The inauguration of Barrack Obama represented the end of an era. He ran on a campaign of change and, for the most part, that's what we are seeing. Change. Gone is notion that the United States can do everything alone. Gone is the notion that the United States is invincible. Gone is the notion that her enemies are entirely evil. Similarity, within the last decade, such has been the evolution of superhero films.
People love their heroes. They inspire us by giving us hope that somewhere out there, someone is watching. They make sure that we come home safely. Superman is the ultimate iconic hero saving Lois Lane, and the world at the drop of a hat. But our superheroes today aren't like that. They are brooding, sometimes selfish but most of all alienated. They try to do the right thing but why bother if the general public doesn't want their guardians to be them? Also, our villains have changed. Gone are the maniacal megalomaniacs of yore, replaced with cunning individuals who have their own agenda to save the world. Or they are charismatic sociopaths trying to expose the ugliness in all of us. Either way, both our superheroes and super-villains have evolved from simple black and white creatures to multilayered studies of the human psyche.
I think it was Spider-Man (2002) that started it all. While by no means a cinematic masterpiece, it certainly did get its point across: with great power comes great responsibility. Spider-Man learns early on that selfishness, at least when it comes to his powers have terrible consequences as seen with the death of his uncle. Spider-Man 2, released a few years later explored the theme of a hero refusing his quest after accepting it. What does it really mean to be a superhero? Is a "normal life" still worth living? How much should a superhero sacrifice for others. Does he have free will or are his actions bound forever his community?
One of the great things about Spider-Man is that it does have these questions embedded in a summer blockbuster. It gave life to the notion that maybe it’s not so perfect to be a superhero, that with great power indeed comes responsibility. Later films furthered different aspects the reality of being a superhero.
Hulk (2003) was director Ang Lee's attempt to as shed new light into the pop culture icon. Instead of having playing up the blockbuster-action appeal of the Hulk, Lee explored how turning really strong and green can affect a person's life. Lee also constructed a complex relationship the Hulk had with his father and attempted to capture that along with the film, too. The result was a slow and confusing film but nonetheless a worthy attempt by a character director piecing together the pieces of a broken individual.
The Hulk is unique, in the realm of superhero characters because he is not really a 'hero'. He shows very little true selflessness-he is just a government experiment gone wrong and spends most of his time on the run. Yes, he is ostracized, but not for being a hero, rather for being a freak.
Unbreakable (2000), M. Night Shyamalan foray into the genre further develops the identity of a hero. In fact, saying that the movie fits in the "superhero" genre spoils the ending of an otherwise taught thriller. In the film, a man survives a train accident that kills everyone but him. With the encouragement of an eccentric comic book collector, he figures out that he does have traits of a superhero- he has survived calamities that have killed other men, he does have an extra sensory sense that allows him to see what immoral acts people have done and he is really, really strong. Of course, his revelations come extremely slowly and subtly- surviving calamities come in the form of surviving train wrecks. His sense is truly just a feeling that has the happy coincidence of being right. His strength is discovered through lifting heavier and heavier weights.
There is a particularly moving scene where the man's son, convinced that his father was indeed a superhero, points a gun at him in attempt to prove his father was unbreakable. The man tries his best to talk his son down, that he will die if he is shot. He manages to convince his son to lower the gun and the family sobs together.
The scene sums up the movie. It depicts the realistic consequences of being a superhero. It even suggests that superheroes themselves aren't aware of their power. Is the only thing separating us from them their power? Even in the scene where the man saves a family, he is painfully human. He falls. He needs help getting up. His superhero suit is a little more than exercise clothes. He barely escapes alive. How can he help people if he can't even help himself? Shyamalan answer is that superheroes aren't necessarily better or different from us. They have the same problems as us: taxes, a failing marriage, a boring job but they are unique in their ability. That's about it.
What is also remarkable about Unbreakable, is the villain of the story: Mr. Glass played by Samuel L. Jackson. The villain has no superpower and in fact has a disease that confines him to a wheelchair and makes his bones break easily. He is never outwardly aggressive to the protagonist and is the catalyst that helps him discover and develop his power. But he does bad things. He is the one who caused the train accidents and various other accidents to "discover" the superhero. Sadly, the only thing that the superhero has to do to overcome him is to hand him over to the police.
Is he really a villain? Yes, he has bad things and yes he is a bit crazy for believing in superheroes but that doesn't mean he's wrong. If the end justifies the means, is he not justified? Without the villain's evil could the superhero be capable of doing such good?
The X-Men films (2000, 2003, 2006) focused on the theme of minority rights. The X-Men essentially are a team focused on combating the terrorist group The Brotherhood of Mutants bent on violently changing the world to suit mutants. Parallels can be drawn to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s with Malcolm X calling for militant action to change the status quo while Martin Luther King Jr. called for a peaceful change progression. Both carry the theme of minority rights and exclusionary tactics by the majority-which happens to be us. In all three films, the people who aren't mutants are hostile. They stare. They are angry. They are just as belligerent as some of the mutants themselves. The scary thing is, they are supposed to be us. The X-Men films are political. The X-Men themselves face challenges on two different fronts, one from the terrorist mutant group they face, and the other from the people they are trying to help.
