Why the Superhero Resurgence in Film and Culture has Everything to do with our Unstable World

In the last 10 years, beginning with Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man, the U.S. cinema scene has thrived on reboots, redesigns, launches and adaptations of comic book superhero stories. Batman Begins reimagined the Batman franchise, and via Christopher Nolan's genius, the Dark Knight Saga has completely altered the way that comic book movies are held in popular culture. These are no longer films for children, or for a fringe set of basement-dwelling, sun-allergic nerds, these are films for families, for dates, for everyone in equal portion. Marvel's Iron Man came out in 2008. There were two Maguire Spider-Man sequels. Then Thor, Captain America, and this Summer's phenomenal The Avengers. There were three Incredible Hulks, a pair of Fantastic Four flops, Green Lantern, Daredevil, Elektra, and an abysmal Catwoman. Oh, and Punisher, Ghost Rider, and all those X-Men films, et al. All in all, this decade of superhero films has been 50/50, as any group of similar films will be considering the issue of true directorial talent. In 10 years, there have been nearly 30 superhero movies released, a substantial spike.

Of course, part of the interest is the age of the viewing audience. More people who attend movies, and are willing to pay theatre prices are in their late-20s, 30s and 40s, and grew up with comic books as a standard personal entertainment staple. There's also technology available now to make comic book special effects possible, without relying on animation alone, or on the hokey cut-and-paste overlays of the '70s and '80s. But these factors aside, superhero cinema is actually just a stand-in for the traditional action flick. Like Rambo and Die Hard and Lethal Weapon before them (all products of the mystery and fear of the Cold War), these superhero films exist as a sort of adventurous safety blanket for an America that remains unsure about itself, its future and role in the world.

Since 2001, this country has become less and less sure of itself. The world is different. The globe is different. But, superheroes represent a constant, simple, wonderful struggle: Good vs. Evil. While we cannot get clear answers about who the good guys and bad guys are in our real world, we can escape to a place where those answers are clear cut, appropriately costumed, and scored and lit for effect. Even a complex character like Batman provides us with no real question as to who is good and who is bad. We might question motivations for those actions, but the side to root for is clear. Spider-Man makes that even easier, with a cartoonier, softer hand. And then when we arrive to an epic like The Avengers, well we just love the exhilaration of knowing that no matter how bad shit gets in the fictional world, a band of good guys with the answers will clean it up and everything will be fine.

Captain America with its self-aware patriotism drove that very point home, though I don't know how deeply it resonated with all audiences. When our backs are up against the wall, either literally, or just philosophically, we need a hero, and we love to imagine that there's a magical Answer-Man out there who will look, smirk, and charge head-long into our problems. We know, at our core, that there is no easy answer. That scares the shit out of us. The idea that problems are so complex that no one person could solve them, even with superpowers, is a devastating one, but it's the truth. Superheroes are our national answer to the complexities of international relations. We should be able to look forward to years of reboots and rewrites and relaunches. There will be another Flash, and 100 more Wolverine movies, ending with Hugh Jackman shuffling in robe and slippers, Admantium claws at the ready, down the mutant nursing home hallway, and I look forward to it. In a scary world, the best gift we can make ourselves is the gift of joy.

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