I finally saw The Amazing Spider-man last weekend at the little movie theater in my hometown. After the horrific events a few days earlier, I had little thought about any danger: it was the middle of the afternoon, in my small town, a theater sparsely attended with small children.
After the movie, I watched a little boy, wearing a Spider-man shirt and a Spider-man baseball cap, shoot imaginary webs out of his wrists as he walked up the aisle, making pew-pew sounds with his mouth. I watched him shoot invisible strings of webs to every corner of the theater on his way out. He was Spider-man. He was amazing.
Kids have always loved superheroes. From the moment they realize there is pain in the world, they are looking for someone to save them from it. But as adults, we know there’s no such thing. So why, then, are superhero movies so insanely popular these days? Look at the last ten years and the number of superhero movies and sequels. This summer alone sports offerings in the most massive superhero franchises: The Avengers, Spider-man, and Batman.
You could say that special effects can finally keep pace with our active imaginations, or maybe it’s just childhood nostalgia, but I think it’s more than that. I think superheroes fulfill some needs that our culture has ignored or forgotten. And so to remember, to combat this apathy and disconnect, we go to the movies and see long-forgotten friends. So what are those reasons our culture craves superheroes?
1. We need heroes.
Our culture is super great at cutting people down to size. We love to build people into heroes before tearing down those people we once idolized by saying, “You’re not so great.” Somehow, we believe it makes us feel better about ourselves. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. It just makes us feel crappy about the entirety of humanity.
We don’t do heroes anymore. War heroes are non-existent, as our country feels embroiled in a war we can’t win and we mostly don’t remember we’re fighting. As for celebrities, we can find out what they are doing constantly via Twitter. Honestly, a little bit of mystery wouldn’t be a bad thing, as my respect is easily lost in 140 characters. Forget about politicians; they plummet off of their pedestals faster than you can say “scandal.”
We are a bitter culture who knows too much. And yet, we still idolize people before tearing them apart. We like to root for people. We like to be on the side of the winner, to celebrate, to uphold. We like having heroes.
Superheroes, though they may be flawed, do good deeds. They may be paying penance or feel an obligation, but they are good people (or aliens). They want to help others, and what’s more, they do. They don’t just talk about what the government can do differently; they act and make a change. And we like to celebrate that, and think that it’s still possible to do good things in a difficult world.
2. We need some un-reality.
Reality television has ruined us. As has Facebook and Twitter. We’re faced with a constant deluge of information. Reality is everywhere. And it can suck pretty bad.
Granted, we’re all aware that reality tv is edited and sometimes scripted. We know the lives of the Real Housewives are about as real as those “Louis Vuitton” purses you can buy on street corners. But we’re sucked in nonetheless by these peoples’ lifestyles, whether the lifestyle be extravagant, weird, or painful.
I’m connected to the entire world by a thing I don’t understand called the Internet. I click on the browser icon and within seconds, I can find out anything: how many people are dying in Iraq, what the economy is like in the South, what the weather is like in Japan. It’s all reality, or some form of it, all the time.
I get exhausted.
So sometimes, I am more than happy to head into a movie theater and be fully aware that these movies are pretend. That people can’t shoot webs from their wrists or fly or use Batarangs. I’m okay with the cartoonish violence, the cheesy morality, the implausible love stories. Because I’m seeing a superhero movie, I’m ready for it.
There are times for dramatic, life-reflecting indie films that make me think, cry, and squirm (perhaps all at the same time). But there’s also time for fluff, for fun, for someone who can’t exist. There’s a time for superheroes.