The summer of 2011 featured an unprecedented four comic-book superhero movies, all origin stories: X-Men: First Class, Thor, Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger. (That’s not counting the January release The Green Hornet, based on a hero whose origins were not in comic books, but radio serials.)
Next year, besides the Avengers ensemble movie — featuring Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk and the Black Widow — the slate includes a new Ghost Rider film, a Spider-Man reboot and the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Additional Iron Man and Thor sequels are already planned for 2013, along with the return (again) of the hero who started it all, the Man of Steel.
Why are superhero movies so popular? Are comic books simply another reliable source of familiar pop-culture franchise fodder, along with TV shows, cartoons and anything else we grew up with? Another source of escapist spectacle to divert us from the sorrows of a world of terrorism, war and economic woe?
Partly, yes. But superheroes also fill a cultural niche that belonged 60 years ago to Westerns and 25 years ago to Star Wars. Superheroes have become a major strand in today’s pop mythology — stylized, larger-than-life stories about heroes whose adventures give shape to ideas about the world we live in and how we live in it, about who we are and who we aspire to be.
More superhero movies today are lame than good (the same was true of the Westerns of yesterday), and this summer Captain America and X-Men: First Class (a “preboot” to the existing X-Men franchise) stand head and shoulders above the rather mediocre Thor and Green Lantern. But the genre itself, the mythos, is larger than the individual characters and stories.
What do today’s superhero movies tell us about ourselves? Among other things, we’re more skeptical these days about heroes and heroism. In contrast to the stoic confidence of the typical Western hero — or even of Christopher Reeve’s Superman, who as late as 1978 could unabashedly say, “I’m here to fight for truth, justice and the American way” — today’s heroes have feet of clay and have to grow into their heroic roles.
Bad-boy cockiness and womanizing are common weaknesses. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in the popular Iron Man movies created the template here, and Green Lantern’s Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), an irresponsible, self-destructive skirt-chaser, comes off like Stark’s screw-up kid brother. The movie introduces Hal with a one-night-stand/morning-after bedroom scene overtly reminiscent of a similar incident early in Iron Man, though without the pointed moral critique of that film’s treatment.
The young Charles Xavier of X-Men: First Class, played by James McAvoy (The Conspirator), isn’t nearly as flawed a character. Altruistic and idealistic, he already exhibits some of the nobility of the older Xavier, played by Patrick Stewart in previous X-Men movies. Yet he’s also brash and somewhat lacking in self-awareness, as well as being a rather flagrant ladies’ man who isn’t above using his telepathic powers when hitting on women.
Arrogance and recklessness are major themes in Thor. From the outset, the son of Odin (Chris Hemsworth) revels in the acclaim of his fellow immortals and surreptitiously leads a foolhardy attack against Asgard’s enemies against his father’s explicit orders and desire for peace. This temerity leads Odin to exile Thor to Earth to learn humility.
On the other hand, not only is Thor refreshingly free from the womanizing weaknesses of other heroes, its hero treats the film’s love interest, Jane (Natalie Portman), with unfashionable courtesy and respect, going so far as to chivalrously kiss her hand twice — a mark, presumably, of Thor's noble Asgardian upbringing. (Despite this, the film fails to establish an emotional bond between Thor and Jane, and the climactic smooch that she plants on his lips falls flat. But that kiss is as far as it goes between them, and he doesn’t initiate it.)
Captain America’s Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) benefits even more from his cultural milieu, embodying the ideals of the “Greatest Generation”: responsibility, modesty, respect, fortitude. Like Thor, he treats women with respect, though it’s true that prior to the “super-soldier serum” that transforms him into Captain America, the 98-pound weakling Steve hadn’t had much opportunity to be a ladies’ man.
(Later, as an established war hero, Steve does briefly succumb to the aggressive advances of a blonde bombshell who wants to “thank” him on behalf of the wives of the troops he’s rescued and the "women of America." This, too, goes no further than a passionate but brief lip-lock. It’s possibly Steve’s first kiss, and I’d be inclined to cut him some slack — though Steve's incipient love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), with whom he later shares a single, more meaningful kiss, understandably takes a dimmer view.)
Judging from Thor and Captain America, we can appreciate heroes who are gentlemen, not playboys. Perhaps audiences just find them easier to accept when they aren’t products of our own time and place. Gallantry is a virtue we as a culture can admire from afar but can’t relate to; with great power comes great temptation, and many people more or less assume that men like Hal Jordan, Tony Stark, and to an extent the young Charles Xavier probably won’t fare much better than Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods or Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Xavier’s story is set during the Kennedy presidency.) Yet we can imagine, and appreciate, gallantry in a historical or mythic context. Perhaps this indicates some awareness that our cultural standards or expectations are too low.
Captain America aside, how successful are these movies at bringing their flawed heroes up to heroic heights? Here the superhero films of 2011 — at least Thor and Green Lantern, which feature the most flawed heroes — come up short.
Thor and Hal Jordan do improve by the ends of their films — particularly Hal, who goes from being a delinquent Green Lantern running away from his calling to exhibiting heroic responsibility and resolve in the face of overwhelming odds. Thor, too, is found to be worthier by the end of his adventure and expresses humility and filial piety toward Odin quite unlike his initial demeanor.
Yet neither film makes this moral trajectory convincing. Thor is stunned to find that he can’t lift his own mystical hammer, but this is merely because Odin has placed a charm on it that will not permit it to be lifted except by one who is worthy. Later, when the hammer test establishes Thor’s worthiness, it’s not clear how he has really changed, or why. Hal, meanwhile, is chosen for superhero greatness by the alien power ring, but it’s never clear what untapped potential for heroism qualifies him for this honor or why he eventually develops truly heroic qualities seemingly overnight.
Both films fall short of the movie that is to an extent their model, the first Iron Man. Iron Man succeeds in depicting a moral awakening in Tony Stark by persuasively humbling him with a frightening near-death experience — caused, significantly, by one of his own irresponsibly sold weapons — and his captivity by terrorists in Afghanistan. Confronted with the consequences of his moral failings and his own mortality, Tony undergoes a satisfying, if incomplete, redemptive conversion. Nothing like this happens with Thor or Hal.
Interestingly, Charles Xavier, like Tony, suffers an incapacitating injury from which he will suffer for the rest of his life — though this happens at the end of X-Men: First Class, and how it will affect his character arc remains to be seen.
Perhaps Captain America offers the best depiction of what makes for a good hero: being a good person in the first place. (Cap’s old-fashioned virtue hasn’t hurt him at the box office, either: Captain America has already outgrossed Green Lantern as well as X-Men: First Class, though it may not be able to catch Thor.) In this summer of raunchy comedies, it’s gratifying that audiences are still interested in a hero who is (along with Superman) one of the genre’s biggest Boy Scouts.
Like others of his generation, Steve’s character was tempered in the forge of the Great Depression as well as the shadow of world war. Next year’s Avengers movie will throw this Greatest Generation warrior into the mix with the Tony Stark generation. What will that show us about ourselves and the world we live in? I’m almost afraid to find out.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.