The Superhero Complex

It takes a finely tuned mind to detect a pattern emerging in recent cinema. Actually, it’s more a barrage than a pattern – a barrage of fit men in spandex: The superhero flick. Super saviours in the past decade have come in all shapes and sizes. There are those born of scientific endeavour like the Incredible Hulk, the Amazing Spiderman or Captain America; each made more formidable by their title. Then there are the billionaire playboys born to rescue, like Ironman and Batman. Sometimes they band together and call themselves the Avengers. We even get behind the likes of Superman and Thor who are, let’s face it, aliens from outer space. In the wake of the highly anticipated Dark Knight Rises, one question should be asked: what keeps us returning to see a superhero save the world from a dastardly villain?

There are easy answers which don’t really address the issue. Perhaps it’s escapism, or the joy of seeing the outsider overcome his social awkwardness (Spiderman, Captain America), or the moral burdens of having too much money (Ironman). But all movies are a form of escapism – so why this form? The basic formula for a superhero flick remains the same. Hero with a flaw, villain with a plan, villain threatens hero and all hero holds dear, hero overcomes both flaw and villain to save the day. There has to be a greater pull, something more subtle which seduces us. Does going through an economic downturn fuel us with a need for fantasy? But Toby Maguire’s Spiderman, Eric Bana’s Hulk, and Brandon Routh’s Superman predate that nasty recession business.

The answer rests somewhere in our zeitgeist – the word that’s fun to say and impossible to define. Perhaps as a society we are a damsel in distress, in a state of constant peril waiting to be rescued; and the superhero is the only one who answers the call. Repeatedly. A sorry picture, certainly, but take a look around and breathe in the war, terrorism, famine and climate change. All are problems of such magnitude it’s easier to abandon the cause before you begin to solve them. In all this gloom, the superhero appeal is obvious.

Give him two hours and the man in the mask always prevails. Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate to life off-screen. Yet, the more technology progresses, the more we expect instant solutions. Don’t know the song playing, when the bus is arriving, the Olympics schedule? There’s an app for that. When this ease doesn’t transfer to political problems, we are left blinking and bewildered, disappointed and depressed. The superhero, on the other hand, does not disappoint. He unequivocally defeats the bad guy. The bad guy is unequivocally bad, and the hero irrepressibly good. Back in the real world wars are riddled with more than fifty shades of grey, and even heroes can’t be safely idolised. Lincoln gave speeches supporting slavery, Gandhi outsourced violence to his followers, Obama failed his first term.

As it happens, the trajectory of the world’s love affair with Obama goes a long way to explain the superhero complex. Although adulation for Obama is not limited to the US, it is safe to say Americans idolise presidential families in the way monarchies are adored by their subjects. Yet a lot of that idolatry has soured when – surprise – Obama hasn’t been able to single-handedly pass all the reform he promised. It’s a side effect of living in a democracy, not an autocracy. We have a tendency to throw all our hopes in the arm of one (super)man, one international convention, one law, one solution. The only world where that tendency is realistic is where men fly and come in the colour green. That should tell you something about the reasonableness of such an expectation– and why so many of us will go to see the new Superman.