October 30, 2019


We don’t need another superhero

By Russell Marks
Image from ‘Avengers: Endgame’

Avengers: Endgame

Are superheroes the form of entertainment we deserve, but not the one we need right now?

Endorsing Martin Scorsese’s recent description of Marvel movies as “theme parks”, Francis Ford Coppola declared them “despicable”. “We expect to learn something from cinema,” he told journalists in Lyon. “We expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration.”

The implication is that, for Coppola and Scorsese, the endless Marvel film series and – presumably – the endless spinoffs on streaming TV and the endless efforts by Marvel’s main competitor, DC, to cash in aren’t delivering anything for their audiences beyond not-so-cheap thrills. But to expect cinema to “enlighten” its audience is to adopt a very narrow definition of cinema. The medium can also be an escapist opiate for unhappy masses (in Jacques Ellul’s formulation), state propaganda, commercial marketing and – as the communications theorist George Gerbner hypothesised half a century ago – a reinforcement of existing experience and structures of power.

Rather than decry its auteurist blandness, we might ask instead: what function does the superhero genre play, culturally, in a world of collapsing faith in the institutions of the liberal international order and its democratic guardians? In a world where men like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and Peter Dutton grip the levers of state power, where narcissism-enhancing internet echo chambers propel us into one of a handful of dramatically divergent corners from which the possibilities of democratic engagement seem increasingly remote? Why, after various fits and failures, is this genre so reliably bankable now?

At the core of the superhero genre there has always been a challenge to democracy’s institutions. Vigilantes necessarily operate outside structures and systems of state control, and superhero vigilantes had a special function as expressions of modern American individualism – their intrinsic goodness didn’t need constraining by the constitutional checks and balances that were built into the nation’s institutions. Superman began as a poster character for the New Deal; Batman fought the criminals instead of the police; Spiderman developed an ethic. Importantly, all of them remained more powerful than their superpowered enemies. Even still, motivated by sources of concern ranging from the House Un-American Activities Committee to Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, comic companies quickly brought their characters into the fold, so that by 1966 Adam West’s camp Batman was a “fully deputised agent of the law”.

Fifty years on, the genre’s newest entries – the string of TV series featuring Marvel’s Daredevil, Punisher, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and others, and DC’s supporting cast for Batman (principally Gotham and the no-longer-teen Titans) – are obliged to present their heroes as deeply and inherently flawed, to suggest that their obsessions flow from a combination of past trauma and mental illness. Of course, the Batman story (a child witnesses his parents’ murders and decides to dress up as a bat chasing criminals) doesn’t make sense otherwise, and nor does any other character’s.

There was always a sense that Batman in particular represented a missed opportunity. Why, when Gotham City was at the mercy of the social disorder produced by mass corruption among its political class, did a man as motivated and resourceful as Bruce Wayne waste his time fighting the symptom – urban criminality – instead of the cause?

The answer to this question lies in the function that stakeholders, from audiences to company executives, expect the superhero genre to fulfil. Criminality is to be addressed by punishing individual perpetrators – cast as evil, grotesque villains – rather than by fixing broken systems. Rules and red tape that restrict police and intelligence and defence agencies don’t apply to superheroes. Vengeance and violence are virtues.

Which was fine, perhaps, when superheroes were confined to kids’ pop-art comic books and to campy kitsch on TV, because the violence was minimal and cartoonish. Now, though, it’s hyperreal and brutal. In Titans we see Dick Grayson so damaged by his adolescence as Bruce Wayne’s ward that he uses lethal, unsanctioned violence almost as a compulsion.

The worlds of these new, broken superheroes look suspiciously like our own. But the concepts and institutions of our liberalism – inalienable human rights, the United Nations, the rule of law – are invariably absent. In their absence, or because of it, are vengeful superheroes using dubious (a euphemism for illegal) methods to achieve outcomes generally presented as unequivocally good.

It seems almost quaint to recall that as recently as 2003, the United Nations’ marginalisation in the United States’ decision to invade Iraq was a cause to protest it. Despite the world’s increasing multipolarisation, similar concerns are now rarely expressed. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s extra-judicial killing by the US in Syria this week was merely one of thousands  of people (not including “collateral damage”) executed without trial and in flagrant breach of international and American law since 2001, but most reportage curiously failed to mention this fact. This is just one example among many that indicates just how far Western cultures – including Australia – have departed from their professed liberal ideals, and how much they now resemble the worlds of the comic books and their screen adaptations. The claim here is not that the superhero film genre has caused this departure. But it has helped us normalise it.

Which brings us from Tim Burton’s 1989 foray into a Gotham City corrupted by crime boss Carl Grissom, through the hard-edged politics of the Gotham of Bruce Wayne’s youth, to Joker, which has been in cinemas for a month and is one of the box-office sensations of the year.

What is it about this confused, bleak and vicious story of a marginalised, traumatised and mentally disturbed man at the mercy of a city whose ruling elite ridicules and ignores him at its peril, who retaliates against successive humiliations by murdering his tormenters, that resonates so intensely? For perhaps the first time we see the superhero genre inverted – Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas, is a typically callous member of Gotham’s elite; the circumstances surrounding his politics and death makes Bruce’s eventual decision to play crimefighter all that more ridiculous. But the inversion, while overdue, doesn’t explain the popularity.

So what does? Following Gerbner’s analysis, the answer is more likely to be found in the way Joker reflects audience attitudes rather than challenges them. As in the rest of the new superhero genre, there is no welfare state here; the state has long since withdrawn from any meaningful role in its poorer citizens’ lives. There are certainly no human rights. The film offers little by way of class analysis. Instead it offers deep resentment – of the kind that ultimately fuelled Trump’s election – and an alternative: murder.

Unlike the US, Australia still has a functional welfare state. But it is under consistent attack by ruling elites who want to withdraw services to pay for periodic tax cuts. Joker’s Gotham presents the dystopian, nihilistic future Australians might expect should they follow the US into this kind of public administration. Other films of the genre – like The Dark Knight – glorify the benefits of mass citizen surveillance while demonstrating none of its costs; two bills currently before the Australian parliament would authorise the sharing of biometric data gained through CCTV cameras equipped with facial recognition technology.

Certainly, the superhero genre rarely inspires. It may be mere escapism, but it’s worth asking: escape from what, and to what? The kind of social order it normalises is quite a long way from liberal or democratic.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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