Since I now reside in Madison and am reduced to accessing the Post online, I was reading the editorial page of the Wisconsin State Journal the other day and the editorial cartoon caught my eye. A teenage boy and his date are leaving the movie theater where they have just watched “The Avengers.” He says to her, “That scene where all of them overcame partisan gridlock just in time to save the world was totally awesome!”
Coupled with the recent news that “The Avengers” has earned over a billion dollars—putting it in the rarefied air of Harry Potter and “Avatar”—it got me to thinking. (Yeah, yeah, I know: it’s about time.) We are at the brink of yet another summer of super-hero blockbusters dominating the screen and moviegoers’ consciousnesses (and wallets), and the line seems to stretch on into the century. And I learned that “Avengers 2” has already been “green lighted,” as they say in Hollywood, and that “Iron Man 3,” “Thor 2,” and another “Captain America” film are all on the way in the next few years. We are also at the official opening of election season, with the promise of plenty of “partisan gridlock” to follow.
Now, American filmmakers—just as do those folks who produce TV shows—like nothing so much as repeating what has worked in prior years. And repeating and repeating it, ad nauseam. Eventually, however, the viewing public tires of the same old same old, so the dream factories have to come up with something innovative or, at least, not quite so shopworn. So why have the superhero flicks, from “Superman,” “Batman,” “Spider Man” through the sundry “X-Men” and including “Avengers,” proved such a durable formula?
I think the cartoonist is onto something. The original Superman and Batman were spawned by the Depression, World War II, and the ensuing Cold War, all times when the country faced a lethal enemy and needed to act. That is, the usual disagreements inherent in a democracy had to be put aside so we could present a united front--or so the argument went. Squabbles and stalemates were not just frustrating, they were downright unpatriotic.
The superhero, by contrast, brooked no arguments; only pantywaists and pinkos disagreed with the tactics that brought the current threat to its knees. Even though large segments of Metropolis or Gotham might have been trashed while the ineffectual police looked on agape and the local paper editorialized against them, the heroes had to be given free rein. Discussing and debating and voting were just passé, not to say dangerous.
At the end of “The Avengers,” after the superheroes have destroyed whole blocks of New York City in the course of saving the earth from alien invaders, sure enough, a U. S. Senator calls for an investigation of them. We know about politicians: they’ll talk the matter to death and come to a stalemate. They may even get mad, but they won’t turn into giant green Hulks and start bashing evil demi-gods.
The temptation to carry this video game mentality into the public arena is great. In the last election cycle, we actually had a candidate chanting, “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran!” Some of the current combatants have also been guilty of this kind of oversimplified approach, which is, let’s say, counterproductive, however much it may satisfy our need to solve complex problems quickly.
The movies are entertainment, finally, but they do tell us a lot about ourselves, good and bad. A superhero is not going to appear and save us from evil incarnate—or from ourselves. And that’s good.