I love fiction and the idea of escapism. I also love comics and consider them a very high art form, one of the highest in terms of creative potential and the ability for a single person/small team to communicate to their audience in a robust way.
I just don’t resonate with the mainstream superhero approach to escapism. To me, the best escapism is placing ordinary characters into extraordinary settings. With superheroes, it’s the opposite: placing extraordinary characters in ordinary settings. The audience is expected to “escape” by pretending they’re the hero and having to make the tough decisions about how to use their powers. Box office stats suggest that many people do well at that.
So why do I have such a hard time empathizing with the hero? I’ll watch a superhero movie when it’s the path of least resistance, but I always leave the theater feeling rather empty. I’m entertained, but all the time I’m very aware that I’m sitting in a theater watching a movie. (Same feeling reading the comics, too, I’ve tried.)
I love man vs. environment stories because of the extra worldbuilding they entail. That’s the escapism I prefer. It may also have something to do with the fact that environments hit me deeper than characters.
I also just prefer stories where more large-scale teamwork is required to solve big problems. Where strategy, diplomacy, and manipulation trump raw “power.” (Certainly these can be elements in superhero stories, but they aren’t the driving force.) It’s definitely harder to wedge action into such stories. And I actually DO like watching action, it’s entertaining. I’ve kind of made peace with the fact that there won’t be much overlap between action-heavy stories and “satisfying” ones.
Moving from personal opinion…
From an academic standpoint, I do think that the popularity of superheroes is interesting, like they’re a modern mythology of sorts. Marvel’s big tangled mess of a universe is kind of like the Greek Pantheon. Maybe thinking of extraordinary beings dealing with normal human emotions tickles the same part of our brains that the Gods’ struggles did for the ancients. Like symbols, or a cultural shorthand.
Alan Moore said something that hit home with me:
“I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.”
^ It’s really the opportunity cost that bothers me. In the film world especially, “Big Superhero” is gobbling up resources that we could be using towards new worlds in entertainment, new ideas that are more relevant to today’s society, and, well, adults. Creators blame marketers for so many nostalgia-driven remakes and sequels, and marketers blame the public for being scared to try anything new (or too bombarded to really register it). The public then blames studios/publishers for lack of fresh content, closing the blame circle. I think broad-spectrum marketing is to blame, trying to make works that both adults and children would see en masse.
The post started out as a simple personal opinion, and turned into something more. I’m also greatly oversimplifying here. Major comics publishers are still coming out with more unique IP’s. There is also some really quality writing/art that’s going into the genre.
But the talent pool doesn’t automatically defend its essence though, and it’s essence is what I don’t care for.
I’m curious about what others have to say about the cultural relevance of superheroes, and whether I should be trying to emphasize with the common themes. Maybe I’m missing something really great!
I anticipate some hairsplitting over what IS a superhero. (For example, I don’t consider Hellboy comic a “superhero comic” because the setting is more fantastical, but others would argue that it is.) Just assume I’m talking about the really mainstream ones.