Superhero Movies and the Progress of Romance: Why We Shouldn’t Worry
So: Marvel? Detective Comics (you know, DC)? Why do people flock to these movies? Why superheroes? There are many theories. But let me suggest one: they are a simulacrum of what we’re missing. Their heroes are ersatz pagan gods and culture heroes, retrofitted to tell the mythology of capitalism. They are secret agents with superpowers for people who lack all agency, all power. They are methadone for people who have never tasted the real thing. They keep our inchoate cravings at bay, and unidentifiable. Fandom allows people to belong to a cult of the Übermensch, and to live out fantasies of power and beauty, and destruction of their enemies. But it’s all totally empty, and it keeps it all on the screen, and so that’s where we look for it. That’s where we’re hooked to it. But actually, as soon as we dance under a lunar eclipse in an altered state of consciousness, or whatever you’re having yourself, we realise that the Marvel is all around, and within. We are all mutants with latent superpowers. And as soon as we examine the World and its narratives with forensic care, and it spills its secrets to us, we realise that we are all Detectives (from de-tectere, to remove the roof). Our lives are detective stories, secondary explorations of an original crime. Our lives are glorious battles against the forces of evil, if we tell them the right way. All it takes is to tell yourself an origins story, discover and activate your powers, and then go out and fight for whatever abstraction you’ve decided is worth it. Or for people. Or for the planet. Whatever you’ve got that’s bigger than you.
And then … You’ll never need to watch a superhero movie ever again. Not even for fun. Not even in jest. You’ll be too busy saving the world.
However, in the current conversation, you are all concentrating on the present moment, and the decline of art-film, and art in general. And while all of the historical circumstantial narratives that you’re positing are spot on, there’s this other thing … See, I actually have a PhD in this. “What, in FUCKING SUPERHERO MOVIES?” I hear you scream? No. Though I’m sure there are a few of those out there, and many more on the way. Decline of the academy, etc. No, I have a PhD that focused on late nineteenth and early twentieth century adventure fiction, and its role in expanding the critical discussion of the art of the novel in France that would go on to create the French reaction to the Modernist moment (note: the French inspired Modernism, and made art that gets counted as Modernist, but they don’t really talk about it. Yes, it’s weird). That all sounds a little bizarre and niche and far-fetched, you say? Indeed. It is, after all, a PhD thesis in an academic landscape where there is very little left to say that can possibly benefit your career (one of the reasons I left). So the point is this, and it is in several parts:
1) One of the reasons that we experience an apparent decline in artistic standards and that “they don’t make ’em like that anymore”, is that actually, MOST narrative art has always been total shit. It’s just that only the good stuff gets remembered. Seriously. Look at a bestseller list from any given year before 1950 or 1960, and I guarantee you that almost every single thing on it is gone, forgotten, out of print, and deservedly consigned to the dust. Popular entertainment of the past does get dragged out and studied these days, but usually to figure out what the hell was going on in society at the time, which brings us on to:
2) narrative art (and art in general) is a vehicle for ideology. “Popular” or genre fiction often carries a payload of propaganda and ideology that is more or less unconscious; the writers reflect and glorify the status quo of their time, often without even knowing that they’re doing it. That’s what makes them so fascinating to study today. What often marks “good” art is the fact that the ideology it carries is counter-cultural or questions or subverts the dominant paradigm of its time. Truly great art manages to LOOK like its pandering to the Powers that Be, while also subverting, questioning, ironising, and problematising not only the issues of its own day, but those of all subsequent days (Shakespeare, right?). So the fact that the current “popular genre fiction” of our day is propaganda for the Capitalist Miltary Industrial Complex? Totally unsurprising. But why these stupid stories about perfect physiques in body-stockings kicking the shit out of aliens? Well, that brings us on to point:
3) These stories have literally always been with us. It’s just that “superheroes” are a particularly blatant and literal reading of them. In the early to mid 20th century, they were Westerns. In the mid to late 19th century, they were Adventure Novels. Before that, they were Gothic Novels. Before that, they were Picaresques. Before that, Medieval Romance, and Saints’ Lives, and before that, folk tales, hero tales, sagas, legends, and all the way back to a certain subset of mythology. What the hell are they then? Well, I’m a sucker for Formalism, and I like Northrop Frye’s analysis (he’s the Thinking Man’s Joseph Campbell). In The Anatomy of Criticism, he identifies the four “mythoi” of narrative art as Comedy, Tragedy, Satire, and Romance. We’re all pretty au fait with the real (Aristotelian) meanings of Comedy and Tragedy, and we think we have a pretty good handle on Satire, right? But then there’s the Epic, which is little practised anymore, though we all think, again, that we know what it is, and did you know that in his Poetics, he also discusses Dithyrambic Poetry and Phallic Poetry? Yeah, me neither. Which brings us back to the Romance. We never talk about it anymore, and the word has been debased to mean “Stories About Love” (which, let’s be honest, they all are too), whereas in fact it’s one of the most important genres of all. It’s also usefully considered as the polar opposite (now in historical terms rather than as a trans-historical genre) of Realism. The 19th century in English literature is ALL about Romance versus Realism, and their eventual fusion in Literary Modernism.
