We do love our superhero movies, don’t we. I’ve had something of a pet theory for a few years now that says that all superhero comic book mythologies are little more than the superego punishing the id in a celebration of a superficially Nietzschean, almost fascist worldview. What is much more interesting is why audiences find these stories so compelling.Comic book stories are good when they acknowledge this and play with the form. This is one of the reasons why Nolan’s The Dark Knight was so good. It took the Nietzschean superhero motif to its ultimate conclusion–the Noble Lie–and exposed the corruption at the heart of it. When a superhero movie isn’t directed by Christopher Nolan, it isn’t as good, and you get everything else.
Including almost all of the PG-13 action movies coming out this summer. Including Green Lantern.
The synopsis: Green Lantern is green because he is one of the Guardians who harness the green energy of willpower to fight evil in the form of fear, which is yellow (you yellow-bellies!). A Green Lantern uses his willpower to make manifest whatever he imagines, and with this willpower energy, he fights evil-fear. Except evil in the story isn’t really fear, evil is chaos and vengeance that feeds on the fear of the weak (i.e. everybody else).
So on the one hand, you have the Guardians, the ubermensch powered by sheer will, and on the other you have a corrupting monster that feeds on the fear of everyone who isn’t a superman. Throw in some defense contractor ne’er do wells, a corrupt Senator, a beautiful love interest (who happens to be the film’s only major female character) and roll cameras. There’s one other thing, but I’ll get to that later.
Captain America, which comes out in July and which I have not seen, will also be the same. I know this because in the movie, Captain America fights the Nazis. The only problem is that the real life Nazis were already super-evil fascists, so instead of fighting regular Nazis in the comic book, he fights a super-evil monster Nazi named Red Skull (“but I though the communists were-” I know, I know). The Nazi monster gets to be the rabid teeth-gnashing caricature of evil we expect out of comics so that Captain America can be the ends-justify-the-means ruthless ass-kicker we need him to be (and who, if he were blond, blue-eyed and called “Blitzkrieg” we would immediately identify as a Nazi).
I’m not going to ask why they make these movies. They make them because outfitting Lamborghinis with hookers is surprisingly expensive. Instead, I’m going to ask why we see them. Why do we read the comic books they are based on? Sure, spectacle is fun and has its place, but we’ve really been eating this stuff up as of late. What gives?
The answer is quite simple. We want to punish. We want to learn how to be the authority. We like to see our essential natures up there on the screen or in the brightly colored pages beating the crap out of each other, and we want to see the superego win. Take my id, my base desires and instincts that I’m not supposed to have, and use my superhero superego to beat it into submission. That’s how comic books work. For their readers, it’s a nice fantasy.
But that’s also why we’re supposed to grow out of them. Eventually we’re supposed to lose interest in the conflict as fantasy because we’ve experienced it in reality. When the internal conflict is no longer as acute as it was in our adolescence, after we’ve developed strategies to satisfy those baser natures in ways that are permissible (to serve that revenge cold), then the conflict no longer resonates. To say it another way, comic books and similar stories only resonate when the Oedipal conflict within the reader is in full swing. When the “father” (the authority figure of whatever gender) is socializing (i.e. punishing) us, the conflict rages, and these stories help to make sense of that.
So what happens when there is no father, or “father”? What happens when the father is distant, emotionally detached, gone, or simply dies before the child fully grows up? What happens when the adolescent is without an authority to impose those external rules? Cue Marcuse’s the Ballad of the Post-Freudian Man. We drift into a state of childish adulthood, skipping from one surrogate father, champion, or hero to the next.
And this is the other reason these stories are so popular. Because they aren’t just for kids anymore. They are also for a whole generation of 20 and 30-somethings who in this very specific Oedipal sense are still kids. The theaters and comic book stores are packed with post-Freudian audiences who grew up without “fathers”.
Just like their heroes Batman, Spider-Man, and Captain America.
And just like Green Lantern too, who we see as a boy, watching his father die in a plane crash.