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Why We Love Superhero Movies

Jun 30, 2019

Much has been said about the public’s deep, ongoing fascination with superhero movies. And rightfully so: At the time of this writing, Avengers: Endgame is tracking to generate more than 2.75 billion dollars globally. They’re seen by most as a necessary escape from the grim realities, unrelenting politics and social drama of today, and in turn, by some folks as a modern replacement for Greek and Roman mythologies. A true cynic would characterize them as toy commercials for adult men, barely worthy of deeper examination.

Personally, I’ve always been interested in the second interpretation, but would go one step further to say that superheroes, and even the gods and monsters that they’re based on, actually exist as modern parables. They illustrate various aspects of the human condition in a way that (not unlike the aforementioned mythologies many of us are still familiar with today) appeals to a broad segment of the population.

The Relatability Question

But therein lies a small problem, and it’s what I suspect makes the DC characters a little harder to relate to than their Marvel counterparts: drawing a barrier of relatability between the reader and the character. It’s probably why we saw so little of Captain Marvel in Avengers: Endgame; She’s so powerful that it throws everything out of balance. At least the Greek gods were family by blood, and that’s where a lot of the more relatable drama came from in those stories. The primary heroes of the DC universe are not even that; in fact, their families are usually dead, nonexistent, never mentioned, or at the very least frequently retconned.

For example, Superman’s idea of what it means to be a human is basically this:

SUPERMAN: “Well, hey there fellow newspapermen and newspaperladies, it’s me, your ol’ pal Clark Kent, local dimwit, noted coward and dunce reporter…”

Superman spills coffee on himself.

SUPERMAN: “Derp! I spilled coffee on myself because I’m so stupid and weak that I can’t even consume the thing I require to make it through my boring, useless day without bungling it. Wow! Being a human is sure dumb!”

Everyone loves Wonder Woman right now because she’s an ass-kicking character that had a pretty great stand-alone movie, but can you imagine knowing someone like her in real life? She’s basically never had a job, never paid rent, and is essentially a princess with a Type-A work ethic. Like imagine the most wealthy person you have ever met and then imagine they’re also really into crossfit. I’ll bet Wonder Woman can’t go an hour without bringing up her combat training regiment.

Batman’s no better. Batman is pretty much a trust fund boomer going around kicking the s#!t out of poor young people in his pajamas at night because he’s sad. And this is beside the point, but I’m pretty sure everyone knows he’s Bruce Wayne, but don’t want to say anything because they feel bad for him. It was probably kinda cute to play along when he was a mentally deranged but well-meaning 20-year-old; less so in his forties and with what I have to assume is the entire economy of Gotham riding on the razor’s edge of the dude’s sanity.

All this to say, there’s some really interesting stuff going on there, and I think there’s merit to examining it further. But it’s this unrelatable element that has always driven me to be more of a Marvel guy, and might explain why they seem to have more universal appeal at the box office. The thing that really stands out about a lot of the Marvel characters is that, as unbelievable as the powers and the stories always are, the characters themselves and their alter egos always felt more relatable, like someone you could genuinely imagine existing in real life.

For example: Superman and Spider-Man both have a similar “with great power comes great responsibility” theme. Superman, however, is more focused on the “power” where Spider-Man is focused on the “responsibility” part. There are not usually any meaningful repercussions for Superman being involved with something or not. The classic interpretation of Superman acts because it’s easy, and out of a sense of duty ingrained by a 1950s-era set of ethics. He can’t really be harmed or die and he spends most of his time with other superpowered beings.

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