Illustration by Ren Rader
Superheroes, from books to graphic novels to films, have completely consumed popular culture for the past 11 years. The second most recent addition to the superhero canon, “Avengers: Endgame,” made $2.796 billion and became the highest grossing film of all time. Of the last six Marvel movies, five of them have made over a billion dollars and two of them have made two billion. Suffice to say, these movies and their subject material are what audiences across the globe want and will leave the comfort of their homes to go and see. So, what is the appeal?
Superheroes are not new to American or worldwide pop culture. One could make the argument that the idea of the superhero has existed throughout culture, surfacing in heroes like “Odysseus,” “Achilles” and “Gilgamesh.” But modern superheroes differ from their classical counterparts, and while they hold certain similarities, “The Avengers” and their allies are not as colloquial or as timeless as Patroclus, Odysseus or Hercules. Modern superheroes are popular for other reasons.
Take the capped crusader, Batman. He originated from late 1930s America, the peak of the Great Depression and consequently, a time when crime was rampant. The stories of Batman, a champion of the people and a destroyer of the lawless, were of particular interest to an America where homicide had reached new heights and the police had no means to curb it. The love and popularity of Batman was rooted in a societal want for vigilante justice and a sense of order that was lacking.
Similarly, Captain America came from an effort to boost morale within war-stricken 1940s America. Timely Comics, in their first issue, sold nearly a million copies, with families of soldiers on the Western Front sending troops copies of the pinstriped hero and his escapades. While it boosted morale of troops abroad, it also boosted morale on home soil, giving American citizens a world of simplicity and clean endings to dive into, an escape from the brutality of World War II.
This theme of escapism, of using comics as a means of avoiding reality, is what I believe is at the root of the current obsession with superheroes. What I believe is what is the purpose for superhero is to be reflective of what society is devoid of or wants.
In most superhero movies, the world is generally black and white, with the villain intent on some version of world domination/destruction and the protagonist set on stopping him or her from completing their evil plan. A film like the first “Iron Man,” follows this model and in the end good wins over evil. At the time of its release, May 2, 2008, America was gearing up for election of a new president, broiled in two separate wars, dealing with the growth of domestic terrorism and in the throws of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. America had no clear bad guy and no clear good guy. A time of ambiguity, skepticism and unrest had come to dominate the nation. A movie like “Iron Man” presents an escape from that, to a world of good and evil, with a clean resolution. Its success is a symptom of the times and the fervor of adoration it received was due to a craving for simplicity and control.
Fast forward 10 years, to the release of “Black Panther” in February 2018, and we get a superhero movie that has similarities to “Iron Man” and the subsequent Marvel films and yet has distinct differences. “Black Panther” presents a villain whose motivations aren’t rooted in blind selfishness or ignorance, but a desire to right centuries of injustice. While his methods of doing so are questioned in the film, his ideals are in the end understood by the films protagonist, and the audience is given a film that isn’t as clear-cut, but filled with ambiguity.
So what changed from 2008 and 2018? Well, a lot. More than anything, after eight years of an administration that worked to steady the ship of America, another took over and America’s ship has been sinking ever since. So, unlike 2008, in 2018 there was, for a majority of America, a clear antagonist. Yet, there wasn’t a clear protagonist. “Black Panther” provides that clear protagonist, one who works within a system to change it and is willing to work with change. It then provides the antithesis of him, a character not willing to wait any longer and one who will burn it all to fix what is wrong. It had a villain who is not entirely evil, whose ideals are rooted in understandable reasons, but his methods are where he enters the realm of antagonist.
In 2018, America wanted a protagonist, and “Black Panther” provided it, while also presenting a villain who was tired of the current structure of government and wasn’t going to wait for an election. Society craved that ideal of control, of a radical reshuffling, but like the film, were wary of how it would get there.
So what is the appeal of superheroes? They are the conduit to the pulse of society, or at least one of them. They reflect the times and are a means of escape, vessels in a world of our own creation. Superheroes are what we make of them. Each lover of Spiderman can see whatever they desire in the web-slinger’s adventures. They can be and are many things: that’s what makes them superheroes.