2018 saw the release of a record-breaking number of major superhero films. That includes Avengers: Infinity War, the first superhero film to gross more than $2 billion worldwide, and Black Panther, which grossed $1.34 billion, making it the fourth highest-earning superhero film ever. It was a year in which superheroes triumphed — but it was, also, unfortunately a year in which ugly political realities made most superhero fantasies seem increasingly strained and irrelevant. The superhero genre is clearly one of the major draws for moviegoers at the moment. But it feels less and less like what we need as a culture.
Superheroes have always been political. Colorful figures in tights were beating the tar out of the Nazis long before America was ready to face that conflict in the real world. Faced with a looming global threat, Americans during World War II flocked to pick up stories of star-spangled heroes like Wonder Woman and Captain America, who thumped Axis agents (and Hitler himself!) while spreading the gospel of justice and righteous empowerment.
Our current superhero moment was inspired by a similar dynamic. After the 9/11 attacks, Americans who felt scared and powerless naturally turned to empowerment fantasies. Mired in a seemingly endless war on terror, audiences once again rushed to narratives of noble, powerful people using their amazing powers to right the world’s wrongs. The number of superhero films began to expand, Hulk-like, in the early 2000s, and the trend continues booming. In 2018, so much superhero product was released, it’s almost impossible to list it all. Theaters saw blockbuster business around Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Venom, Deadpool 2, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Aquaman, and Incredibles 2. Then there are the television series: Legion, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, Supergirl, Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, Black Lightning, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Cloak & Dagger, Runaways, Krypton, Titans, Young Justice, and on and on.
The glut of superhero stories has led to surprising mutations. In every sense, superheroes on screen are more diverse than ever before. Legion turns the genre into psychological horror. Deadpool 2 uses superheroes for gross-out comedy. Incredibles 2 is a family sitcom, Runaways is high-school melodrama, Venom is horror/comedy.
Changes in the genre have also meant a greater diversity of people who get to be empowered — and a greater acknowledgement of different kinds of injustice. In a year when Trump and the Republican party spouted constantly escalating hateful rhetoric about the dangers of people of color crossing America’s borders, the superhero genre responded by embracing a growing wave of non-white and non-male heroes. In Iron Fist, an Asian woman replaced the white guy in the title role. Black Panther presented an extended critique of American racism, and cast a black foreign power as the hope of the world. Into the Spider-Verse openly stated, “Anyone can be Spider-Man”; the main character in the story is a mixed-race teenager who inherits the Spider-Man costume and powers.
But in spite of these advances, the superhero genre in 2018 still seemed oddly disconnected from the realities of 2018. Superhero stories are all about defeating evil, but the kind of evils they tend to focus on — most often, superpowered criminals, leaders, and invaders — aren’t the evils that seem most pressing right at the moment. Superhero stories often have political themes — Aquaman and Infinity War both confusedly address environmental concerns, for example, and Black Panther is admirably frank about racism, poverty, and inequality. But superheroes struggle to address the political ascendancy of reactionary authoritarianism. That’s in large part because superheroes are traditionally conservative and elitist. The superhero genre has always had a strong bias toward defending the status quo.
It’s no coincidence that the genre reaches its peaks of popularity during times when the culture is focused on the spectre of rising threats from abroad. Superheroes are almost always dedicated to stopping someone bad from changing things, not changing things that are already bad. Tony Stark’s amazing technological advances are used to beat the tar out of alien invaders and protect the world, but not to end world hunger or forge peace in the Middle East. Great power is used to protect the world, not revolutionize it.
In fact, in superhero narratives, the revolutionaries are almost always the villains. Erik Killmonger in Black Panther wants a world-wide anti-racist revolution. Thanos in Infinity War believes radical steps are necessary to prevent ecological collapse. The villain in Venom decides to ally with human-devouring space aliens in the name of environmentalism. King Orm in Aquaman is building an undersea coalition to fight back against humanity’s pollution of the seas. All these antagonists are somewhat sympathetic, but their desire for meaningful change in the face of real problems is presented as leading inevitably to mass murder and genocide. Even criminal reform gets short shrift in Daredevil season 3, in which the evil imprisoned villain pretends to have a change of heart. He fools some bleeding-heart liberals, maybe, but not the hero. (Ant-Man is an ex-con—but the narrative goes out of its way to show that he was always a good guy who never really should have been in prison in the first place.)
The superhero genre’s super-skepticism about radical beneficial change is complemented by a super-skepticism about collective action. The whole point of the genre is that some people have great powers — and some people don’t. Those who do are the heroes. Those who don’t are romantic interests, bystanders, and potential victims. The story isn’t about them. Change comes about not through community action or political efforts, but through the outsize actions of special, strong saviors. In season 2 of Luke Cage, for example, Luke’s community is racked by violence and gang wars. His solution is to become a gang lord himself, essentially imposing a benevolent dictatorship on his neighborhood. This decision is presented as a personally damaging but effective sacrifice; community action isn’t even considered. Crime calls for a tough law-and-order response that cracks down on even non-criminals. Trump — who has called for unconstitutional “stop and frisk” policies to curb gun violence in Chicago — would approve.
The conservatism and elitism of the superhero genre is most starkly revealed when a superhero story rejects conservatism and elitism — and in the process, stops being a superhero story. The oddest, most adventurous “superhero” film of 2018 was probably Sorry To Bother You. Boots Riley’s film is about a broke, shy black man, Cash Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who gains the ability to talk with a smarmy “white voice,” transforming himself into a super-telemarketer. Green has special, magical abilities, but they don’t make him strong or noble. They just enrich him personally, and turn him into a jerk. It’s only when he sets aside his individual talents and joins with his fellow workers in a labor action that he’s meaningfully on the side of good.
Superheroes, Sorry To Bother You suggests, are scabs who enforce a corrupt status quo. A narrative about special powers can’t be a narrative about solidarity, and a narrative that isn’t about solidarity can’t really be a narrative about change, justice, or hope.
There’s no sign that Boots Riley’s insights are going to be taken to heart. There’s already a slate of superhero narratives scheduled for 2019, including the MCU’s Avengers: Endgame and Captain Marvel, DC’s light-hearted Shazam!, the X-Men spinoffs Dark Phoenix and The New Mutants, and outliers like M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass and Spider-Man: Far From Home. Some will be good, some will be mediocre, and some will continue to push at the edges of the genre’s possibilities. That’s not a bad thing in itself. It’s understandable that in a time of political division, anger, and complexity, people wish for magical abilities to allow them to get above it all. There’s nothing innately wrong with imagining that you can fly. It’s not the best time, though, to be imagining, so obsessively, in film after film and television show after television show, that everyone else is stuck on the ground.