The Changing Faces of Heroes


They’re on our TVs.

In our cinemas.

On our computers.

On our smart phones.

Games consoles. Books. Comics. Toys. Adverts.

Everyone wants a piece of the enormous superhero-shaped pie that has been served to us since the huge success of films like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Robert Downey Jr. made Iron Man awesome. I even saw a coffee shop in town advertising its top 4 muffins as the ‘Fantastic 4’.

I also write about superheroes a lot on this blog. Well, what do you expect from a blog with a Green Lantern reference in its name?

Superhero media has been rumbling along well for a few years now, but I’m starting to see a change, particularly in the films and TV shows that are coming out. The comics have always been a vehicle for their authors and readers to explore ideologies, politics and philosophies, but now the visual media is starting to take on some of that, and I think that this is a good thing.

The films and TV shows are slowly transitioning away from being pure, light-hearted action flicks, and are taking on an edge that gives them real meaning. Three of the most recent offerings from Marvel and DC highlight this very well, so for the rest of this post I’m going to focus on Marvel’s Netflix show, Jessica Jones (spoiler free); DC’s latest film, Batman v Superman (also spoiler free); and Marvel’s upcoming Civil War (I know no spoilers).

Jessica Jones

It took me a few episodes to really get into this series, which I thought was very slow-paced compared to its more action driven predecessor, Daredevil. However, at the heart of this series is woman, Jessica Jones, who has had an extremely difficult childhood and adulthood, and a man, Kilgrave, who is a particularly nasty piece of work (played superbly by David Tennant). This is a story about one powered person fighting another, but it is not a superhero show as we know it.

The show foregrounds the mistreatment of women and the difficulty that society has in acknowledging that such mistreatment is going on. The show focuses on a powered villain, but it begs the question of who else is suffering at the hands of ordinary men in the real world. The series deals with incredibly hard topics like abuse, and brilliantly illustrates the power struggle that exists within relationships. One of the keys to the whole series is why Kilgrave has the power that he does over Jessica, and how Jessica can break free of that control. The story is compelling, and driven by characters whose experiences force audiences to engage with very real issues in our own society.

Batman v Superman

I’m going to get this out of the way right now: I liked this film. The critics can throw their reviews in front of Ben Affleck’s Batmobile for all I care.

This is a film that should make you think. It deals with different issues of power to Jessica Jones, with Superman’s raw power contrasted to Batman’s insecurity and Lex Luthor’s wealth. I found myself constantly wondering who was in the right as I watched the film. How far can individuals be trusted with more power? The film also looks at the nature of heroism and the morality associated with different uses of force, and it looks at how far we should go to protect ourselves against threats, real or perceived. I think that this film has been wrongly dismissed because people can’t look past their preconceptions about superheroes to engage with the other messages that the film contains.

It’s a film that I would strongly recommend, and I’m looking forward to seeing it again in the future!

Civil War

I wrote a post on this recently, so I won’t go over it all again, but Civil War has the potential to examine concepts of politics and freedom. It asks the question, in a similar way to Batman v Superman, of how, if at all, power can be regulated, particularly with regards to the freedom of individuals within any political systems. The structure and security that Iron Man stands for is played off against the individual freedom that Captain America stands for, and if the film is done well there should be no clear cut answer as to who is in the right.

I believe this film has the potential to question ideologies, asking if any of them are really good, or if it’s about making the best of what we have. I’m very interested to see where Marvel takes it.

Looking to the future

As DC’s universe expands, and Marvel continue to pump out big-budget films, I look forward to seeing if they continue to address big issues, or whether they retreat back to the relative safety of pure action-flicks. Marvel’s first films with female and minority leads are long overdue, but will appear in the next couple of years with Black Panther and Captain Marvel, and DC still have most of their story to come. Which themes will appear? What statements will be made? I don’t know the answer to those questions, but you can bet that I’ll be at the cinema for every new release, waiting to find out.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sipech says:

    A question for you; a rather long one. The philosopher Mary Midgley wrote about “The Myths We Live By” and I’m sure you’re familiar with most of them. Things like “The myth of redemptive violence” and the like. These then seep into culture and are expressed in literature, art, etc. C.S. Lewis famously phrased the myth (or story-arc, if you prefer to lose the “it’s not real” connotations of the word myth) of christianity in his Narnia books. Philip Pullman has phrased his counter to this and to Milton’s work in His Dark Materials. The DC/Marvel universe looks to me (a non-comic fan) like a way, or variety of ways, of expressing the secular myths of modernity.

    A common motif in the films at least, is a constant need to retell how the story began. A genesis myth. Not the myth of creation of the universe, but of the start of how a character came to be. So my question is this: Where is the eschatology in the hero universe?

    Both Lewis and Pullman expressed their eschatology with great eloquence, but the superhero stories seem rather stunted in comparison. An enemy appears, they fight and are defeated. Then another enemy comes, they fight and are defeated. Then the earlier one you thought had been defeated comes back again. It’s just not as rich. Is there something in the DC/Marvel universe that is deeper than this, or are they little more than largely self-contained morality tales?

  2. bengarry says:

    Right, I’ll have a go at doing that question justice. I think it’s important with comics to make the distinction between the books and the films, and I’ll try to go over both of them here. The distinction is important because the films are, by and large, less developed than the books, as they’ve been around for less time, and have to fit stories into two hour chunks.

    Starting with the comic books, then. There is no unified story-arc, or anything that would be directly comparable to Milton/Lewis/Pullman within the universe as a whole, and there is certainly less conscious engagement with spiritual themes than with those authors. From that point of view, superhero stories can be considered ‘stunted’. Because of the ongoing nature of the books, I think the ending has less significance than the beginning. The beginning needs to be retold to draw in new readers, but the books cannot come to an end, hence no one stays dead in the DC/Marvel universes. Where the comics get the depth that takes them beyond simple morality tales is in the way that they present the consequences of particular events for the characters’ lives, and when they present characters whose motivations and morality is not clear cut. The Civil War story arc is an excellent example of this, dealing with the consequences of superhero violence on the world that they live in. There are individual character stories as well, such as one recent comic run, Venom, by Rick Remender, which centred on a main character who was confined to a wheelchair after serving as a soldier, and who suffered with a severe drinking problem. There is no real moral that can be derived from a story like this; it’s a story that depicts a flawed human being. However, if there’s one thing that comes through the comics consistently, it’s a sense of hope, and away from all the powers there are often normal human beings doing extraordinary things. So whilst I can’t talk about a specific eschatology, I can talk about emotional depth, and stories that tackle real-world issues.

    The films are similar, though the characters are, by and large, less developed, and this does have an effect on the films’ depth. Because of the stage that the cinematic universes of DC and Marvel are in, the focus has been on genesis stories, but Marvel at least are now firmly into the middle-stage of their film production, and we’re starting to see films like Civil War emerging, that don’t deal with the origins of the heroes, but deal with the fall out from the other films. Time will tell how this develops, but I predict we’ll see less of the simplistic, cliched storylines, and more though-provoking, nuanced arcs as time goes on.

    I hope that answered the question!

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