Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Superhero Shenanigans: Is it a bird? Is it a Plane? Is it Real....or just Pretend?


Who doesn't love a superhero? Caped crusaders flying in to rescue the world from hideous villains/threats/disasters in a midst of special effects and cataclysmic consequences and 'do-doo-do-doo-do' rousing score?  I'm quite addicted to the superhero genre. I enjoy all superhero films. And before I lose you - nooo, I am not a sci-fi geek or comic fan, or anything that implies hysteria and obsession, and am not about to engage in gobbeldy-gook geekisms. I just enjoy superheroes. Have done from an early age. (And yes, I am a girl, despite my unusual preference for boys Superman and He-Man printed pyjamas when a toddler....)

My favourite film when I was a kid was the Superman films with real-life hero Christopher Reeve. I enjoyed the fantastical premises. The action. The flying. The baddies. The super feats of saving. That's superhero movies on the surface - all escapism and special effects. But to an older me, there was something about that blue and red clad hero flying in to the save the day that welled something up in me - daring, courage, justice, pride, strength, sacrifice... huge concepts. Conjured up by the allegorical content of the films. Scratch the surface of superheroes and you'll find more than just lycra and spandex.

Ever since studying a course on fantasy literature at college (no, not a geek  I swear - it had the lesser reading list!), I've come to view all things escapist as super-real, instead of surreal. All escapist literature is not merely so; rather it is a more heightened way of talking about reality. Hence, every escapist/fantasy/superhero tale you come across, is always something more. Look closely and you'll find an astute allegory lurking behind the effects and extravagance. 

This superhero musing comes as a result of seeing the summer's mandatory superhero flick 'The Green Lantern', which explores the very human struggle between fear and will both being personified respectively as a monstrous entity and protective green guardians. A bit lacklustre if watched purely for the surface formulaic plot, but much more interesting if taken on the metaphorical level; how fear is a formidable enemy, almost inconquerable, and how our will, our courage, is the only means of defeating it. And so, it got me to thinking about the whole superhero genre and how metaphorical and allegorical it is, and has become. 

I read an article once analysing the Americanism of the superhero genre. For a start, all superheroes are American, the setting usually an iconic American city. And have you noticed that most superheroes' costumes consist of red and blue? The colours of the American flag. Therefore, Superman is supposed to be the quintessential American hero, saving the free nation from all kinds of unsavoury unfree states. Notice how many times Superman is pictured in the films beside the American flag, raising it, protecting it, restoring it to its high-flying glory? Superman is a symbol of American freedom and the American urge to protect this freedom at all costs. Superman first appeared in comic form in 1938 when the threat of Fascism was rearing its ugly head, and soared in popularity during and after the war years, when America faced uncertainty and an identity crisis in the face of Communism and Cold War competition. What better way to revive a sense of patriotic identity and self-belief than a superhero national ego? The superhero brand also consolidated America's status as super-power, not a mere comic creation indeed, but more of a symbol that was submerged into the national subconscious.

The allegories in superhero films are mainly to do with good vs evil, morals vs scruples, and courage vs fear. Remember the baddies in Superman? The three menacing black-clad dictator-like figures - one of them even termed 'General Zod' - who terrorised earth seemingly unconquerable until the power of good, i.e. democracy, in the shape of Superman defeats them? Good will always win out over evil in superhero films. Lex Luther, the wealthy villainous crook, could be seen as an example of corporate crime and mean materialism eating away at the innate moral heart of America. But Superman defeats him too. Not to mention the Christian influence present in a god-like Jorel sending his only son to redeem the earth.  And in Spiderman, there's the moralistic doctrine of responsibility "with great power comes great responsibility" says Peter Parker's uncle in the first film, a maxim which is carried through in the rest of the franchise providing its moral fibre and substance. 

The superhero genre more than any other, celebrates the power of the individual to change the fate of the world, a concept that is uniquely and exclusively American. The cult of individualism is given no greater arena than superhero flicks. Spiderman, the second most popular super-hero after Superman, sees an ordinary kid - geek to be precise - suddenly turned to great as a result of a fortunate accident and with the power to save lives and  achieve everything he wants. The American dream dressed up in more red and blue lycra. Superman accomplishes everything o solo mio too, no sidekicks necessary, relying solely on his strength of will and strong sense of self. And on a more - vampire - note, in a memorable finale episode of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', just when we think the end is nigh for the superhero/slayer Buffy, being held at sword-point by a demonic Angel with seemingly no way out, who taunts her by saying something to the effect of 'no family, no friends, no weapons, now what do you have?', Buffy rebounds from defeat defiantly with a sudden epiphany: 'I have me',  before grabbing the sword and sticking him with it in a priceless you go girl moment.  Superheroes can never die see. Their strength of will and moralistic nature makes them invincible. Self-belief and self-actualisation is at the heart of all superhero tales, which is probably what makes them less pretend and more real, and consequently more popular. (And which maybe explains my penchant for them; as a strong-willed Aries, I believe in the power of self-empowerment and self-sufficiency above all else!)

And superheroes are still as relevant today as they were years ago. They have adapted to match the requirements of today's societal problems. X-Men looks at the very modern problem of racism, and an advancing technology prowess. Avatar is more an  elaborate environmental parable than a 3D entertaining romp. Iron-Man tackles the contentious issue of the arms industry, while the revamped Batman franchise delves into the darker psychology of crime, violence and corruption in what was a coup for comic-book films with the hugely successful 'The Dark Knight.'
So there you have it. Think superhero flicks are all fun and fantasy? Think again. Don't tut off the next superhero release, shunning it as superficial. There's more to it than that. Look closely. Is our hero decked out in red and blue? Does he (oh and they're nearly always 'hes' - hmm that's a theory for another day...) engage in patriotic behaviour, such as returning the stars and stripes to its high-flying glory? Is he prepared to sacrifice anything including his life for the world's safety in an Utopian idealistic political style? What other metaphors can you uncover beneath the blockbuster front?

If all else, this view of the genre may help keep you awake if you ever have the unfortunate experience of viewing 'Transformers: The Dark of the Moon', second sequel or prequel or whatever it is, or any of the Transformers for that matter - if you ask me the most boring comicbook films ever made... Machines taking over the earth? Must be a metaphor for death by monotony -  yawn... Can anyone find any others amidst all the machine robot rubble?? I'd be interested to know!

Over and out,


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