The Writers' Room

The Writers' Room
Superheroes and the State of the World

Elizabeth Grunewald | 6 Dec 2010 16:11
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The film industry certainly hasn't stopped making films about regular people, but it might be a little more difficult for the everyman to recognize himself in a film's Everyman these days. Superheroes aren't executives, or plumbers, or accountants. There are some newspaper folk in there, but that's an industry in sharp decline. The superhero represents escapism from unemployment, because the job he or she performs is removed from the workforce at large. Heroes work, and work hard, but entirely for others. Their motivations may verge on vengeance, but their work is purely, unquestioningly for the good of the world.

Most superheroes have carved out a niche for themselves, taking on a job for which no one hired them, or that no one requested they perform. It's nice to think outside the hiring game, and in this current crisis, people have succeeded by doing just that. Not all superheroes avoid the work-a-day life: One could argue that Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark represent everything that the economic crisis has demonized. While they may be billionaires, they put themselves in serious jeopardy for the sake of others, and that seems to balance out our envy just fine.

Say we can't do much to help, and we can't alter our lives to serve others. How, then, are superhero films currently relevant to us? I'm no economist, but I do think the average Jo can see some parallels between the global financial crisis and the popularity of any variety of crusader, caped or no. Whenever the economy takes a downturn, there's a resultant upswing in nostalgia. Fashion trends cycle back, for example, and film and television look to the past to provide comfort to the masses. Comic books represent childhood escapism to so many, it's understandable that they would be a ready source material for the movies of the 2000s. Flipping through a comic certainly transports me to a very specific era of my childhood, as I'm sure it must for hundreds and thousands of people. Not everyone read comics as a little one, though, so how does this nostalgia hold?

The concept of the superhero itself, the character wearing tights and a cape, the super-powered fighter has thoroughly permeated our culture, and is coming close to predating us all. Action Comics #1 first introduced Superman to the world almost seventy-three years ago, and soon no one will remember a time before "It's a bird! It's a plane!" Say the words "comic book," and many people will picture a panel full of old-school benday dots, and a man with his underwear on the outside. Comics and heroes represent not just some personal childhood, but a collective vision of childhood in the past. In this context, a sense of childlike nostalgia provides a deeper escape from our currently miserable, economically-screwed now.

There's no real sociology, economic theory, or academia behind these. The labor statistics came from their respective government sites, and the comic book characters listed came from my brain. I don't purport to understand the workings of trends and popularity. I do think, though, there's got to be a better reason for studios clamoring to make every superhero picture they can afford than simply, "Everyone and their mother went to see Iron Man, and The Dark Knight was one of the highest grossing films of all time!"

Why do you think the superhero film is flourishing?

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