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What is it with superheroes?

May 1, 2019

The other day we went to our local Odeon to watch Red Joan, a movie based on the life of Melita Norwood, an English woman who spied for Soviet Russia and gave away secrets that helped the Soviets develop their atom bomb. Judi Dench put in a solid performance as Judi Dench, and the movie, though not memorable, was decent Wednesday night fare for someone of my generation who remembers the Cold War. There were about ten of us in the auditorium.

Meanwhile, just down the corridor, there was a milling, popcorn-scoffing, Coke-guzzling crowd of teens and twentysomethings waiting to storm Screen 2 for the latest and final Avengers movie. Anoraks, hoods and other nerdy paraphernalia were in abundance.

Apart from a chance encounter with Iron Man on a flight, which I watched because I like Robert Downey Jr, I’ve never seen a movie inspired by Marvel comics, just as I’ve never seen any of the Star Wars series.

The other day I put to my future son-in-law, who, like just about the whole of his generation, is a fan of Iron Man, Wonder Woman and Black Panther, the question I asked above. What is it with superheroes?

He rambled on about the special effects, the plotting and the way all these semi-coherent lumps of testosterone are dragged together (in the final movie) into an apocalyptic confrontation with the forces of evil, represented by Thanos, a chap described by Kevin Maher in the London Times as having a chin like a scrotum. I’ll take his word for it because I haven’t spent much time closely observing scrota.

Surely there are enough real-life apocalyptic confrontations and disasters looming, I asked, playing the uncomprehending old fart? Couldn’t Captain America save the planet from the effects of climate change, such as melting ice sheets, flooded cities and cataclysmic hurricanes? Couldn’t Iron Man bang heads together to stop a nuclear war between Trump and Putin or forestall the long-awaited Yellowstone super volcano?

He gave me a pitying look. I don’t think climate change would bring much of an audience, he said. And as for nukes and volcanoes, they were all covered by the disaster movies.

I guess he’s right. Genres come and genres go. In the 60s it was war movies. In the 70s, disasters. The 80s witnessed the birth of the Star Wars and Star Trek series. Some genres last longer. Westerns have been rolling on since the 1930s. Likewise gangster movies. Others, like Roman epics, had a brief flourishing (Spartacus, Ben Hur, Cleopatra and, much later, Gladiator) before falling out of fashion.

Now I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me that more than in earlier genres, the Marvel movies present a clear choice between good and evil which matches the black and white mentality of the millennials and successive generations. People are either good or bad. They’re sexist or woke. There doesn’t seem to be a spectrum between the two. Purity personified, or evil men who grope and rape women with no excuse, no extenuating circumstances.

At least with other genres there’s room for flawed heroes and baddies who can redeem themselves. Don Corleone in The Godfather is a murderous thug, yet he espouses family values and has a dignity about him as he goes about wiping out his rivals. There are good Nazis, like Oskar Schindler.

The very best movies, in my opinion, leave us with a sense of moral ambiguity. They cause us to think about good and evil and all shades between, as well as the context in which the story plays out.

In real life we’re constantly asked to judge the character of someone like Donald Trump against the outcomes he delivers. He may be a despicable person, but he’s been good for the economy, so do we vote for him again? Do we forgive Bill Clinton for taking advantage of Monica Lewinski? Should we banish Kevin Spacey to obscurity and forget all the great movies he made and his support for the Old Vic Theatre in London because of his alleged sexual abuse of young men? And what do we think of the British empire, which subjugated half the planet but left them with railways, cricket and parliamentary democracy?

Alex assures me that in fact there is a measure of moral ambiguity to be found in the superhero movies. Take Thanos, for example. He’s the scrotum-chin who believes that the resources of the universe are being consumed to the point that they will soon run out. His solution is to destroy half the living things in the cosmos. A bit like Stalin, then, who was content to see tens of millions of his own people perish in order that those who remained were able to enjoy the fruits of the socialist paradise. Mao had a similar idea.

