What Superhero Movies Say About Society: An Essay Inspired by a Trip to the Movies

Superheroes have been part of American culture for decades. In recent years, however, these masked crusaders have enjoyed a leap in popularity, from the humble realm of playgrounds and comic book shops to the workplace and dinner tables all around America. Many of us grew up watching superhero shows and reading comic books, but nostalgia alone fails to provide a satisfying explanation for the vitality and longevity of the superhero as a cinematic subject. There must be something under the surface.

What makes pop culture popular other than its abilities to tap into the collective subconscious of a demographic and deliver what the audience desires? Countless man hours and billions of dollars are spent on market research in order to plumb the mind of the average American consumer and, using this information, design something that they will consume. On top of this, capital is invested in product promotion through the use of targeted advertising to increase visibility and desire for the product. The consumer must be convinced, because 1) Entertainment is not a necessity for human survival, and 2) There is a glut of consumer choices for where to spend disposable income [detestable—the idea of wealth suitable for disposing in the pursuit of fickle flights of fancy]. As such, studios and ad agencies must do their research and battle fiercely to win finite consumer funds (though easy credit has undoubtedly played some part in increasing consumer spending).

So what is it that keeps people coming back to the theatre in droves to sit through minor riffs on the same, tired superhero action movies and buying more and more merchandise and collectibles (i.e. figurines that adults feel justified and proud of purchasing and accumulating and displaying like trophies [representing what accomplishment?? The sacrifice of hundreds of dollars to attain something with no purpose other than announcing one’s devotion to a particular imaginary fantasy character?])?

We must start with the recognition that modern, commercial media exists in order to sell something. We are constant targets of a sales pitch. So what do superhero movies sell us? What values, beliefs, and hopes do they peddle and reinforce to the viewing public? Perhaps this line of questioning may provide a suitable base of inquiry for us as we follow our guide down the rabbit hole and into the realm of delusion. Wigglyboo S. Kurkjyotzski, our gal on the inside, recently contacted us with a document detailing her findings after she made the brave decision to accept a social invitation to the Saturday matinee showing of Spiderman: Homecoming. Her observations and experiences, while unsettling, are included in what follows. We have preserved the text as she sent it to us. Our editorial comments are enclosed in {curlicue brackets}. Any capitalizations, underlinings, and emphases are her own unless noted otherwise.

Let me start off with my background. I’m not a big fan of popular media. In fact, you could rightfully say that I despise popular media. At the same time, I find myself curious about its appeal, especially given its insipid nature. As an arrogant, wayward youth who ascribed to the idea that meaning was to be chiseled from reality in the dogged pursuit of artistic expression, I rejected popular media (in favor of slightly less-mainstream genres which still served the same purpose of attracting devoted adherents, only these genres existed on the fringes of mainstream culture. Fascinating now that I think about it. When you reject conformity to one school of aesthetic, you end up conforming to another, who is waiting to welcome you with open arms and a carefully-cultivated “outsider” aesthetic. The only truly alternative music is the alternative TO music, i.e. shunning the influence of lyric and rhyme and melody and instrument over your consciousness). However, because I belong to that drifting, confused plankton of post-modern, post-industrial American teenagers, I had identity issues, and identifying with a group affords the intoxicating illusion of meaning and purpose. It was only later that I realized that one’s personal preferences in terms of musical genre, film directors, literary movements, fashion, etc. have no actual bearing on who someone is or the meaning of their life. But that’s a story for another day. Ah, youth…

So why then did I go to the movies, when I shudder at the idea of willingly subjecting myself to barely-disguised brainwashing techniques? Simple: I was curious. Nowadays, when I find myself trapped in a moving automobile and engulfed in vile, depraved lyrics promoting promiscuity, materialism, hedonism, and violence (this on popular daytime radio stations), rather than literally sticking my fingers in my ears (my comically ill-fated initial attempts at protecting myself from filth), I instead listen carefully and try to figure out what the point of the music is. What is its overt, apparent message, and what ideas and values does it enforce and glorify? How do the artistic choices of instrument, lyric, chorus, melody, etc. support this message? By applying this scientific approach to media, I have learned a lot about the dominant popular culture.

