A while ago, I was having a conversation with some friends about superheroes. One friend expressed the opinion that it was literally impossible to have a story with both superheroes and intellectual depth. Several of us, as you may imagine, brought up various counterpoints. The first person’s response was, “Okay, but that’s just pandering to the fans.”
I don’t get this attitude, and I never have. However, the prevailing attitude seems to be that a movie with spandex, capes, and masks is a childish movie with no intellectual value. By definition. That it cannot be anything else. What’s more, that if you like it, there’s probably something wrong with you unless you’re a fourteen-year-old boy. Or unless you are just in it for some dumb fun, and you don’t take it too seriously.
Not only am I not a fourteen-year-old boy, I’ve never been a fourteen-year-old boy. But when I was a fifteen-year-old girl, the greatest Batman TV show in history went on the air, and I loved the hell out of it. A bit later, a TV show of the X-Men debuted, and I loved that, too. Seventeen? A Spider-Man TV show. When I was in junior high, I watched reruns of the Adam West Batman all the time. I do admit all that—my love affair with masks started young. Heck, one of my first crushes was Zorro, and I’ll argue all day about how he’s one of the first modern superheroes if you’ll stand still to listen.
Then again, it’s been a long time since I was a fifteen-year-old girl, and I still watch superhero movies. I brought home a Batman book from the library just today. And the reason I didn’t watch The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was that I care too much about the character and hadn’t liked what they’d done with the first movie. I did, however, see four other superhero movies in the theatre. With my boyfriend.
I also, as it happens, hit a lot of the other marks for maturity and intelligence. Have for a long time, come to that. And other people I know, other people who hit those marks? Also like superhero movies, a lot of them.
Don’t get me wrong; some of them are lousy and stupid and immature. I could name you a few, and I’m sure every other fan of the genre could as well. We all have our rants; I was once at a panel at a con that was ostensibly about supervillains but ended up included a takedown of quite a lot of places the genre goes wrong. These are people who make a living in the field, and they are people who can cite chapter and verse of what goes wrong.
What we can also tell you, however, is where the genre goes right. While it is, unfortunately, true that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is awfully straight white male, Marvel has long played in the comics, at least, with the idea of mutant rights as civil rights, with mutants as parallels for other real-world oppressed minorities. And after all, Magneto is a Holocaust survivor, and the comics, at least, have long explored how his experiences there tie in to his feelings on humans and his own mutant supremacy cause.
When done well, you get, say, the Incredible Hulk as a metaphor for mental illness. The anger that’s always there, the side of yourself that’s terrifying even to you. The side you can’t control, because it’s the part without any controls. You learn how to ride it, but that’s about it.
Or, to switch to DC, you can get a consideration of the immigrant experience. After all, DC’s biggest star is pretty much literally an illegal alien. Yes, he’s assimilated, but under that wholesome boy-from-Kansas-in-the-big-city exterior, there is a Strange Visitor From Another World. Created, it’s worth noting, by two Jewish boys. One was the son of Lithuanian immigrants; the other was born in Canada to a German and a Ukrainian.
You want to explore obsession? You got it! There’s a Riddler arc where he himself cannot understand why he keeps leaving the clues he does, since Batman does indeed always figure them out. It’s that whole “world’s greatest detective” thing, after all. Or, you know, Magneto and his Kill All Humans thing.
One of the most beautiful reveals in storytelling comes from Spider-Man, when Aunt May reveals, shortly before her death (see also: Things Gone Wrong in Comic Books for the whole “One More Day” arc) that she has known all along that Peter is Spider-Man. Indeed, her death is deeply moving as well, though she did go on to prove the maxim that, these days, no one stays dead in comic books.
You want to know why Batman never kills the Joker? It’s come up. You want to know why it’s okay that these people are crazy vigilantes? Check out Civil War. (Which is flawed by editorial fiat but nevertheless raises some great points.) You want an examination of the basic decency of humans, even those looked down on by society, and the value of symbols? I believe Heath Ledger had some words there.
As it happens, we’re planning to dress up as Marvel heroes for Halloween this year in my family. I’m thinking two-year-old with blond curls is going to make an adorable Thor, and I’ll admit that’s why we’re doing it. That doesn’t mean I think the act of dressing up is childish, though.