And Game of Thrones is full of antiheroes and moral dilemmas, so all is clearly not lost.

Every generation needs its dose of escapism. Is it surprising that today’s batch of 16-to-30-year-olds, blighted by financial uncertainty and fears for the future, takes refuge in the exploits of superheroes who definitely know how to take back control?

All the same, I fail to understand how young people yearn for safe spaces where they can be protected from the grim reality of life, yet flock to movies full of death and destruction, and hold Game of Thrones parties, where they watch people dying in a variety of gruesome and imaginative ways.

Most people know the difference between the movies and real life. And if those crowds at the Odeon get their kicks from half the universe being blown up, is that any worse than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid dying in a hail of bullets? Just a matter of scale perhaps. Who are we older folks to criticise their taste in entertainment, when our generation sits slumped in our sofas at home watching psychos doing despicable things in The Bridge and other Scandi Noir series?

It’s easy to understand why Hollywood is hooked on superheroes, just as it was addicted to making the blockbusters that preceded them. Because they make money, stupid. Less risk, more profit. The same goes for the cinema owners. They don’t want to be showing movies that play to eight people in auditoria built for two hundred.

For me, the saddest aspect of Hollywood’s obsession with blockbusters is that they’ve blossomed into a giant hogweed of a genre that sucks nutrition from everything around it. Dollars invested in superheroes aren’t available for films with more universal appeal. We oldies would be prepared to go more often to the cinema if the right content was available. But every time we do go, we look at the trailers and are lucky if we see one that leads us to say ah, we’ll go to that. When we do go, often enough it’s to movies that are OK, but rarely rate in my estimation more than three stars out of five.

Is that because my taste is narrowing, or because movie makers simply don’t make much product for my fellow baby boomers? Both perhaps. But the entertainment market is becoming so segmented that I fully expect cinemas to start providing oxygen tanks and defibrillators instead of popcorn for those of us who might be overwhelmed by a new re-make of Psycho.

Where are the movies that span generations? I’m not talking about so-called family films, to which parents take their kids and which they wouldn’t dream of paying money to see on their own.

I mean grown-up films. Where are the emerging Kubricks, Altmans and Scorseses, and would they get the money to produce masterpieces from studios that only have eyes for superheroes?

Nowadays, it seems, the movies our kids want to see are not what interest us, and vice versa. The same goes for TV and books. Sport still creates common ground, but only if you’re into sport, which my kids aren’t.

Is it just us? If not, how do we bridge the gap? A friend who’s my age adores Game of Thrones. She’s a teacher, and she says that that talking Dothraki is the best way to reach common ground with the kids she teaches. Another way is to talk politics, if you can bear it.

But ultimately, we probably have to wait for the young to become relatively old, at which point they will join with us even older folks in incomprehension at the interests and tastes of their offspring.

I was thinking I might take the sage advice from my daughter’s beloved’s by going to one of the Avengers movies. But when they came back from one of the fifteen daily screenings of Avengers Endgame, he declared himself disappointed. When I asked why, he launched into a bewildering explanation of the intricacies of time travel, and the flaws in the plot wherein the superheroes try to reverse Thanos the Scrotum-Chin’s unspeakable act of destruction. To say he lost me is an understatement.

Then again, I suspect that his face would have been just as blank if I tried to go into the subtleties of a real-life act of destruction, and launched into an exposition of backstops, single markets, customs unions, Hard Brexits and confirmatory referenda. Not to mention constructive ambiguity. His bemused expression would not be because of his inability to understand, but because of my inability to explain.

Perhaps I should do a deal with him.

If he watches Dr Strangelove, Kubrick’s classic nuclear war black comedy, I’ll watch Wonder Woman. Either that, or we accept that there will always be areas of mutual incomprehension between young and not-so-young, and stick to chess.

From → Business, Film, UK, USA

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