So it was with that perspective that I accepted an invitation to go to the movies with a group of friends. A superhero movie, no less—that inane, artless, special effects-laden, loud, violent, primitively macho, jingoistic, dogmatic, reliable crowd-pleaser. BLECH! I thought that it would serve as an interesting cultural experiment and information-gathering mission. I had puzzled over the enduring popularity of the genre after conversations with family and friends. I mean, what’s the big freaking deal about dudes with muscles in colorful Spandex flying around and shooting laser beams out of their eyes and levitating stuff and beating people up? Perhaps this outing would help me understand.

Thus it was with the intention of unearthing the pulsating purple alien gemstone (Spoiler alert!) that lay at the heart of the superhero genre that I swallowed my personal tastes and embarked on the all-American activity of going to the movies..

At 2 PM, I set out to the neighborhood movie theatre. The parking lot was overflowing with vehicles. People had willingly sacrificed 2+ precious hours of this glorious sunny weekend afternoon to sit in a dark room elbow-to-elbow with strangers in seats possibly infested with head lice (the seats, not the strangers, though they could be infested too, I suppose…) to gaze unblinkingly at manufactured projections cast on a wall. Ladies and gentlemen, modern man’s allegory of the cave. Shuddering, I stepped out of the shimmering heat outside and into the bleak, cold belly of the cinema.

Despite the cars outside, the lobby was deserted save three unsmiling adolescents with orthodontia manning the concessions counter. I attempted to goad one into exchanging pleasantries, but she ignored the bait as she asked flatly if I wanted popcorn or a soda. Kids these days… And ten dollars for a medium popcorn and drink??—something that cost you literally pennies to produce?? No thank ya ma’am! This dinosaurian thriftiness may be part of what has earned me the affectionate appellation of “old person” among my siblings. I nervously watched the register, ashamed of wasting money on such frivolity. The ticket cost $5.39, but somehow the total rang up to $7.39, about what you would earn for an hour’s worth of minimum wage labor in my state (after taxes). I paid in cash thank you very much. Them rotten credit card companies ain’t gettin’ a penny of transaction fees off me! Disappointed in myself, I made a mental note to donate at least a reciprocal amount as soon I returned home. I find it an extravagant waste of one’s finite wealth and time to whittle it away in the aimless pursuit of fantasy. $7.39 is $7.39, whether you are a prince or a pauper. Unnecessary expenditure does not become justified just because your bank balance has a few extra zeroes.

And why should I spend my hard-earned money to pad the bottom line of a movie studio? In the past 6 weeks alone, according to the movie earnings reporting site Box Office Mojo, the current top-10 grossing films have made a total of 955 MILLION DOLLARS. Americans offered up close to a BILLION DOLLARS to the ticket counter. There are people in this country going to sleep hungry, dying from exposure because of lack of shelter, afraid to leave abusive relationships for lack of refuge, and we gleefully fritter away our money to subsidize peddlers of delusion: those movie stars with gleaming teeth and smooth skin and great hair whose trials and triumphs we obsessively track in the tabloids, those exalted, oft-mentioned beings who dwell in celestial palaces, unburdened by mortgages or college loans or cockroach-infested apartments or a stagnating job market.

Anywho, I passed on the popcorn and drink, though there was a time long ago that I would have been unable to resist the aroma of that neon-yellow artificial butter liquid they squirt onto your popcorn. If you think about it, the smell actually functions beautifully as a priming ritual. You get to the movies and immediately you’re assaulted with these powerful draughts that tell you that yes, you are in fact at the movies. This venture is like all the other joyous trips to the movies you’ve enjoyed in your life. And from there, habit takes over and before you know it, you’ve spent close to twenty dollars on a few handfuls of puffed-up corn kernels, diluted carbonated flavored sugar syrup and ice, and a small box of candy. Ah, the smell of capitalism doing what it does best, seducing the gullible into parting ways with their pocketbooks.

Once you are handed your ticket slip, you are directed to the dark cavern which is playing your particular film. If you arrive once the movie has already begun, you stand in silhouette at the back of the room, vision filled with the glare of the screen and the darkness at the fringes where the moviegoers sit. You squint and scan the backs of heads, trying to find your caravan. After long agonizing moments where you consider returning home, a hand shoots up and waves. You travel downhill on the dark, narrow pathway toward the row your friends are situated in. Your journey is eased by the flashes of illumination from the screen. You unload your baggage, get comfortable, and prepare yourself for the collective escape into the land of make-believe.

