
Keep in mind that this is an article meant for adults readers: “The Aether, also known as the Reality Stone, is a main plot point in Thor: The Dark World. To give a little Asgardian history, there was an ancient war between the gods of Asgard and a race called the Dark Elves. Asgard won and the Dark Elves’ ultimate weapon, the Aether, was buried in a secret location that Dr. Jane Foster accidentally stumbles upon.”
How did movies about superheroes, and not even normal, easy to understand superheroes but ridiculous nonsense about Dark Elves and Asgard, Thanos and Thor, become normal entertainment, and part of our news cycle? The amount of media coverage of the new Avengers movie outpaces coverage of the peace meeting between North and South Korea. Knowing about the keeper of the “soul stone” is after all certainly as important as ending a 70-yearold war that affects the lives of millions of real people.
One could argue that the coverage of Avengers: Infinity War is simply the result of this film franchise raking in huge sums of money. Avengers: Infinity War was reported to have had the second biggest box office opening day in history, as audiences threw $106 million at cashiers to watch hours of superheroes doing battle.
But the question is why.
What did moviegoers watch in 2017? Thor: Ragnarok ($841m.), Guardians of the Galaxy 2 ($863m.), Spiderman: Homecoming ($880m.), Justice League ($635m.), Wonder Woman ($821m.). Fully half the top-grossing films were superhero movies; two others were cartoons.
In 2016 the biggest films included Captain America, Deadpool, Batman v. Superman, Doctor Strange, alongside several cartoons and Star Wars: Rogue One. If we keep going back we find more Avengers films, Guardians of the Galaxy, Transformers films, Spiderman films, Batman films, and more cartoons.
But if we go back to the 1990s we find The Sixth Sense, Saving Private Ryan, adult comedies such as Something About Mary and Runaway Bride. And don’t forget Titanic, Air Force One, Twister, Jerry Maguire, Die Hard, Apollo 13, Forrest Gump, True Lies, The Firm, Sleepless in Seattle, A Few Good Men, Basic Instinct. And in 1985 audiences actually made The Color Purple one of the top movies of year.
This is a reminder that 2001: A Space Odyssey was released 50 years ago, to wide acclaim. Let’s compare that masterpiece with what viewers are offered today. 2001 was thoughtful, interesting and had a bizarre ending. Like many films of that era, from the 1960s to 1980s, it included interesting dialogue and extreme attention to detail. Compare, for instance, the complex characters in Alien (1979) to those of Alien Covenant (2017). The 2017 film follows basically the same plot line as the 1979 film, but the characters are humorless and plastic. The film makes up for dialogue with lots of people being killed off, in relatively rapid succession.
Superhero movies are not supposed to make us think. They don’t include interesting dialogue and they make up for their lack of intellectual weight with explosions and special affects. What is happening in movies reflects what is happening more generally in America and American culture.
Netflix has a new documentary out called Bobby Kennedy for President. It’s a fascinating look at the 1960s. Kennedy comes across as genuinely interested in many problems in America, whether it is racism and the inner cities or the rights of farm workers. Compare that with today. Does anyone really think that most political leaders in America take the time to seriously examine major problems? Politics has become a pastiche. It has become The Daily Show, which used to mock it.
America has become a nation that worships superheroes over reality. Superheroes provide quick-fix solutions. They wow you with their powers. They basically do magic, and just like kingdoms of old that relied on magic for all their answers, the US has increasingly come to believe in magical solutions.
The presidency of Donald Trump is one result of that, but Trump isn’t the only product of this superhero-infested culture. The new Amy Chozick book Chasing Hillary also reveals the superficial nature of Trump’s campaign adversary. Clinton was out of touch with younger campaign staffers but the campaign thought that talking points and shtick could overcome the need for Bobby Kennedy-style caring about something and trying to get to the bottom of it.
Go back and watch the Clinton and Trump campaigns and then go watch some political coverage from the 1960s. Americans in the 1960s wanted answers and politicians sought to provide them. Even if they were as corrupt then as they are now, and lied just as much, there was more genuine contact with the voters. It wasn’t a reality TV show. And movies were not just about superheroes. They were about real life.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.