“Put on a cape and turn into a fucking superhero,” suggests the comedian Rudy Ray “Dolemite” Moore, played by Eddie Murphy, to his new partner in bawdiness, Lady Nancy “Queen Bee” Reed, in one of the most pro-capitalist films ever made, Dolemite Is My Name. That fictionalized exchange between real-life aspiring filmmakers of the 1970s is a reminder the dream of reinventing oneself and honing newfound powers is timeless, hardly some juvenile concoction of recent superhero screenwriters.
Yet Ross Douthat, in a recent New York Times piece about as arrogant and poorly reasoned as one expects from that publication, laments the supposedly near-monopolistic takeover of Hollywood and our imaginations by superheroes—pausing only to give a half-hearted salute to Joker (now nearing $1 billion at the box office) for, as Douthat sees it, implicitly depicting superhero/villain fans as the sick, resentful little bastards they are (even as Douthat hypocritically anticipates next year’s film adaptation of Dune, about a morally-gray space-faring boy aristocrat with giant worms as servants and the ability to see the future).
So morally depraved are the left and the right these days that most on the left would denounce “Dolemite” and his pals’ raunchy filmmaking efforts as mere sexist racist money-grubbing—and offer them in exchange welfare and sanitized language (even some of my fellow “libertarians” try to show their bona fides as compassionate people by pushing that disastrous dual solution), while the right turns up its nose at hundreds of millions of people clamoring like never before for big-screen tales of heroism and bravery.
I guess the two major factions on the right prefer, respectively, amoral art-house snobbery from Europe of a sort the conservatives used to complain was corrupting us, or else (in the right’s newer, younger, brasher incarnation) unabashedly Bronze-Age heroes—and/or memes—with all the sappy empathy and morality stuff stripped away from our protagonists to reveal the trolls/centurions/date-rapists beneath. I’ll take superheroes, thanks.
And if Douthat squirms next year when Marvel’s Eternals film has the audacity to depict the entire sweep of human history rewritten as a tale of immortal super-beings and mile-tall space aliens, so much the better. Superhero narratives aren’t only what our culture seems to do best circa 2020, they’ve always been what we do best because they’re us at our best. We just have the CGI now to do the beautiful old dream visual justice.
Welcome to what humanity was always striving toward, Douthat. You and villains like you lose now. Feel free to slink off to your lair.
It’s tempting to complain about Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola also bashing superhero films lately, but it suffices to point out Scorsese’s sad hypocrisy on this point: Joker doesn’t just happen to resemble the Scorsese films Taxi Driver and King of Comedy; Joker had production assistance from Scorsese himself. His name might easily have appeared in the credits had things gone a bit differently, and Joker utilized a significant portion of Scorsese’s crew from The Irishman once that production was over.
Talented filmmakers, timeless characters, inspiring and sometimes haunting tales. This is human art fulfilled, not betrayed. If it makes Warner Bros. and Disney rich in the process and that bothers you, go create something better. I look forward to it.
In the meantime, superheroes, comics, and genre entertainment continue to cover important topics and dazzle at the same time. My fellow anarcho-capitalist Bryan Caplan has just released a graphic novel (with art by the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoonist) making the case for Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration. Surrealist cartoonist Michael Kupperman just launched a series of panels at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn at which cartoonists will discuss work that deals with psychological and cultural matters of great import and poignant personal gravity, such as Kupperman’s own graphic novel about coping with his father’s senility, All the Answers.
Superheroes and cartoons don’t so much displace “serious” tales as provide one more overlapping idiom in which art can express ideas both serious and frivolous. Imagine how Scorsese and Coppola would likely react if someone told them they should be doing serious drama instead of “gangster pictures.” You can do wonders within an agreed-upon idiom, an established tradition.
The recent Breaking Bad sequel film El Camino did a fine job of making its implicit genre assumptions—which were borrowed more from Westerns than from contemporary crime stories—explicit, complete with a final quick-draw showdown. Did the film degrade the whole Jesse Pinkman story by embracing its genre more openly or just give the unaware another chance to catch on? If creator Vince Gilligan does a straight-up 19th-century-set Western next, is he suddenly an artless bad guy? Dear God, what if the cowboy in his next film can fly or read minds? Will it be the death of art?
Come to think of it, he already famously wrote for X-Files and the superhero movie Hancock, so I guess his record is sullied. That whole Breaking Bad thing everyone loved and heaped critical praise upon must have been a grown-up fluke from an otherwise angry man-child with a toy horsey and cowboy hat.
Instead of worrying about superheroes or other genre iconography degrading film, we’d be better off worrying about films degrading superheroes and comics. I enjoyed the V for Vendetta movie, for example, but the Wachowskis replaced an authentically anarchist narrative (from Alan Moore’s comic) with something a bit closer to a socially-acceptable social-democratic tale, Hollywood and the left preferring the kindhearted mob to the angry, judgmental individual (and Hollywood is now in the process of replacing Moore’s deranged-yet-principled, right-wing vigilante Rorschach with a black woman fighting racist mobs in the TV adaptation of Watchmen, but we’ll see how that complex tale works out in this telling).
The creative world, in short, isn’t quite up to superhero standards yet, but with Marvel slated to have five movies in theaters next year and Douthat slated to remain reviled, things are looking up. Skyward, even.