I’m late to the party on this, but I’ve wanted to address the rising criticism of superhero properties and storytelling for some time. Life interfered. Fortunately (or unfortunately), these criticisms keep coming so it’s just as relevant now as it was a month or two ago when these pieces began to propagate.
The first piece I saw that really struck a chord with me was one in which Simon Pegg said superhero movies are “dumbing us down.” He said they deal with “childish” subjects and take away from “real world issues.” Other than the irony of “Scotty,” from J.J. Abrams’ dumbed down Star Trek films (especially …Into Darkness…) saying this, I think he’s merely jumping aboard a popular train of criticism.
Superhero films are a genre like “action” or “comedy.” Criticizing superhero films for dealing with “childish” subjects is akin to criticizing comedies for making dick jokes. And to that I would say, a good dick joke is funny. So it is with superhero movies, too. X-Men: The Last Stand is a bad superhero movie. The Dark Knight is a good superhero movie (dare I say film). Or apples-to-apples, X-Men 2 is a good superhero movie.
The point is criticizing all superhero movies as “childish” is generalizing. It would be like criticizing Jaws as a “shallow” monster movie. It has popcorn moments to be sure, but the theme of Jaws is “man vs. nature.” It’s about a man with a fear of the water forced to confront a literal monster that lives in the water that threatens his home and his family. So, yes, there is a “monster” in Jaws, but it’s so much more than a monster movie.
More than anything I’m arguing that superhero films, like any other genre, have good ones and bad ones. Criticizing them all as childish—as the same thing—is simply inaccurate. It’s also conveniently forgetting the time before 2000 when Batman and Robin was the only kind of superhero movie we got. We should celebrate the serious and reverent way these properties are adapting to live action. We should even celebrate the quirky, fresh re-imaginings that we get like Guardians of the Galaxy.
We should be thankful that we now get movies like The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. TDK was a movie with a guy who dresses up like a bat, yes, but it was also about self-sacrifice and what it takes to do the right thing. It was about chaos and savagery vs. humanity. TWS was about a guy who wears stars and stripes, yes, but it was also about unchecked government power and the surveillance state. It was about an individual who always believed in the system learning that the system was wrong. Of course, there was a lot of punching and kicking in the midst of these heady themes, but that doesn’t negate the fact these were good movies independent of the fact their protagonists wore outrageous costumes.
But superhero movies don’t need to confront serious issues to be taken seriously. The Avengers was two hours of fun. It’s exciting to see the disparate characters from separate franchises get together and fight a war. And what’s wrong with that? So what if the summer of 2012’s best movie moment was a giant green muscle monster punching a humungous flying alien worm in the face? It was a rousing moment that excited and galvanized the audience.
Superheroes are the Greek gods of the modern era. They tell larger than life stories about issues that matter. Spider-Man teaches us about power and responsibility. The X-Men teach us about discrimination and unfair judgment. Batman teaches us about the difference one man can make and about justice. It goes on and on.
More than anything I think these criticisms are elitism of the worst kind. The content contains costumes and superpowers so it couldn’t possibly have something substantial to say about government surveillance or corrupt institutions, etc. I wouldn’t describe Simon Pegg as an elitist, but I would call him a hypocrite. He’s made his money with comedies about zombies and aliens and super-spy thrillers and I don’t see how that material is any less childish than Iron Man or Batman. In fact, I would juxtapose The Dark Knight against Mission: Impossible 3 (or any of the slew of sequels in which he’s taken part) and argue there is less “childish” content in TDK than in those films.
But you know what? It shouldn’t matter. This shouldn’t be a pissing contest over what movie is less “childish.” When we get into the business of criticizing content based on superficial values rather than what those films are saying or how well the story is told, we go down a dangerous path.
Movies and TV are escapism, but they’re art, too. It’s hard to admit that about something like CHiPs or CSI: Miami, but it’s storytelling at the very least. But Game of Thrones is art. It’s about dragons and giant wolves, but it’s art. The people that put that show together take great care to present a highly visual, dense, visceral show that challenges the viewer. To bring it back to superheroes, specifically, Daredevil on Netflix goes to great pains to present a world of visual and figurative beauty where characters are motivated by their demons as much as their better angels. And yeah, the hero is a blind guy whose other senses are superhuman and he’s kind of a ninja.
If we’re going to criticize superhero films and media, let’s criticize them for when they don’t rise to the high standard that we’ve earned with The Dark Knight or Daredevil. Let’s not criticize them simply for existing based on some arbitrary standard of what’s “childish” and what’s not.