Now the actual film:

I missed the opening sequence, but I catch up pretty quickly. It’s the sixth Spiderman movie and third rebooting of the franchise since 2002. The premise: a young man is bitten by a radioactive spider and develops superpowers like adhesive hands and feet and the ability to cast thick ropes of spider web-netting from his wrists (used to swing from building to building, reach far objects, apprehend criminals, etc.). Peter Parker (real name of the titular Spiderman) has been recast as an excitable, impulsive, gregarious knucklehead. He’s a goofy high schooler. I begin to see the appeal already. Who wouldn’t like the idea that an average person could attain superhuman powers, overcome his unfortunate personal circumstances, and become a successful, popular icon all because of a chance encounter with the unknown? I file this away for later.

Peter is desperate to prove himself, as are so many of us. The repeated theme of high school and homecoming functions to stimulate a sense of familiarity, yearning, and nostalgia among different viewing demographics. The beer-bellied adult remembers his heyday, the high schooler feels that tickle of recognition and pride, and the youngster looks forward to the day he too will put on a suit and bring a corsage to his date’s home and meet her dad and drive to the dance. Speaking of dates, there is a love interest of course. She is a tall, beautiful, doe-eyed maiden who is improbably drawn to our awkward, dweeby leading man. Sure. Why the heck not? The hero always gets the girl, and it offers solace to the rest of us. For a few hours, we can live vicariously through the human-shaped golems gesticulating above us. Maybe we’ll find true love someday too.

Peter is characterized as brash, immature, head-strong, and severely lacking in common sense (despite his intelligence). He’s just a kid, his friend reminds him in one scene. I can identify with the frustration of post-pubescent adolescents who would have been called adults in another time and place but in the present have been consigned to preparatory facilities called high school where they shuffle from room to room and are forced to obey arbitrary rules and do things they don’t care about because someone else says it’s important. Peter’s rebelliousness touches that part of us that resents the limitations society sets on us. We sympathize with him when he excitedly taps his foot after school, awaiting that glorious ringing of the bell which will free him to soar and swing above the city. Who among us has not looked forward to release from the drudgery and toil of the modern workplace or school?

Similarly, Peter resembles many of his viewers in that he has no source of guidance in his life. Spiderman’s background in the canonical works is an orphan under the sole custodianship of his aunt May after the tragic murder of her husband and his beloved father-figure Uncle Ben by a common street thug. Aunt May is incarnated in this film as a New Age-y lady uniformed in shorts and a tank top with a penchant for giving sincere, heartfelt advice at comically inappropriate moments. Other than the material furnishings she provides Peter, she is essentially useless as a parental figure. The male parental figures in the film are: Tony Stark, a fast-talking, jet-setting billionaire weapons technology mogul and leader of a group of an established firm of superheroes Peter longs to be a part of; Happy, Tony Stark’s employee and Peter’s “handler,” charged with keeping an eye on Peter from afar but who never answers his eager text messages or voicemails; and the faculty leader of the academic decathlon team Peter is a member of, who is completely forgettable. Peter faces the world alone. We can relate to this as viewers, for how many of us have waged war on conflict alone, struggling to come to terms with our own dual identities, concealing our own secrets, unable to attain connection with either peers or parents. No one understands us.

And because there is no help or direction for bright-eyed Peter, he must develop his own sense of right and wrong. He must rely on his own abilities and intelligence. His indiscretions are waved away. The boy is learning. In this brave new world, each of us discovers what is right and wrong for ourselves. There are no universal mandates except one, which Peter strives to uphold.

Duality of Good and Evil

The sole guiding light and only law in the universe of the superheroes is that good must fight and vanquish evil, no matter what. Unfortunately, life is not black and white. In the movies, good and evil are typically simplified into law-abiding and law-breaking. Because criminals break the law, they are evil. Worse, the fight against evil is simplified from the fight to destroy the ideological underpinnings that allow people to justify killing, torturing, abusing, exploiting, and oppressing their fellow man to the simple physical subjugation and capture of the individuals who perpetrate such crimes. Treating the symptoms of a diseased society can only get you so far. The superhero’s job will never be done. You can lock away a hundred men committing crimes, but until you give them a legitimate way to earn money for their families, you will have a hundred criminals to catch again tomorrow.