However, where Realism, in line with the Rationalism and Materialism dominant since the Enlightenment, has always been more “high status”, Romance has always been suspect, dealing as it does with anything weird, strange, supernatural, magical, mythical, irrational, illogical … Fundamentally, it’s a genre that is not about realistic plots or characters, or “elevated” emotions and characters (like Comedy and, especially, Tragedy), but rather about entertainment, fantasy, and bodily sensation (fear, lust, excitement). The classic paradigm of Romance is the Quest Narrative, and its key elements are Love and Adventure. And so, the Medieval tales of knights in search of the Holy Grail, fighting for the Fair Lady, and defeating the Dragon, are paradigmatic. And, like all popular entertainment, these stories end up carrying the ideology of their times; so, in the Middle Ages, Courtly Love, Knightly Honour, Divine Right of Kings, and Christianity. When the actual Novel comes along, one of the first identifiable ones is a Satire OF Romance, and a commentary on the dangers of it: Don Quixote. When Daniel Defoe invents the English Novel, he does so with another classic Adventure trope: Man Against Nature, aka Stranded on a Desert Island, with Robinson Crusoe. But interestingly, Robinson Crusoe is not a pure Romance: it’s a hybrid of Romance tropes with Protestant Work Ethic, Spiritual Bookkeeping, and DIY Manual. And basically a how-to manual for setting up a Capitalist Society (complete with racist slave-labour). This weirdness continues all through the 19th century, with the Adventure Novel acting as a vehicle for propaganda for Empire: it is conflated with “real-life” accounts of the explorers and conquerors of (especially) the British, and other, Empires, and purports not only to teach boys how to be Good, Christian, Plucky, Manly Emissaries of Empire, but also to be moral and improving, unlike the much more suspect Gothic strand of Romance that continues throughout, carrying its scandalous cargo of Horror, Sex, Death, Guilt, Violence, etc. Interestingly, all of this stuff is much more gendered “female”, written for and by women. And as such, the subject of many campaigns that saw it as corrupting the youth (and also, it was suspected of corrupting the working classes, who were just attaining mass literacy). Long story short, the Romance has always been doing pretty heavy lifting in terms of both carrying out the propaganda of a society, and working out its neuroses and obsessions.
Today is no different. It’s immensely popular among the barely literate, and NONE of it will be remembered. When we remember genre fiction, it’s because it’s self-consciously playing with its own conventions, subverting them as it works within them, examining itself at play. And sometimes something like that, bizarrely, can become the canonical example of a genre that it actually set out to twist, subvert, and transcend. Some examples: Frankenstein, in which Mary Shelley basically epitomised, transcended, and made irrelevant all previous Gothic Horror, while also, incidentally, kicking off Science Fiction; Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, in which the Brontë sisters commented on, compiled, subverted, and epitomised all previous Gothic Romance (and, incidentally, the whole Romantic movement, and provided the two models for pretty much all Harlequin Romance novels ever written, up to and including Twilight [Wuthering Heights rip-off] and Fifty Shades of Grey [Twilight fan-fiction, but also Jane Eyre rip-off]); Treasure Island, in which Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the ultimate Boy’s Own Adventure, but made it into a troubling, psychologically dark and unsettled creature with no hugging and no learning; Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in which Stevenson again (he’s almost unique in have TWO such genre-defining-and-bending titles to his name), in which Late Victorian Gothic is utterly encapsulated, including most of the scientific and moral issues of the day, anticipating Freud, and also Jack the Ripper!; Dracula, in which Bram Stoker, if you actually read the novel, provides a devastating exposé of the sexual hypocrisy, the racial insecurity, the colonial guilt, the fear of sexually transmitted diseases and women’s liberation of Victorian society …. I could go on and on; and, in general, I could go on and on and on and on, all throughout the twentieth century (ie HG Wells, pretty much everything he wrote, Arthur Conan Doyle, ditto, the 1920s to 1950s pulps, SF, Adventure, Fantasy, Weird Tales and all, Machen, Blackwood, Lovecraft (and how!), Chandler, Hammet, all of Film Noir, all of the Westerns, Tolkien and everything he inspired, all of the New Wave SF and Fantasy of the ’60s and ’70s, Ursula LeGuin, big time, Stephen King, so much, Star Wars, so much it’s completely meta); Everything Else Literally That is Popular Genre Entertainment: it’s all Romance. And its authors, if they’re dumb, are shills for the Empire, splurging its propaganda all over us, and if they’re smart are either doing that too, but making a shitload of money for it, or they’re actual artists, and they’re writing this stuff to subvert the shit out of the Powers that Be, and to decolonise our Collective Imagination. If you’re interested in reading more about the history of the Adventure Genre, I can recommend a short introduction some sap once wrote for no apparent purpose, readership, or remuneration. https://www.dropbox.com/s/at3c71c7rnfma6e/The%20Elements%20of%20Adventure.docx?dl=0