Leo Braudy — in The World in a Frame: What We See in Films — says: “When the genre conventions can no longer evoke and shape either the emotions or the intelligence of the audience, they must be discarded and new ones tried out... Change in genres occurs when the audience says, ‘That’s too infantile a form of what we believe. Show us something more complicated’.”
So far in the superhero genre, little has changed: Avengers (the entire team or its members) save the day in 21 of the 23 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies released so far. Even in a parody like the Deadpool series or genre-critical Logan, the protagonist saves the day.
But, shows and movies like The Boys, Watchmen, and Brightburn are attempting us to show that “something more complicated” by turning the genre upside down.
While the Homelander character (the leader of the superhuman group Seven) in The Boys — based on the comic book series of the same name — is an evil Superman (with a tinge of evil Captain America), Brandon in Brightburn is a re-imagined take on Clark Kent’s (aka Superman’s) teenage days when he upon realising his superhuman powers starts to terrorise his town. In the 2012 movie Chronicle, Andrew Detmer, whose mother is dying of cancer, father is verbally and physically abusive and classmates are bullies, doesn't turn out to be a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man or good-hearted Star-Lord.
In Injustice: Gods Among Us, Superman, in an alternate reality, descends into tyranny after he is tricked into killing his pregnant wife Lois Lane by Joker and establishes a totalitarian regime.
The appeal of a corrupted Superman goes beyond his powers of X-ray vision, laser vision, super strength, flight, and invulnerability. He is also the moral foundation of the DC universe (like Captain America
for Marvel). Superman — in most comic books (even in Superman: Red Son
, in which he is a Communist poster boy) and portrayals — has remained unerringly true to his moral code and this makes it tempting to watch someone that upright fail.
Now let’s discuss the challenges that superhero movies pose to society. “They celebrate exceptionalism and vigilantism. The old American ideal of succeeding through cleverness, virtue and grit is absent, as is the notion of ordinary folk banding together to overcome a threat — think of It's a Wonderful Life
or the original The Magnificent Seven
or any of a dozen World War II-era films. Gone is respect for the rule of law and the importance of tradition and community,” Mark Bowden argues in his 2018 opinion
piece 'Why Are We Obsessed With Superhero Movies?’, which was published in The New York Times
According to an American Academy of Pediatrics study that analysed 10 superhero movies between 2015 and 2016, “The most common act of violence associated with protagonists in the films was fighting (1,021 total acts), followed by the use of a lethal weapon (659), destruction of property (199), murder (168), and bullying/intimidation/torture (144). For antagonists, the most common violent act was the use of a lethal weapon (604 total acts), fighting (599), bullying/ intimidation/torture (237), destruction of property (191), and murder (93) were also portrayed.”
An abstract of this 2018 study was published in ScienceDaily, which also quoted the lead author, Robert Olympia, MD, a Professor in the Departments of Emergency Medicine & Pediatrics at Penn State College of Medicine, as saying: “Pediatric health care providers should educate families about the violence depicted in this genre of film and the potential dangers that may occur when children attempt to emulate these perceived heroes.”
Maybe it’s time superheroes were increasingly projected in films as flawed humans and not gods. This would not only spice up the CGI-generated universe but also help the young audience develop a distaste for unnecessary violence for the sake of “greater good”.