Yesterday like about half of America I found myself in the movie theater watching Marvel’s version of The Avengers. A movie review will come in time I suppose (it’s pretty good, if you are into that stuff) but I confess I enjoyed it less than I ordinarily would simply because I am sick to death of super-anything. Give me Mediocre Man who fights crime by picking up litter and trash, or PMS Woman, who only goes off during that time of the month. At least they would be different.
What am I doing here? Why am I, a fifty five year old man, sitting in a theatre trying to feel entertained by a plethora of superheroes, all with their own minor flaws? Yes, I know it is entertainment and it is also good business ($200M is not a bad day’s take). I went because my wife wanted to go, and with my semester of teaching behind me I had little in the way of excuses.
I must be weird but if I am going to spend $11.75 for a matinee movie in 3D, maybe it should be about something not wholly meaningless and vapid? Maybe I could end the movie, well, moved. To me, that’s a reason to go to a theater: to feel something or maybe see a perspective that I haven’t before. Supermen, yeah, I’ve done that before. With each new superhero movie the genre becomes even more ho hum. The Avengers was typical: millions were spent in lavish special effects that try to take me to places I have seen a million times. What? Aliens want to destroy Manhattan again? Gah! There is nothing super about superhero movies anymore. It’s a genre utterly played out. The wrinkle in The Avengers was to bring a bunch of them together in the same movie to try to save the earth from calamity. All I could think about was I hope the bad guys win! That would at least be different and probably better for the planet than the hopeless wreck humans are rapidly making of our one and only ecosphere.
Superman was an American creation, along with virtually all the superheroes out there. This is likely not coincidence. It speaks to our expectations as Americans: out of the frontier muck we can spawn humans much greater than our mediocre selves. Like the mighty Atlas, our superheroes can take on problems beyond even our supersized American egos.
We can’t find supermen in the real world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t project our fondest super-wishes instead into our politicians, who we will endow with superhero qualities. In the end they all disappoint because they are not superheroes, they are ordinary people like us, trying to manage large organizations overseen by mediocre, petty and frankly deeply annoying politicians. These politicians aren’t there by accident. We put them there because they spent vast amounts of their (and others) fortunes to win our trust or, failing that, to sow seeds of doubt in the challenger. Most of us voters prove less than super when it comes to choosing those who will lead us: we look for people skilled in the art of telling us what we want to hear and who will coddle us by appealing to our biases and prejudices. We want to believe our leaders are something more, when the truth is they are pretty much like us, just luckier, generally wealthier, more sociable and likelier to have been class presidents.
And it’s not just our politicians; it’s everyone. We are all flawed and imperfect. What we cannot seem to accept is that our imperfections are part of the human experience. Instead, we will torture ourselves into the illusion that someone, and maybe us, can surmount our own inherent mediocrity.
Superheroes must confront super-villains, otherwise there is no point to them being around. In the real world, when we do get a politician that seems capable of governing wisely, the opposition will find ways to cut him (or her) down to size. For every requisite action there must be an equivalent reaction. Few except scientists actually are concerned about finding logical ways to solve problems. If the solution is not consistent with the principles outlined in a holy book at a time when slavery was rife and women were chattel, there is something wrong with it.
Real life is a messy morass that we would prefer to ignore. No wonder then that we need the clarity of a superhero to put things right and to allow us to reach on screen anyhow our highest aspirations. We need superheroes because we cannot acknowledge our inability to do these things competently ourselves. Superheroes can save us from global annihilation. Well, this is certainly more exciting than doing it a less costly and sensible way: by reasonable men talking to each other as peers and with respect, engendering trust instead of paranoia and competition. As so we create impossible archetypes of our imagination to save us instead: Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, Black Widow and Hawkeye.
Curiously even in the movie they don’t get along so well. Superheroes like to be super, but they don’t particularly like peers. Play nice with each other? Where’s the fun in that? At least director Joss Whedon gets that part right: our superheroes being human on some level (well, I guess except for Thor) may be powerful, but none of them except possibly Captain America seems to have learned their manners, or to share their blocks with the other superheroes in their superhero kindergarten. Even our superheroes can’t seem to just get along. They all want to be on top.
In truth, being on the top is no fun, and the usually futile attempt to get there is even less fun. For with power comes the inevitable accountability and being flawed humans, we are bound to fail at it. To the extent power is successfully wielded, it occurs when it is successfully shared. It happens when those in power respect each other, give and accommodate. It means looking beyond our parochial interests and our petty passions. It means being more of a weenie than a superhero. It means being mature instead of macho. It means being human rather than a mutant. It means being nice and playing well with others. It means caring about others and feeling vested in their happiness as well as your own. Power is ultimately a costly illusion. The reality is that those with it really don’t really have much of it to begin with, and what power they do have must be shared considerately with others.
We will probably never see a movie on this theme. But it sure would be different, and more honest.
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