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When “The Boys” premiered on Amazon last year, it arrived as an alternative to — and commentary on — the superhero tropes in DC and Marvel films.
The show’s premise intentionally flips those cliches and templates on their heads: What if superheroes weren’t forces for good, but egotistical corporate shills? And what if a group of vigilantes worked to expose and take down these celebrity superheroes? Sometimes that question is played for laughs, sometimes it’s played straight. Either way, the be-costumed “heroes” are anything but. This season, one of them — Stormfront — is an actual Nazi, just to underscore the point that much further.
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, showrunner Eric Kripke was asked his thoughts about the comic book movie genre, considering that he is skewering it so heavily, and he gave (to my ears, at least) a provocative answer.
He’s actually a fan of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), he said. But: “My issue with them are not the movies themselves, but that there’s too many of them overall.”
He’s not the first to make that observation. The mid-budget drama has slowly disappeared in favor of a constant deluge of blockbuster movies from Marvel and DC. And they tend to take up most of the oxygen in the pop cultural conversation.
Here’s the downside to that, in Kripke’s opinion: “Not to overstate it or be overdramatic, but it’s a little dangerous to train an entire generation to wait for someone strong to come in and save you … the way that pop-culture conditions people subtly, I think it’s conditioning them the wrong way — because there’s just too much of it.”
That’s a bold statement. Is there truth to it? I’m always curious about how — or if — the movies and TV shows we watch shape the way we see the world.
Our brains understand that superhero stories are fiction. But we wouldn’t watch these stories if they didn’t have an effect on us.
“That impulse to look to someone else to help us is reinforced by these movies, but I don’t know that I would say it’s dangerous,” said Kristen Warner, a professor at the University of Alabama whose research focuses on television and film.
If anything, she said, superhero movies are reflecting certain realities back to us: That we do feel like bystanders in a larger fight, while a very small and select group of people determine our fate.
“And in a myriad of ways, these movies are taking the temperature and anticipating things to come,” she said. “It’s creepy think about the way Thanos in ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ snaps his fingers and everybody disappears. That feels precinct in our current moment; suddenly we have this pandemic that is taking people away in waves.” And it didn’t have to be that way.
Kripke’s point is more general: That the basic superhero template of someone swooping in to save the day has become the predominant message in pop culture, so much so that it has a subconscious effect on how we think about our own agency in the real world.
“I do think there is something important to be said about the corporate weight and sheer enormity of something like the Marvel franchise,” said Sharon Ross, a professor at Columbia College Chicago who teaches media history and critical media studies.
“But I also think there are some gaps in his logic. I went and talked to my kid because he was the one who made me watch all the Marvel movies — he’s in seventh grade — and I said, ‘So tell me, do you think these movies make you think differently about who’s responsible for the world being a good place?’ And he said, ‘I think we’re supposed to look up to them (the superheroes), and then we’re supposed to act like them — because most of them, in the beginning, were normal people. Like Spider-Man. He was a normal kid. And then he got powers and had to learn to do the right thing. So if I get power of some kind, I need to do the right thing with that power.’ My kid’s 12! So I hesitate when I see showrunners make these broad statements, because they have the tendency to often undermine the sophistication of the viewer.”
The guiding principle of superhero movies is that in order to actually affect change, you either need powers that don’t exist in real life, or a ton of money. Does that reinforce a feeling of powerlessness in our own lives?
“I think for some people that might resonate,” said Ross, “because it’s matching the current cultural climate. People are feeling helpless about a lot of things — how to deal with racism; how to deal with sexism; depending on what your voting proclivities are, how to deal with who’s in the White House. And COVID is amplifying that sense of powerlessness; that there’s nothing that I can do. The superhero genre offers us an escape from that, so we do get to see somebody win in the end and I think it’s healthy for us to have that sense of escapism.”
Here’s Warner’s take: “Kripke makes a really good point that we shouldn’t yield to imperfect institutions and wait for someone else to come in and make it better. But it is not a zero-sum game. We also have to allow ourselves to hope for something bigger than ourselves. It has to be both.”
Sometimes fiction does have a distorting influence. A common refrain about Britain’s Princess Diana was that she grew up reading the romance novels of British author Barbara Cartland and not much else — which left her with an unrealistic sense of what functional adult relationships actually look like. Or as historian Lisa Waller Rogers puts it, those romance novels provided “an escape into a fantasy dream world. Diana came to believe in the magical rescue power of princes, waiting for her prince to ride up and take her away to her own happy ending.”
That’s why there’s some validity to the claim Kripke is making, Ross said: “Stories do shape our narrative.” The princess fairy tale was a hardy trope even before Hollywood, but it’s not all that different from superhero fantasy. They’re both rooted in the idea of being saved. I can understand why we crave that. Or as Warner put it: “It feels good to have someone fight on your behalf.” It does. Life is hard. We want someone to fix it and make things better.
“I think that’s a huge part of the appeal of superhero movies,” said Ross. “It relieves us of some of the constant stress of trying to figure it ourselves. And most people get it; they watch it and they feel good because they get that escape.” Ross has a background in psychology and she said that “when we talk about any single movie’s effect on someone, it’s the baggage you’re already bringing with you when you watch it — which is often is a lot of other movies and TV shows you’ve seen.”
I’m less drawn to superhero stories than I am to police procedurals, but I think on some level they scratch the same itch: They start with a big question or dilemma, and by the end it’s resolved. They momentarily impose an order on the messy chaos we experience in real life.
Cop shows have come under increased scrutiny in recent months, especially in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police. Earlier this year the racial justice organization Color of Change published a study looking at 26 current cop shows (including “Chicago P.D.”) and found they reinforce dangerous misperceptions: That police brutality is routine, harmless and necessary. “These series make heroes out of people who violate our rights,” the report found and it’s funny how that the word “hero” — so loaded in this case — comes up often in conversations about who we’re rooting for when we watch TV and film.
And the interesting thing is, I think about this disconnect between fact and fiction when I watch these shows; I’m aware of it. I don’t know that people have the same thought process when watching superhero movies, though, because the experience is precisely about giving yourself over to the fantasy.
“And I think that’s OK,” Ross said. “If all the time we’re watching media, we never use it just to feel better and to escape, it would lose part of its charm.
“People aren’t watching ‘Friends’ because they’ve having profound conversations about it,” she added. “It’s because they need it to escape sometimes.”
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