What are Superheroes Trying to Say?

Do superhero films have the obligation — or the ability — to say anything about the human condition? And what other limitations come with the blockbuster serial format? Anthony Morris investigates.

Image: Illustration

The Avengers: Age of Ultron is the kind of movie designed to leave audiences reeling. A 141 minute onslaught of fight scenes and special effects wrapped around a core of handsome movie stars trading wisecracks, it’s a near-perfectly polished example of high end 21st Century movie making. But in between all the explosions and punching and discussion about what makes someone worthy to wield the hammer of Thor, one question remains: do superhero movies in general — and Age of Ultron in particular — have anything to say about us?

Superheroes are colourful characters who fight bad guys. Why do they have to be anything more than that?

On a story level, Age of Ultron is part of a superhero tradition that stretches back on the big screen all the way to Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman. Batman is about a hero (Batman) who fights average bad guys (street crime); then, through doing his city-defending duty, accidentally creates an even bigger bad guy (The Joker) who threatens everything he swore to defend (Gotham City). Age of Ultron is about a team of heroes (The Avengers) who fight average bad guys (the sinister conspiracy Hydra); then, through their world-defending duty accidentally, create an even bigger bad guy (evil artificial intelligence Ultron) who threatens everything they swore to defend (humanity).

It’s a solid structure to hang a lot of fight scenes on, but it’s not exactly full of insight about the human condition. So should we expect superhero movies have to say anything at all? In comic book form, no-one asked superheroes to be anything more than children’s entertainment for decades. Even now, all the heavy intellectual action in comics happens well away from the two ‘mainstream’ superhero publishers, Marvel (owned by Disney) and DC (owned by Warner). Superheroes are colourful characters who fight bad guys. Why do they have to be anything more than that? 

Image: Illustration

For one thing, a satisfying movie experience traditionally involves some kind of narrative closure. Unlike comic books, which operate more like traditional television series where characters go through adventures but always return to a status quo, movies usually have an ending. With an ending comes the idea of resolution — a story should suggest or announce (in one way or another) what the point of what we’ve just watched is.

Usually in blockbusters, the stated point of a film and the actual point bear little relationship to one another. In the Fast & Furious films, lead Toretto (Vin Diesel) is constantly talking about the importance of family. Are the Fast & Furious films actually about family? Not really: they’re much more about how much fun it is to drive cool cars extremely fast while things explode all around you. It’s not a complex or subtle message — it’s basically a fantasy version of hanging out at the skate park all day — but it’s certainly one that audiences can get behind.

Superheroes end up defending the status quo; they become forces for conservatism, battling to keep things exactly the way they are, while it’s the villains who want things to change.

So, as the dominant form of blockbuster, superhero movies have at least some burden on them to be about something. And occasionally, they are. Captain America: The Winter Soldier featured the good guys promoting a scheme to monitor everyone on the globe and execute opponents via remote killing machines. Then it turned out that the good guys were actually a sinister quasi-Nazi conspiracy, so the now-evil scheme had nothing to do with the United States — not even the fantasy version that Captain America symbolises. But for a while there, at least there was a possibility of something interesting being said. 

When it comes to actually being about something, the trouble superhero movies face is that the resolution to their story (that usually delivers meaning) is perpetually denied. Age of Ultron is the eleventh movie in a series that began with Iron Man back in 2008; with another eleven movies in the series planned up until 2019 (plus a number of television series), any kind of dramatic resolution to any character’s storyline is something Marvel is actively seeking to avoid. 

Image: Illustration

Rather than following the traditional movie storytelling format — even the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films told a story with a beginning, middle and end, albeit one stretched out over a series of instalments — these films are much closer to the comic book format, where characters play out endless conflicts repeatedly. An unfortunate aspect of this is that superheroes end up defending the status quo; they become forces for conservatism, battling to keep things exactly the way they are, while it’s the villains who want things to change. The only superheroes who change are the superheroes who lose: Marvel and DC are constantly messing around with their B-list characters, changing their gender or race or religion in an attempt to turn them into brand names like Batman or Iron Man.

That might explain why the underlying feeling in Age of Ultron is one of exhaustion. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been running for long enough now that signs of wear and tear are starting to show on at least some of the cast. And, without giving too much away, the conclusion has at least a couple of characters wearily attempting to pass on the Avenging torch to a new generation — even though we know they’ll fail, as they’re all still locked into numerous future film appearances, and the characters themselves will be recast once the current actors age out of their roles.

What really separates The Avengers from humanity isn’t their superpowers, but their unchanging nature. Being able to fly and commit acts of amazing physical prowess (and destruction) are the fantasies superheroes traditionally sell. But being stuck eternally unchanging, constantly fighting a never-ending battle over and over? That’s closer to a living hell.

Portrait of Anthony Morris

Anthony Morris is home entertainment editor at the Big Issue and a freelance film writer. His first novel, The Hot Guy, has been co-written with Mel Campbell and will be published in June 2017.

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