To Err is (Super) Human: Superheroes and the Super Power of Self-Doubt

It’s not anything radical to suggest superheroes have exploded into the mainstream via movies and television as never before. They’ve become a bona fide genre like westerns, or spy thrillers, or rom-coms.

Which, unsurprisingly, has triggered a backlash.

Obviously “backlash” is a hyperbolic term, given the genre’s commercial and critical Hollywood successes. Nonetheless there are cultural pundits insisting the genre has run its course or, more passive-aggressively (as some pundits I’ve come across have), arguing that the only good superhero movies are ones that treat the genre as camp (ala the 1960s Batman feature film).

But why must any genre have a finite shelf life, or only be legitimate as a self-parody?

That’s maybe the biggest problem I have with these “superheroes must die!” proclamations. I have a lot of strong, contrary opinions about movies, TV, comics, etc. But at the heart of almost all my criticism is a desire for the work to be better. I’m critical because I hate that I hate it. So if you don’t like superhero movies because you wish they were better — great, bring on the op-ed pieces. But if you despise the very idea of the genre — then why bother?

If you can’t find other things to watch that says more about how little you’re looking than about the proliferation of what remains, ultimately, an annual handful of films and TV series.

Still such critics often decry superhero movies as being mindless and fascist power fantasies.

Fair enough.

But how is that different from action movies in general? What is it that makes a superhero movie inherently less respectable (in their minds) than a John Wick movie? A Die Hard film? A Jason Bourne adventure? The Jurassic Park franchise? The latest Liam Neesom revenger?

I’ve seen most of the superhero movies and I can’t say there are too many highwater marks — but I could say that about most movies in most genres (I can be a tough audience). I like many of them but I love only a few of them.

But I’m going to offer a radical hot take. What if — the problem with superhero movies is that they reach too high, and like Icarus often end up singeing their wings? What if a lot of those pundits who lament the mediocrity of superhero movies aren’t mad that superheroes are mindless action — they are mad they aspire to be more than mindless action?

Maybe that’s where we can draw the line between them and most non-superhero action-adventures. The latter do what they do well because they aren’t trying to do too much.

Meanwhile (as they say in the four colour world) superheroes blend genres in a way rarely seen in other properties: they’re part thriller, part action, part sci-fi, part fantasy, part magic realism, part kitchen sink drama, part comedy, part soap opera, part allegory; they borrow from ancient myths and the modern cultural zeitgeist and then cinch it all together with duct tape and slap a bow on it. Arguably superheroes have spent decades slowly developing their own themes, tropes, rhythms. Like narrative marsupials evolving on the isolated continent of Comicbooklia. And now that they are being dragged into the mainstream, it’s an adjustment, both for some viewers, and even for the filmmakers themselves.

(This mix may actually explain the popularity of superhero productions — they appeal to different people for different reasons).

Superhero stories may be a bit muddled, mashing up the action scenes with the intimate character moment and the awkwardly configured social issue metaphor. But they’re keeping more plates spinning at once than the average spy thriller or action movie. TV series like Jessica Jones, Black Lightning, and Supergirl sometimes grapple with surprisingly thought-provoking material amid all the fantasy and action. While movies like Black Panther were the films-that-launched-a-thousand-op-ed pieces.

Which brings us to what could be the most intriguing — and overlooked — aspect of the superhero genre:

Traditional heroes like John McLane, Ethan Hunt, James Bond and the others tend to be rocks of certainty. Often the biggest character arc is waiting for the Doubting Thomases around them to realize the hero was right all along. That’s part of their appeal: the audience vicariously living through a character who is always right and, perhaps more importantly, knowing that everyone else is wrong. (I mean, if you want to talk about wish fulfilment power fantasies, we could start there).

In contrast superheroes can screw up, they wrestle with dilemmas, and their character arc is often learning to be worthy of whatever power or ability they have been blessed (or cursed) with. These are recurring themes (or sub-texts) in movies featuring Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor and others. While in Black Panther he had to grapple with the mistakes of those he admired. Nor is this restricted to the MCU. In Batman v. Superman, Batman changes his mind over the course of the film. In Wonder Woman she sets out to bring an end to war by killing the War God, Ares — and it takes her most of the film to realize how naive that is.

And if the heroes aren’t infallible, their villains aren’t always one hundred percent bad. With Magneto, Loki, The Ghost, Two-Face, The Winter Soldier, Killmonger, and pretty much most of the Spider-Man villains, superhero movies often present friends who become foes, and foes who become friends, villains who start out with good intentions, have tragic backstories, and, in some cases, are redeemable.

Not tropes commonly used in non-superhero action franchises. There’s no poignancy when Hans Gruber dies at the end of Die Hard. Few editorials have been written asking if James Bond’s latest foe maybe had a legitimate point of view.

Of course superhero movies have an advantage which is that we know the protagonist will evolve into a hero sooner or later — because the audience knows they are a hero from the comics. The audience can be patient. (Other blockbuster franchises that sometimes play around with themes of heroes making mistakes and, occasionally, nuanced villains are ones like Star Trek and Star Wars). Whereas in an adventure movie starring a plain clothes, “normal” hero, if he spent half the movie righteously pursuing a course of action only to have an epiphany and realize he had been wrong all that time? Well, the audience might conclude he was an idiot and lose interest in rooting for him.

Now ideally you want the hero’s mistakes and misjudgments to be relatable, understandable. Arguably part of the problem with Batman v Superman was that Batman spent too long in the movie pursuing a too obviously misguided agenda so that he just came across as a doofus.