The hard part about it too, is that the X-Men are in conflict with people hate them for being who they are but it’s hard to completely antagonize them because those people are us normal bipedal human folk. On the other hand, they are forced to fight those like them to defend us. Those other mutants are in the minority, like them and like them, push for more rights albeit militantly. How can we fight something that we, too believe for? Because it’s right? What if the people we are defending don't want to be defended by us? What should we do then?
Iron Man (2008) was perhaps the first film to knowingly alienate the protagonist from the audience. Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark is meant to be unlikeable. He womanizes. He is rich and spoilt. He builds his mechanical suit as a means of escaping terrorists rather than to combat evil. However, the fact remain is that he IS liked. Iron Man was a box office success with a sequel on the way. The film rejuvenated Downey's career! What is it about snarky men that we find so appealing?
To be fair, Iron Man, besides Downey's character is pretty generic. The love interest with his secretary falls flat with little chemistry. The villain 'Obadiah Stane" is underdeveloped and wants...well, we're not really sure what he wants. More power in the form of a suit? Maybe. But what is remarkable about the movie is that we've grown accustomed to a hero who admits, himself, "I'm not the hero type" and someone who is a bit more self-serving than others. Perhaps its because we like people more like us. Perhaps its because his flaws and not despite them we come to accept him and his journey as our defender.
On the other hand, Watchmen (2009) suggests that the people who guard us have their own specific set of issues that alienate them from the general public. Only one superhero from watchmen is truly superhuman-Dr. Manhattan who is a naked blue sculpture of man able to do, well, practically anything except walk around in clothes all the time. The rest are ordinary people, like you and I, just with masks walking around with weapons. Most of the Watchmen are disturbed individuals. Night Owl, is a old fart looking back at old days only able to get an erection while in his suit. The Silk Spectre is a nymphomaniac unsatisfied in a relationship with a superhuman. Ozymandius has publicly unmasked himself to be a founder of a multinational organization providing every sort of good and service imaginable. He is also responsible for the deaths of millions in order to for "world peace". The Comedian is adrenaline junkie, a hired hit willing to kill whoever, including JFK. Finally, Rorschach, the most like-able character in the movie is also the most violent. Even Dr. Manhattan, the only true superhero is also the most inhuman. The film focuses on his inability to have feel human after being endowed with omnipotent power. In his famous line, he says "A dead human has the same number of particles as a living one" implying that life or death ultimately doesn't matter.
Thematically, Watchmen is the darkest superhero movie of them all. World peace is only achieved by the killing of millions and millions of innocent lives. Rorschach, the "hero", of the film ultimately has to die because if not we would expose the truth to the world. Ozymandius, with his infinite knowledge, does the long term "right thing" and each of the Watchmen realize that he is right. Dr. Manhattan leaves Earth because he figures that his presence would only detriment the world. Watchmen, if anything, hammers home the fact that the people who dress up in order to protect us are disturbed and perhaps the right thing to do sometimes, is to kill millions to save billions.
The Dark Knight (2008), perhaps the most realistic of the superhero films, questions the psyche of a man willing to sacrifice to become a hero. Batman is good, but that doesn't mean he is righteous. This is a Batman who beats up criminals, in a way, to avenge his parents who were killed because of criminals. This is Batman who beats up the Joker while interrogating him in order to get more information. This is a Batman who kidnaps a person across borders in order to put him in jail.
Still, Batman is good. He is the most relatable character in the movie (despite being really rich in our current recession). He does bad-ass things in order to reduce the escalation of crime in his city by any means necessary. Fair enough.
However, this is how his arch-nemesis, The Joker is born. The mob becomes desperate and relies on The Joker to hunt Batman. The Joker crosses the line and is a complete sociopath. But, he realizes ( and the audience, too) that he could have never been brought to center stage without Batman. He, in fact, directly tells Batman that "You complete me!" implying that their struggle keeps both of them alive and relevant. One cannot exist without the other.
At the end of movie, Batman is hunted by the people he promised to protect like the X-Men. He keeps the truth from being told the public, for the greater good, like the Watchmen. His alter-ego is unlikeable to protect his identity, like Iron Man. And finally, perhaps, most of all, he knows that his drive to combat crime comes with a responsibility to protect others. In a way, he is the superhero of our time because his bound with this incorruptible sense of obligation and out of every other superhero, is willing to sacrifice a comfortable life in exchange for a hard one for what he thinks is right. His sacrifice, and not his non-existant powers, make him the superhero and despite his questionable methods, we like him the most because he does the right thing even when its wrong for him, personally.
Modern day superhero movies have changed. Along with the action and explosions are embedded themes of minority rights, Machiavellian methods and sacrifice. Essentially, what modern superhero movies are trying to tell us is that superheroes are defined despite their superpower and not because of it. They all have problems like the rest of us but what makes them heroic in the end is their sacrifice. We relate to them more because of that. Ask a movie-goer if they like Superman or Batman more and odds are they'd like Batman because, at the end of the day he is one of us normal-folk. He's just a man who made the right decision in a tough time. They all are. Films, today are just trying to capture what happens after they make that decision to save us.