This editorial is concerning the implications of the recent Realist movement in comic books & related entertainment. Starting with Frank Miller and fully realized by Christopher Nolan our superheroes are “coming down to earth” as it were. What does this mean for us? Well, read on!
At the turn of the last century artists across the globe, becoming bored with the tedium of Realism, started expanding into a new realm of art now referred to as Modernism. Authors like James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner expanded the concept of storycraft from the thorough tellings of moral implication to fanciful reimaginings of our everyday lives. As Freud and Einstein explained to us that our inner minds and outer stimuli were not as solid as we had originally perceived, authors deconstructed not only the concrete way story detail was relayed but even the timelines in which they happen (think Pulp Fiction). For a terse review of the impact of Modernism check here.
The twenties became the golden era of Modernist creation and in the following decade we saw the birth of the Golden Age of comics. Escapist stories of the Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America hit the stands with little to no explanation of why billionaires would dress up in costume or how a super-soldier serum actually works. With the outbreak of a second World War few people cared about such things, what was important was simply being entertained in times of trouble. America needed heroes and we got them in spades (or maybe better said, in symbols).
Decades later when America was familiar with the real life personas of Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark and Clark Kent we were also entering the era of Post-Modernism, a reflection of art aware that it was art elevating the purpose of storytelling from moral allegory to sociological study. Not that this wasn’t or couldn’t have been done prior to Post-Modernism but in the same way we can’t live without the instant gratification of the internet, literature was quickly gratifying itself with immediate obvious real-life relationships (see anything by George Orwell). It soon became not enough to just be entertained by our heroes; we wanted to know why they did what they did. We had to see the gritty slaughter of the Wayne family as told by Frank Miller, and the commitment Peter made to Uncle Ben. We needed to understand that a super-powered gift at birth was also a genetic disorder. Somewhere between the hope and ability, science and logic had to crash the party (as they often do in our everyday lives).
Maybe it was that we were starting to see that we were flawed? We invented the nuclear weapon finally giving humans the ability to become extinct. We retaliated with peace, love and understanding only to find that our psychedelic trips were little more than childish ego trips. We had problems, we still have problems, and so our heroes needed them too. We needed to see the people that had to find ways to cope with uncontrollable anger or the lost of their parents (whether it was on this planet or another) and even established heroes as alcoholics. An excellent continuation of the moral backlash of the forties is discussed here, which focuses around Mumford’s book “In the Name of Sanity.”
So now the literary tides have reversed. Where once all we needed was the good guy to beat the bad guy now we need to see him or her beat the bad guy and their inner demons. Where the rest of the artistic world seems to delve deeper into the abstract the once abstract is literally flying back to Realism. Even the villains seem like less of a plot necessity and more an extension of the hero. We no longer want the inexplicable villain just full of hate; we enjoy it more when he’s a unrequited version of our pessimism with paint on his scars. Show us the Darkseid that would rather control us and let us destroy ourselves rather than the alien invader who can simply overpower us. Explain how even the rich and powerful have relationship issues or difficulty trusting their friends.
It may be that you’ve found this article to be dark in nature, a pessimistic view on the way we’re entertained. I offer it as just the opposite. Let’s indulge our heroes their problems and applaud when they overcome them much as we can overcome our own. Rejoice when the good guy is able to stop the villain without the death sentence but if that’s not the case find solace in the idea that no one is perfect. We are all Ozymandius and Rorschach, Batman and Joker, and even Captain America and Red Skull. We all have our abilities and our misfortunes but the most important part is that if we too can endure then we too can succeed.