I have a theory that the explosion in popularity in superhero movies has less to do with exploitation of the Marvel and DC franchises and more to do with the American Zeitgeist. I think that ordinary Americans are trying to deal with a raft of stressful and complex issues such as “The war on terrorism”, “The war on drugs”, actual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, immigration, gun crime, school shootings and a weak economy which has depleted property values and consequent self-worth.
Politicians are supposed to be leaders, who steer the people through problems and dark days. In the USA of today the politicians use fear to motivate support for their cause. Tea Party politicians in particular offer blunt and seemingly simple, compelling solutions. Intelligent voters can see that these populist, far right wing groups have the potential to bring the world to ruination. Concernedly the Tea Party stance is increasingly mirrored by far right wing parties across Europe such as the UKIP in Britain and National Front movements gaining traction in France, Austria etc. Hitler and Mussolini used exactly the same tactics to secure power in the 1930’s in the great depression.
Let’s come back to the USA, where adult Americans are barraged by fear about issues over which they have no control from the mainstream politicians, and are offered simple, but frankly lunatic proposals from a right wing that offers Tea instead of good American Coffee.
Why are adult Americans so open to Batman, Superman, Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Flash, the Green Hornet, Captain America etc etc etc? My hypothesis is that superheroes represent a “Deus-ex-machina” type solution to the problems of the world. For a time you can sit in a dark cinema, suspend your disbelief, push away the fear and let the big guy in the garish bodyform suit sort out the bad guys.
Just to establish the rules here, I am looking at the kind of movies that appeal to adults, as opposed to kids and teenagers. What reflects the adult zeitgeist of a period?
During the 1930’s when everyone lived in misery during the depression, movies provided an escape into a world of luxury, excess and class. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dressed in fine outfits and danced their way across art-deco sets, took cruises, flew in aircraft, wore furs and drank champagne. For the cost of a few cents the public could escape the misery of their daily grind and imagine the good life.
During the 1940’s the film industry was employed as a propaganda mouthpiece. The government wanted stories that glorified the brave soldier or the resilient stiff, working unpaid overtime in the factory. Films celebrated Mom, Apple Pie and the defence of the American way of life. Foreign enemies were mocked, vilified and lampooned.
Look back to the 1950’s and the early 1960’s and the public got to choose what they watched again. What they watched was the western. Soldiers returned from battlefields in Europe and the Pacific, got married and went back to work in civvy street. America had a sense of re-birth of the pioneering spirit, the manifest destiny of the American dream. The world was free because of America and America was embodied by the spirit of the Cowboy. The bad guy wore a black hat, the good guy showed restraint, but when pushed he came out shooting from the hip and rode into the sunset with the best girl beside him. Good, simple days when you knew what was what. The enemies were clear, it was the Commies. Senator McCarthy’s Committee on un-American activities could ride roughshod over any objections.
The 1960’s began with 50’s style films such as “The Great Escape” and “The Magnificent 7”. It ended with “Midnight Cowboy”. The dream of Camelot collapsed with the assassinations of the Kennedys. The USA was dragged deeper and deeper into Vietnam. The Civil Rights Movement exposed the hypocrisy of the “American Dream” which was reserved for white folks. The kids born in the 1950’s let their hair grow long, listened to the Devil’s music, Rock and Roll, smoked drugs and wore flowers in their hair. This was reflected in how film taste changed over the decade. In the western movies you could no longer tell who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. Outlaws became heroes, such as “The Wild Bunch” “Cool Hand Luke” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. Order was subverted in films such as “2001 A Space Odyssey” and “Planet of the Apes”.
The 1970’s were characterised by the impeachment of Nixon. The authorities could no longer be trusted. Society failed the ordinary person. We got films such as “The Deer Hunter”, “Taxi Driver” and “Apocalypse Now” where US soldiers are destroyed by the impact of Vietnam. “One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “A Clockwork Orange” ask who is mad, the patient or the system? The Godfather films, Serpico and Chinatown point to widespread corruption in policing, planning and judiciary systems.
The 1980’s were a funny decade for film. The invention and widespread availability of Video led to a fundamental restructure of the industry and the films. Old fleabag downtown movie theaters were replaced with modern multiplexes in suburban shopping malls. The target market shifted from adults to teens. The doors opened for John Hughes and his Brat Pack actors with The Breakfast Club, 16 Candles, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Buellers Day Off, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and the renaissance of the chapter play in films such as the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series, ET, The Princess Bride, Stand by Me, Back to the Future, Dead Poets Society, The Goonies etc. As such the 1980’s resembles the 1940’s in that the industry, not the consumer, drove film choice.
The “Caring, Sharing 1990’s” were soundly reflected in our choices of films of hope and redemption. Saving species and the planet (Jurassic Park), compassion for people and challenging preconceptions (Shawshank, Good Will Hunting, Forest Gump, The Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile, American History X), challenging consumer culture (Fight Club, American Beauty, The Matrix, Trainspotting). It was a great decade for considered, intelligent and thoughtful films.
Then arrived 9/11 and the rise and rise and rise of the Superhero movie! For me the Superhero appears to have replaced the good Cowboy of the 1950’s. He is on the side of right, and always wins against evil in the end, saving the promise of the American Dream.