As if the Discourse wasn’t rotting our minds enough already, the end of 2020 came with a uniquely eye-rolling cycle: whether or not superhero films are on the level of a collective mythology for our culture. On Friday, December 11th, Alisha Grauso, co-leader of California Freelance Writers United, tweeted the following: “People dismissing comic book movies as ‘kiddie shit’ are completely failing to realize superhero stories are essentially a collective American mythology and the closest thing to a shared lore we have. Eastern European folk tales & Nordic mythology were largely ‘kiddie shit’ too.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, namely the desire to give prestige to a genre and medium originally meant for kids. On the surface level, it’s a heavy-handed film take on the level of a Noah Berlatsky screed, in which someone wants to have their hobby validated to the point of destroying any difference between high and low art. However, I’ve been losing sleep over the deeper meaning of this tweet. Consider for a moment that Grauso is right about superheroes being a collective mythology. In my opinion, this actually has dire implications for our culture.
Traditionally, heroic characters internalize the values of the societies they’re spawned out of; otherwise, they wouldn’t be recognizable to the audience as heroic. This isn’t something restricted to the modern, comic-book idea of superheroes; Beowulf, for example, represented the triumph of Christianity over Paganism in England after the Norman Conquest, when Christian scribes had a monopoly on how stories were transcribed. This kind of an effect is present in virtually every culture that’s produced an epic poem or some equivalent. Collective mythologies are thus somewhat shaped by social dynamics, but they also do display a great deal of what’s on the mind of the populations that produce them.
Nor do heroic symbols don’t need to be particularly complex in order to create meaning for people. In 2010, Palestinian protestors donned costumes of the alien Na’vi race from James Cameron’s Avatar in protest of the apartheid separation border in Bilin. It’s not that Avatar is a perfect anti-colonial masterpiece, but rather that it found resonance within people who could project onto it. To use a more recent (and more eye-rolling) example, protestors from France to Chile to Hong Kong donned Joker paint this year in their respective struggles. Once again, this isn’t because Joker was strong propaganda to incite class warfare or even a good movie. It just had enough for people to see their situations in.
The MCU is a bit more complicated. The broad themes of justice are enough of a canvas for, say, Black Lives Matter, but have enough of a hyper-militarist tendency to strike a chord with ghouls like Texas Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw. Broad symbols are destined to be taken in different ways, but there’s something particularly vacant about how the MCU is projected upon. One explanation is that in comparison to the already thin symbols in movies like Avatar, the superheroism of these movies stands for even less. These films don’t usually have anything in stock thematically besides the binary perseverance of good over evil would-be world-destroying villains. The closest thing in these movies to substantial politics comes in 2018’s Black Panther, which supported impressive representational politics despite having a villain designed as a caricature of Black power.
Even then, that seems like the franchise’s only significant attempt at a non-Western cultural connection. The only common threads that make these heroes recognizable is that they’re powerful, they’re together, and that they save the day (occasionally some easy dynamics like Found Family as well). Deeper themes from the source comics are frequently snapped out of existence. Parallels that the original comic archetypes had with, say, Jewish-American stories are gone now. We just have these blank slates that can have any idea projected on to them.
That also lends some insight onto what the people who steadfastly defend these movies as powerful artistic pieces are actually getting out of them: comfort, specifically nostalgia. Seeing every character from 10+ years of filmmaking appear at once for a final battle recalls the other pieces of media you’ve consumed up until now. Even if the actual themes are dull, it’s a reassurance that your purchase has been worth it simply because of the magnitude of the cultural process involved. This is also the same reason why these films necessitate bigger and bigger conflicts over time; their existence merely stands as a reminder of what came before it. It’s the logical conclusion of simulacra: a cultural product that has been so reliant on copying that it has lost its own sense of identity and forgoes even allegorical connection to reality.
Let’s go back to the idea that Grauso’s tweet posited: the idea that these movies have become a collective mythology for Americans. Disney has taken a pre-established canon of comic books and taken it to the height of a massive multimedia property that everyone can recognize. This means that a media corporation with a virtual monopoly has brute forced its way into our collective consciousness. And it’s not just Americans in the blast radius: China is now the second biggest movie market in the world, and Disney has wasted no time expanding their reach. It’s gotten so powerful that Disney CEO Bob Iger is getting floated as the new ambassador to China. If superhero mythology is truly representative of our society, it’s more reflective of global capitalism and cultural hegemony than anything to sincerely be proud of.
While it’s true that this has been the mythical year without Marvel, the brand is preparing its comeback: on December 10th, Disney announced a new lineup for their next few years, which proposed a handful of named Marvel movies, accompanied by even more shows to tie-in on its streaming platform, Disney+. And if that wasn’t enough, Disney has proposed ten Marvel shows to be developed for the future beyond that. It’s not just Marvel that’s getting this treatment: Star Wars is getting a ludicrous expansion, announcing two new movies, eight new named shows, and the promise of ten more future shows of its own. Disney has seen the desire for blank media, and is rallying all of its troops to make their most omnipresent franchises absolutely unavoidable. And with the amount of cultural capital they’ve cornered (especially in the streaming age), they’re almost guaranteed to succeed. The success of the MCU had put the entertainment industry on a course for steeper and steeper consolidation.
Every time an industry vet like Martin Scorcese compares these kinds of properties to “theme parks” or other low art, we inevitably see people like Alisha Grauso and Noah Berlatsky rise out of the muck to denounce them as cranks. But even if you somehow agree with the inane take that the MCU is on the level of high cinema, it’s not just the content that’s raising objections. In a piece for the New York Times, Scorcese lamented more that these properties are becoming the primary form of entertainment in a world where Disney’s cultural capital is expanding into infinity. Perhaps more poignantly, he also claims that this is a “chicken and egg” issue, where instead of these properties meeting the public’s demand, the public’s perception of successful art is being formed by the endless wave of franchised films. This doesn’t mean that astonishing movies are nowhere to be found (look at Parasite’s Oscar sweep), but that the platform for strong, challenging art is diminishing significantly in the marketplace. The solution to this problem isn’t as simple as “go watch The Irishman” either (you should, however, do just that). But whatever the long-term solution is for creators prevailing, we as consumers must beware of the tendency to accept mediocrity as some sort of cultural canon, regardless of whether our culture is at that point already.