In one telling scene, an amateur Spiderman uses his spider webs to deter a grand theft auto in progress, only to find out to his dismay that the man trying to enter the car is the owner of the vehicle. There is a lot of yelling and squabbling from the neighbors. Spiderman stands down sheepishly. Charming. Only, in the real world men are killed for far less as a result of the nervous trigger fingers of the law. In another scene, Spiderman bumbles his first interrogation. The man, identified by the benevolent AI as a known criminal, pities him and gives him the intel he needs. “You know, I have a nephew in that neighborhood. I don’t want him to get hurt.” Despite his cooperation, Spiderman refuses to free him. “Sorry, you’re a criminal! You deserve it! Bye!” He calls out jubilantly behind him. He’s a bad guy.

Furthermore, there are gross double standards in all of this. Peter Parker is no angel. During his self-appointed, extracurricular jaunts around town, Spiderman flaunts dozens of rules and laws, destroys millions of dollars worth of private property, and endangers many lives. Off the top of my head: He skips school, sneaks out of the house, travels without his guardian’s consent, lies repeatedly, trespasses, spies, steals, commits assault, hijacks a car, drives without even knowing how to drive, hacks a U.S. security system, recklessly endangers thousands of lives, and through sheer negligence almost destroys the Washington Monument. Other casualties include: A plane carrying millions of dollars of merchandise, half a mile of the Coney Island beachfront, a popular neighborhood sandwich shop, a ferry, several dozen automobiles, countless fences, mailboxes, roof tiles, etc., all acceptable sacrifices for our hero. For these minor indiscretions, he receives no sanction or criminal charges.

This double standard results in a worldview which justifies those labeled as “criminal” being held accountable for their crimes and the immunity of law enforcement from punishment for law-breaking done in the name of apprehending bad guys. It all fits very nicely into reinforcing the criminal justice status quo. Crimes are committed by bad guys, who must be seized by any means necessary. One captured, they are handed over to the law, where absolute justice is meted out. The innocent could never be falsely imprisoned in this fantasy realm of absolute good and absolute evil. This false dichotomy lulls the public into believing in the benevolence of the state and its apparatuses. What goes unexamined is the unfairness of the judicial system in sentencing, the immunity from the law that wealth and power afford, and racially-motivated policies which result in disproportionate ethnic populations entering the criminal justice system despite equality in crime rates. Of course, this is just a superhero movie, but the depiction of crime reinforces the idea that being a criminal is an inherent trait and criminals deserve to be locked up.

In the fantasy universe of film, good guys (and law enforcement are obviously good guys) are unerringly noble and good. They are incapable of doing anything wrong, so their utilization of power will always be for the benefit of mankind. It is this simplistic understanding that makes it possible for the populace to accept and even welcome the idea of enhanced surveillance of their daily habits, despite the appalling violation of privacy and the unimaginable power such technology would grant to law enforcement officials. In a delicious twist, the frustrated Peter Parker resents being followed by Tony Stark and removes the in-built tracking chip from his suit, although he is tracking a criminal overlord with a tiny drone. The sole moment of cognitive dissonance occurs when his friend asks, “Aren’t you tracking them?” It is waved away by a childish insistence that “This is different!” Ah, these are bad guys we’re dealing with, the audience remembers. It’s OK for the good guys to track people.

In the world of spy thrillers, war movies, and superhero films alike, technology (whether that be sophisticated weapons technology or artificial intelligence or surveillance gear) is motivated by and implemented with unfaltering good will and justice. This is in stark opposition to its use in real life (see: the atomic bomb, eugenics, military drones, ad nauseam). Furthermore, technology is portrayed as a natural refinement and enhancement of human nature. Technology will help us save the world. This completely ignores the essentially amoral nature of any tool (a sword may be a decoration on a wall or an agent of massacre, depending on the intention of its wielder).

And because this is fantasy, the reconnaissance attained by surveillance is infallible and the accuracy of weapons is unquestionable. Even the lethality of arms is adjustable by the user’s will and intention. Accidental discharge is an impossibility. Good guys are in full control, and they would never kill someone, not even criminals, so we turn a blind eye to anything which does not agree with this childish oversimplification. Spiderman’s fumblings accidentally activate “Instant Kill Mode,” announced softly by the disembodied female voice who dwells in his suit. “No no no, I don’t wanna kill anybody.” He stammers. In the real world, the most sophisticated military drones in the world bomb and kill thousands of innocent people through negligence, lack of oversight, and the banal sort of evil that inspires men to use other human beings as target practice. But hey, we’re the good guys! And good guys, by virtue of their goodness, can only do good.