Of course nothing is absolute. There’s obviously an appeal to the clear-eyed hero who is always right, ala Captain America or Superman (though even those characters are given to introspection and misjudgments that enrich their adventures).

I should also make clear that I’m not really talking about anti-heroes — that’s a whole ‘nother essay, really. In most of these superhero stories the heroes are generally good, well-meaning people. It’s just being good and well-meaning doesn’t guarantee you’ll always be right. Which when you think about it is an incredibly profound — and humbling — message.

Contrary to the stereotype of superhero stories being simple good guy/bad guy dynamics, often the right path isn’t always clear — and struggling with that dilemma is part of what makes a hero. In Captain America: Civil War, the core conflict was not between good guys and bad guys, but between good guys who couldn’t agree on what was the greater good.

The origin of these themes may be rooted in the neverending, sequential storytelling of comics where a writer, struggling for fresh inspiration, might think: “What if in this story the hero lets his biases get the better of him?” or “What if this time around, we learn the villain was trying to help a friend?” And so, bit by bit, it becomes canon that heroes make mistakes and villains can have humanizing aspects. Perhaps the roots lie in something as unambitious as the comic book cliché of two heroes getting into a fight (dating back to the Sub-Mariner/Human Torch clashes of the 1940s at least). Perhaps an unintended side effect of that trope was introducing into the superhero formula the idea that heroes can misjudge things. And perhaps from such base acorns did mighty philosophical oak trees grow, leading to notable comic book stories such as Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics (circa 1970), Squadron Supreme (1985), The Watchmen (1986), Kingdom Come (1996), Civil War (2006) and, ultimately, Hollywood realizations.

I’m not even saying these are necessarily deliberate or conscious creative decisions. But why does the idea of the fallible hero seem more commonly employed (and more readily accepted) with superheroes than with other genres of heroic fiction?

Maybe it’s because, pared of their imaginary super powers, most superheroes are just supposed to be regular folk — struggling imperfectly to do the right thing in an imperfect world. At least more “regular” than the career cop/soldier/spy hero of the average action adventure. I mean, even billionaire Tony Stark or demigod Thor are more relateably human than James Bond or Jason Bourne who don’t really seem to exist outside of their action man personas.

Viewed one way, superheroes are vigilantes who operate outside the law — but viewed another, less literal, way their stories are Operatic melodramas playing with themes of vengeance vs justice, obligation, sacrifice, friendship, love (requited and unrequited), tragedy and redemption that play out outside the narrative restrictions of a more realist drama.

And this highlights the question about what you focus on in stories as steeped in unreality as are SF, fantasy, and superhero sagas. What is to be taken literally and what is the metaphor, and what does the metaphor represent? Instead of seeing superheroes as literal endorsements of vigilantism, for instance, the very fact that they wear garish costumes and have freaky powers is perhaps to remind us that they are a less literal endorsement of fascist impulses than the average action movie or police drama in which more plausible heroes use real guns to solve problems and which don’t receive half the flak as movies about people who spin webs or wield magic carpentry tools. Detractors can label superhero stories fascist for their power fantasies and “super man” tropes (as opposed to specifically Superman), seeing them as metaphors for WMDs, imperialism, and a dozen other interpretations. But equally one could suggest a genre in which the heroes screw up, struggle with dilemmas, and grow is the antithesis of fascism, which usually involves an unshakeable belief in yourself and in your authoritarian leader. Likewise a genre in which the enemy can be sympathetic and even redeemable sits awkwardly with a fascist mindset.

Do these superhero movies actually handle these themes with depth and insight? Not always (as I wrote near the beginning: I’ve got no problem with critiquing these productions). Despite making weapons that fell into terrorists’ hands and creating the killer robot, Ultron, Tony Stark remains a fairly cocky guy. The Doctor Strange movie paid lip service to the character’s comic book origin of an arrogant man who learns humility — but the filmmakers’ clearly viewed Strange’s arrogance and sense of entitlement as admirable character traits (something a delve in at length in my essay about the Dr. Strange movie). In Thor: Ragnarok, the character of Valkyrie is embraced as a hero despite the years she spent enslaving people and sending them to their deaths in the arena. Apparently as long as you look cool waving a sword while Led Zeppelin plays on the soundtrack, all can be forgiven.

I mean, redemption and forgiveness are great — but steps toward that must first include contrition and atonement.

But maybe the reason I’m not sure I’ve seen others identify this theme very often even when purporting to dissect superhero stories, and why the movies themselves struggle realizing these themes, is that too many of us, and our society, don’t value things like self-doubt, second thoughts, introspection, and acknowledging mistakes. Such characteristics are often viewed as weakness. Better to be decisive than to be right. Real men don’t back down. Strong leaders don’t second guess themselves. But then superhero stories come along and in their clumsy, imperfect way, suggest that maybe they should.

Over the years pundits have claimed westerns are great morality tales because there’s a clear demarcation between the good guys and the bad guys (embodied sometimes by literal black and white hats). But even as a kid I regarded that as the antithesis of a morality tale. To me a “morality tale” wasn’t a story that presented good and evil as a simplistic dichotomy, but one that grappled with the very notion of morality, and that forced the audience to as well: heroes can make mistakes, villains can be tragic, and sometimes the hardest part about doing the right thing is figuring out what the right thing to do is.

And this, I would argue, I learned from comic book superheroes.

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