A hero will save us
Anyone exposed to pop culture in the last decade had no choice but to take note of the superhero phenomenon, which has taken over television and cinema screens. Marvel Comics have put out movie after movie featuring characters such as Captain America, Iron Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy, while DC Comics has made movies about Batman and Superman and TV shows about Supergirl and The Flash. On top of that there's the X-Men movies, and streaming shows on Netflix, such as Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.
It truly seems like superheroes are the men (and women) of the hour in popular culture, and the targer audience for these stories is no longer comic-reading teenagers but adults as well. We wanted to ask – why is this genre suddenly so successful and most importantly, why now?
Technology – for us or against us?
Erez Dvora, a PhD student at the Steve Tisch School of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University, is currently writing this doctorate about Sublime Experiences in Science Fiction Cinema. Erez explains that the current popularity of the genre is influenced by the technological advances that have altered our lives. The pace of technological innovations and their influence on our daily routine can sometimes cause anxiety about the future.
"The superhero genre is turning into an important crossroads for examining and defining the relationship between man and technology," says Erez. "Not only in the plot of the movies (although in some it's certainly a prominent component, especially with the character of Iron Man), but mostly in the sensual experience of technology that the movies have to offer. Every moviegoer has experienced the massive invasion of digital technologies into his or her life, and the movies make them conscious of the way tech promises a new horizon but on the other hand also threatens mankind. The superhero genre is ambivalent: while it supposedly sounds the alarm about new technology, it's also a celebration of what technology makes possible.
Despite the ambivalence towards technology within the plot itself, from a production perspective, superhero films are the ultimate application of new technologies in the field of digital recording and computer processing," Erez explains. "Starting from the 90s, film has gradually moved from a material medium (actual film) to a digital medium. The technological advancement has led to a series of upgrades in digital animation, that have allowed a blurring of the boundaries between the human body that's placed in a "real" space and the body in a virtual space. Special effects allow the creation of superhero films that are exciting from a sensual standpoint like never before – in the movement of superheroes (and with them, the viewers), in the demonstration of various superpowers, etc."
Erez's point can easily be demonstrated through the evolution of movies about the character of Superman over the years. The technological advancement is clear, for example, in the scene where Lois Lane, Superman's love interest, falls from a great height while the hero attempts to save her.
Superman succeeded in rescuing Lois Lane even without digital effects.
Digital effects allow us to fly with superman and feel like heroes ourselves.
"There's no equivalent to the technological capabilities of Hollywood production companies in any other film industry in the world, and they are (similarly to the dominance of military tech) a basis for Hollywood's cultural dominance in modern world cinema," Erez concludes.
Follow the Money
Dr. Boaz Hagin, a professor at TAU's Steve Tisch School of Film and Television also talks about the technical brilliance of the superhero genre. He claims that these films, with their overabundance of expensive digital effects, were meant to strengthen the dominance of Hollywood cinema.
"Superhero movies are part the way modern Hollywood is comprised of giant media corporations that not only make movies but also television shows, computer games, amusement parks, Broadway shows, books, magazines and comics.
Superheroes are a fantastic brand for these corporations, because you can use them in a variety of media and in many ways they're already "pre-sold" to a loyal fanbase who will likely go see movies, watch television, play computer games, and in practice will help promote the movies."
Good versus bad
Prof. Jerome Bourdon from the Dan Department of Communication at Tel Aviv University talks about the popularly superheroes have enjoyed for decades, especially in American culture, and how that popularity has never really gone away. When we asked him to explain the current influx of superhero media, he mentioned the global political climate, which is currently full of uncertainty.
"In a messy-desideologized world, superheroes offer much comfort: justice can come, not through ideology but through specific individuals who can save us/the planet/little children from evil.."
Prof. Bourdon notes, however, that the superheroes themselves are becoming more and more ambivalent – more fragile, not so almighty, and even lonely on occasion.
As an example we could look at the mutants from the X-Men movies. The X-Men have amazing capabilities and yet don't feel like they belong anywhere, the "normal" people of their world stay away from them and fear them. Another example is Marvel's Luke Cage, head of the recently released Netflix show. He lives and acts in Harlem, among the African-American community, which has been historically marginalized, however even within said community his place is unclear. The show struggles with whether Luke Cage causes more harm than good to the people around him.
At the same time, the enemies of superheroes, the "bad guys", are also popular and acquire their own fans – for example, the character of the Joker in Batman movies and the unfortunate incident of the shooting at the movie theater in Aurora in 2012.
From the movie "Doctor Strange" (photo: PR)
From "just human" to "super human"
Dr. Carmel Vaisman from TAU's Multidisciplinary Program in the Humanities, mentions the decline in status of the human hero as one of the factors that led to the popularity of superheroes. "We live in a post-human era, where our ambitions and dreams as a society are to break out of our biological and psychological limitations, to broaden and upgrade our abilities, and we look to science and technology as tools to allow that transformation. Superheroes, along with images such as the cyborg or the vampire, are an embodiment of our collective imagination. We aspire to be super-human or post-human.
"So, the origin stories of superheroes are hints at how we expect this to happen – accidents of nature or science (like Spiderman and The Flash), evolutionary mutation (like the X-Men) or a magical combination of capital and technology (like Batman and Iron Man). To me, the latter kind are particularly interesting, because they deal with a person who took matters into his own hands and pushed himself beyond his human limitations, rather than waiting for a passive change to occur. Our medical-scientific-technological education today tries to instill that kind of activeness, and the cyborg-like combination of an ordinary person and technology creates the kind of superhero anyone could be (if they had the capital to finance it…), so he's easier to identify with.
After all, that's who we are, ordinary people who dream of evolving through science and technology. We dream of a quantum leap from "just" to super-human, ascension with the press of a button, that doesn't require an arduous journey. The rising popularity of superheroes is the embodiment of that dream. People hope, in the farthest corners of their minds, that as the gap between science and science fiction grows smaller, so the will the gap between reality and fantasy genres like superheroes.
A pathetic imitation
We couldn't write an article about superheroes without approaching Dr. Yossi Yovel, from the Department of Zoology, who studies the lives of bats and is known as "the Bat-man of Tel Aviv University". Dr. Yovel's response to our questions was surprising:
"I'm embarrassed to say I've never watched a Batman movie, I'm not a big fan of superheroes and when people talk about scenes from movies I'm supposed to be familiar with I just smile and nod. However, from what I've read, Batman doesn't actually have any bat-like qualities. He doesn't have a natural sonar, he doesn't live in a colony and his flight capabilities are partial at best. So, if I were to be careful with my assessment, Batman is a pathetic imitation, using the glorious attributes of the bat species to create sex appeal."
Unfortunately, we were unable to get a response from Batman regarding Dr. Yovel's claims.