Finally, there is a sense of pseudo-religion to all of this. Since the inevitable banishment of the old gods from the earth as human ingenuity found rational, worldly explanations for the inexplicable, a new understanding of the world is in order. In the void of these departed divine elements, superheroes represent a new kind of deity and hope for humanity, each striving to save a world that has been left exposed to evil and chance turns of fortune. The superhumans represent our desires for ourselves, humans who have been enhanced and bettered in some way. It is through betterment of ourselves through technological progress and increased power that we too may rise above our mortality and limited abilities and attain the status of the divine. In the film, the characters in need in these movies implore the heavens for “HELP!” and Superman (or Spiderman or Batman, etc.) descends, a beaming, benevolent god in the shape of a man.

I must interject here, lest you think I ascribe to this view: In the name of the All-Merciful, the Extremely-Merciful: There is no deity, divinity, or lord except Allah. Allah is eternal and in need of nothing. He has no child nor was He born. There is nothing remotely like Him. I have submitted myself to Him and whatever He commands, prohibits, and decrees. He gave me life and he will make me die and I will be returned to Him for judgment. Phew! May Allah protect us from speaking about Him without knowledge or fabricating lies about Him to suit our desires.

Back to the movie: In one striking scene, Spiderman strains to hold together two crumbling parts of a Staten Island Ferry (which, funny story, he accidentally destroyed). He is suspended in a state of semi-crucifixion, arms outstretched, screaming as he is almost torn apart from either side, as if offering himself as a sacrifice for the salvation of the crying passengers on deck. The imagery hangs on the screen for a few moments. The boat groans as it tries to fall apart. At the last possible second, his savior and benefactor the wealthy god of technology and god of the demi-gods Iron Man AKA Tony Stark descends from the sky at the precise moment that calamity was about to strike, using his superior technological innovation to mend and weld and snap the boat back into one piece. The world is in order again. Thanks Iron Man! You saved the day!

Never mind the One who made the day and made the night and made the sun and moon and stars and earth and sky and your parents and their parents all the way to the first man and arranged events so that you could even be born. What a marvelous Creator. How quickly we forget.

These repeated instances of deus ex machina (i.e. unlikely last minute salvation from the jaws of death) fascinated me throughout the film. The modern world is abandoning religion in droves, but people still need to tell themselves stories to try to understand the suffering and challenges of this life. Indeed, anthropologists will argue that religion is a human invention to try to understand the world. But today, when technology and science and reason have done the arduous task of making sense of the workings of the world, why do rational, enlightened, non-believing men and women spend time watching fairy tales about ghosts, demons, vampires, werewolves, witches, wizards, shape-shifters, and superheroes? Is this not a new secular mythology we can guiltlessly indulge in? And don’t we mention their names and love them and advocate for our chosen totems?

In the movie, man is ultimately alone. No one is watching out for him, so he must be his own savior. Toward the end of the film, Spiderman lies crushed under the rubble of a collapsed warehouse. He screams and cries and moans. He will die here. No one is coming, we realize. He has been abandoned. This is too cruel, we think. He cannot die! He is Spiderman! Spiderman himself realizes this, and WILLS himself to life several tons of broken cement from his back. He’s a superhuman, risen above the indignity of death when he does not want to die.

I shuddered. This is the parable we take our children to see? These are the myths that we mull over? These are the values we ascribe to? Self-determination? Stubborn refusal to accept fate? The superiority and agency of mortal will and strength over forces far greater than himself?

سبحان الله و الحمد لله و لا إلاه إلّا الله و الله أكبر و لا حول و لا قوة إلّا بالله

Exalted is Allah, all praise is due to Allah, there is no god except Allah, Allah is great, and there is no capability or might except by Allah.

“It’s just a movie,” you may insist, rolling your eyes. “Lighten up.” “It’s all in good fun.” OK. All I’m saying is, the mind believes what the eye sees, and the heart comes to love whatever you feed it. You are free to content yourself with passive, uncritical consumption of whatever plays on the glowing screen in front of you, but I urge you to think next time. Don’t let delusion drown you. Entertainment exists to occupy you. Don’t let fantasy or falsehood nourish you or tell you what to think or what to value or what to do. There is only One who deserves that obedience, and He is Allah.

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