“You drink wine and make merry while injustice is all about you. Take your swords in hand and attack oppression! Live up to your noble names and your blue blood, señores! Drive the thieving politicians from the land!”—Zorro, in 1919’s The Curse of Capistrano
The world a character inhabits is what really makes them a hero. The Greek heroes are all wily and clever because the Greeks saw themselves as thinkers—it’s why Hercules, revered by the Romans, feels so out of place. In their stories about Thor and Odin, the Norse people told of pots that never run out of mead, goats you can resurrect after you’ve eaten of their flesh, boats that fold up and fit in your pocket: Things you’d kill for in a land where the sun sets for a month at a time and your journeys take you across a gray and pitiless sea.
With Thanos defeated and the… third? … iteration of Superman since 2006 now in the works, it feels as if the superhero genre at the movie theater is flailing for purchase. Marvel is pivoting hard into television, where its successes have been very mixed. After a decade of false starts, DC is pitching their cinematic universe out the window in favor of a big reboot. This dreary January seems the right time to ask why it is that the genre that has dominated the box office for the past 15 or so years (after a long buildup that started with 1989’s Batman) now feels so aimless. Nobody is breathlessly piecing together clues and Easter eggs from the latest crop of Marvel movies to figure out the next big reveal, at least not in the way they were in the lead-up to Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame.
A superhero needs a villain. And the villains of the superhero genre here in film since 2008 are no longer anyone you or I recognize. When they are familiar—when they rage at the exploitation of Africa, or foment uprising in favor of people displaced by global catastrophe—they bite it by the last reel, never to return. If you believe that a hero reflects the dangers and trials of their time, you would reasonably conclude, based on who and what Cap and Hulk and Doctor Strange punch, that here in the 21st century we’re contending with time travel skullduggery, blue space lasers and anything that isn’t the status quo.
How did superheroes get here, is what I want to know.
Superheroes as we know them today came on the heels of the pulp fiction of the early 20th century. Stan Lee once said Sherlock Holmes is a kind of superhero, and the parallels are pretty easy to see: A hero with seemingly preternatural abilities, stories written primarily to entertain audiences and get them to buy more stories, a kind of fandom that looks a lot like one from the 21st century (since it literally got its hero un-cancelled). A straight line from Holmes to Clark Kent passes through characters like Zorro and The Shadow. They were new folk heroes, for a new time.
It was not as unrecognizable a time as we’d like to think: In 1919, the year Zorro debuted, the world was still reeling from war in Europe, a global pandemic, rising discontent among workers that inspired a push for unionization, and American women that were in the midst of winning a bitter conflict over their right to suffrage—just one part of a larger question about their rights as human beings. It shouldn’t be a wonder that the years when Mother Jones was out holding up the mangled hands of child laborers and organizing unions were the same years that gave us Zorro, whose villains are always cruel and venal aristocrats. The character has never strayed from those roots: Even though 1998’s The Mask of Zorro is a revenge picture, it sets time aside to make clear that the villains are also slaveholding sons of bitches.
It makes perfect sense that The Shadow came to us at the height of Prohibition, a time of previously unknown levels of political corruption and violent organized crime. In his radio programs, The Shadow’s villains are the violent and the corrupt: He goes after crooked lawyers, slum lords and psychotic killers. Stories like his in turn gave rise to characters like Superman and Batman, who were similarly concerned with crimes that affected real people and reflected the real-world villainy of the time.
In a 2016 article I wrote about Superman’s characterization in the recent DC films, I asked a simple question: Who the fuck is Doomsday, in comparison with the real issues Superman used to face, and which we are facing right now?
”The words ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,’ which I saw on an Italian movie poster, are perhaps the briefest statement imaginable about the basic appeal of movies. This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this.”—Kiss Kiss Bang Bang by Pauline Kael
Don’t panic: I’m not here to crab about Marvel movies not being “cinema” or whatever. I don’t care about that discourse, and you shouldn’t care about it. I’m more concerned with how superheroes, which arose out of a very specific moment in American history, have been forced away from their roots—as opposed to, say, cowboys, who have always symbolized violent colonialism.
I’m only half joking: If you wanted to make a parody of a generic, crowd-pleasing Hollywood movie in 1959 or thereabouts, it likely would’ve been a Western. There is again a generic, crowd-pleasing Hollywood genre, and it’s superhero movies: Big and loud, with love stories that are annoyingly chaste and action sequences that increasingly fail to leave much of an impression outside of one or two enormous setpieces every half-decade.
Both epitomize Kael’s description of the lizard-brain appeal of most films. In the age of tentpole movies that have got to make money or the studio folds, executives want to live in that part of our brains, the part that wants stuff to happen on the screen, and all the better if that stuff doesn’t make us think too hard about the world around us and how our lives are affected by it. Movie execs that move billions of dollars a year are not going to greenlight movies where superheroes punch the people who are ruining the national housing market because many of them probably sit on those companies’ boards. We are not going to see Superman pants the right-wing weenies radicalizing your kids on YouTube, since that would cut into a key segment of the market.
I don’t need Ant-Man to suddenly take up social causes; I’m not joyless. There’s plenty of room for camp and other dimensions and time travel. I just want the genre that knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men to, occasionally, fight those men.
Kenneth Lowe knows. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.