Is it still possible to talk about movies without mentioning superheroes?
For the first three months of last year, Black Panther accounted for nearly a quarter of all domestic box office receipts. Eight of the top 20 highest grossing films of all time feature men and women who wear capes and fight crime. The consequence of ticket sales being increasingly concentrated among superhero movies is an increasing concentration of superhero movies. Today this feedback loop has dredged up another one: Captain Marvel.
The modern superhero was born in the 1930s. Many of them – like Superman and Captain America – were anti-fascists who smacked Hitler around while fighting for ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way.’ In the 1960s Stan Lee pushed the genre forward at Marvel Comics by creating new heroes like the X-Men and Spider-Man.
Lee’s characters were different because they reflected Marvel’s teenage audience back at itself: Peter Parker was a nerd who had girl troubles; the X-Men were persecuted outsiders who were failed by an intolerant society. Though there has been much tinkering with these characters since then by the likes of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar and Frank Miller, they only entered the cultural mainstream when Hollywood turned its attention to them, beginning with Batman (1989).
Dozens of movies followed. Billions of dollars were made.Taking the stage at Comic Con 2015, the then Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Comics, Axel Alonso, announced the triumph of the nerdgeosie:
‘It used to be that cool people looked down on nerds. Now I know a lot of cool people who pretend to be nerds.’
Alonso was right. The nerds have taken over Hollywood, America and the world. It wasn’t just superheroes either. Zombies, androids, vampires, wizards, aliens, werewolves, intergalactic sagas, Lego, H.P. Lovecraft, Tolkien, board games based on TV shows – though these things were never unpopular per se, they always belonged to children, or to people at the lonelier fringes of the culture. Now they are the culture. President Obama praised the trend:
‘I think America’s a nerdier country than it used to be when I was a kid – and that’s a good thing!’
Obama, with typical glibness, had forgotten a crucial general point about nerds: they are not happy people. There were good reasons why there was a stigma around being a nerd; those who loved stories about dragons and superheroes into adulthood tended to be nebbish, poorly-tailored and sexually inadequate. They needed to escape into fantasy worlds because the real world was brutal, cruel and completely uninterested in playing tabletop wargames.
The wholesale nerdification of America began when the certainties and comforts of the 1990s gave way to the pessimism and paranoia of the post-9/11 world. Americans were having less sex than ever before; job security evaporated; cases of major depression and suicide ballooned. It was only when large swathes of the population were actually living like nerds that childish fantasies of absolute power – superhero movies – began to dominate the box office.
The bleak worldview of the traditional nerd – quietly seething, victimized, powerless, friendless, obsessed and solaced by trivia, disenchanted with the authorities and institutions that fail to protect them from predatory bullies – has become the worldview of many Americans.
Like Stan Lee’s decision to make Peter Parker a spotty teenager to sell comics to spotty teenagers, movies in the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ reflect Americans paranoia right back at them to pack out theaters. In Marvel movies the President, Congress and the CIA are usually portrayed as corrupt or, in some cases, as secret double agents working for a neo-Nazi organization called Hydra. The scripts could have been written by Alex Jones. In the first X-Men (2000), the villain Magneto, played by Ian McKellen, remarks:
‘There is no land of tolerance. There is no peace.’
Nothing that has happened in these cinematic ‘universes’ since has proved him wrong. This downbeat, cynical atmosphere is not just the preserve of superheroes, you can pick out a nerd picture almost at random and find the same sentiments, whether it’s the Planet of the Apes trilogy or the Avatar franchise (message of both: it is bad to be a human being). In the visually stunning but philosophically stunted Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Tom Hardy’s character growls:
‘I exist in a wasteland, reduced to one instinct: survive.’
While this is (inadvertently) a perfect description of what it feels like to be on Twitter, should it also the constant, blanket message of Hollywood’s most popular films? Apocalyptic despair, gloomy fantasy and kinetic violence have their place at the cinema, nobody would deny that. All of them have certain ritual satisfactions. But when those rituals harden into formulas that generate billions of dollars of revenue harder questions have to be asked.
If many people in a society feel like outsiders and the major mass culture tells them loudly and constantly that this is a noble thing to be, then what kind of politics will you have? There are battalions of pollsters, number-crunchers and political scientists who could explain what happened in 2016 – but a Trump presidency became possible first with the popularity of characters like Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne.
It is a morbid sign for a democracy when the electorate chooses heroes to do its bidding, rather than politicians. The future promises more of the same.