Captain America vs. Batman: The Superhero Myth

August 2, 2011 § 8 Comments

I recently saw the newest superhero movie to come out this summer, and hopefully the last, Captain America:  The First Avenger. As the film played itself out, I found myself in the place I normally do when watching any of the new wave of comic book films from any director not named Christopher Nolan: bored and disappointed. After beginning strong, Captain America torpedoes itself as soon as it resorts to the standard battle montage scene accompanied by a random shift in visual style. It’s unfortunate, because the film had an opportunity to say something profound about propaganda and media during wartime, especially considering Captain America himself is being used as propaganda. Instead, the movie contents itself with resorting to the same superhero myth that propelled the original comic books heroes, investing our wonderful Captain with all the perfect crime fighting capabilities and a charming, no faults personality to match. In an age where that myth of America no longer rings true, Captain America seems to be almost a parody.

Last year in school, I had to read an article which discussed the famous Iwo Jima war photograph and how it was used to create a largely false atmosphere which facilitated the sale of war bonds. The image was imbued with an absolute, timeless message and resonance that fell apart in the 60s and 70s leading to many parodies of that classic image. The “timeless” morals and significance of this image no longer held true in a society which had rejected the beliefs of its parents, therefore the image necessarily had to fall into satire. The same thing has happened to the comic book hero in this postmodern age. These perfect men and women who always do the right thing and never falter can no longer exist because their mystique has been shattered by the unmasking of reality. People cannot escape from this anymore, at least not to the extent they could in the past.

This is why Nolan’s superhero films are so perfectly suited for this time. Divesting the myth of the superhero, Nolan makes Batman into a real person in a real world. We see Batman’s flaws, and this allows Nolan to actually make statements about authentic issues.  Of course, in this day and age, everything is subject to parody and Christian Bale’s Batman voice has seen its share of satire, but Nolan’s films, as proved by the critics and box office have made an impact far beyond mere escapism.  Compare any superhero film made in the past 10 years to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and you will see the massive difference in depth between Nolan’s dark, realistic vision and the others.

With this summer’s movies on their way out, it looks as if next summer will contain its fair share of superhero films, most notably The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers. I’m still waiting to see if any other directors try to make their films noticeably darker to try and mimic Nolan and it appears as if the new Spiderman reboot may be trying just that. With that being said, unless those directors are willing to strip the superhero myth of its bygone conventions and restart from the ground-up, I have less than high hopes for their efforts.



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§ 8 Responses to Captain America vs. Batman: The Superhero Myth

    by Jordan

    Batman is awesome, and nothing I’m about to say is in any sort of attempt to take away from that. But why should every superhero be a Batman? Is homogeneity really something that should be pursued in the realm of comic book heroes–even homogeneity of tone? Do you really want a world with only jaded, “gray” heroes?

    You are right to say that the vast majority of comic book heroes used to be one-sided, cookie-cutter, faultless paragons of goodness. Back in the day, comics were amusing stories of good vs. evil, and trying to saddle them with heavy reflections on the “unmasking of reality” would take away from the fun.

    But to say that most comic book heroes are still invincible and predominately virtuous is just plain wrong. Seriously, take a look at the current state of our most popular comic book heroes in their movies:

    – Iron Man: pompous, self-absorbed, showboating jerk.
    – Spider-Man: can barely keep his civilian life together, selfishly tries to quit hero-ing, welcomes the evil Venom symbiote and goes emo [ugh], is getting rebooted as a broody loner high-schooler.
    – Green Lantern: Ryan Reynolds.
    – Thor: hotheaded insubordinate deity who abuses his power.
    – Wolverine: the apathetic hero who just barely manages to care about saving people who aren’t his friends.
    – The Incredible Hulk: a sad loner with severe rage issues.
    – Superman: the ultimate fish-out-of-water, fiercely lonely, no fashion sense whatsoever.
    – Batman: a loose cannon on the edge who doesn’t play by the rules and has serious childhood trauma issues.
    – The Watchmen: all of the above times a million.

    Somewhere along the line, comic book writers decided that they wanted their stories to be more engaging (because kids grow up, y’know), and they realized that the best way to do that was to give their heroes weaknesses and flaws–to humanize them. (This isn’t a new concept, of course; Homer and Shakespeare were all over this.) Also, as you said, pessimism and cynicism as cultural attitudes have been on the rise for decades, and thus comics began to “darken” in response to their audience. Probably the best-known and most influential hero to pioneer a darker tone in his comic series was Batman, with many others soon attempting to follow suit (to varying degrees of success).

    It appears that film adaptations of comic book properties are undergoing the same evolution, albeit a few decades behind the comics–simple stories of good heroes vs. evil villains are becoming complex and “grayed” tales of deeply broken heroes just barely finding the power (and often the courage or even the desire) to defeat tragic villains with whose motivations or circumstances the audience can often empathize. Probably the most influential hero to pioneer a darker tone in his movies was Batman, with many others soon attempting to follow suit (to varying degrees of success).

    Honestly, in the case of Captain America vs. Batman, it seems that most heroes and their movies are trying to be much more like Batman than they are like the Cap.

    Of course, Nolan’s Batman films stand head-and-shoulders above every other movie mentioned so far, including The First Avenger. But Captain America is a significant figure on the contemporary hero scene, because his old-school characterization and approach to heroism are, ironically, a huge breath of fresh air.

    In a pantheon of heroes who are just barely heroic, Captain America sticks out like a sore thumb. Whereas most comic book stories focus on the pervasive corruption and despair of the world, which are most dramatically realized in the heroes themselves, Captain America reminds us of an equally true facet of reality which the others seem to have forgotten: that good is possible, and that good is powerful.

    In Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, these themes exist as the hopeful light at the end of a dark tunnel, and one could argue that the tunnel is emphasized to a fault. In Captain America: The First Avenger, these themes are trumpeted as the courageous hero of light, empowered by virtue, selflessly steamrolls the forces of darkness–and yes, one could argue that the light is emphasized to a fault. But, given the tide of “gray” heroism it’s fighting, I find it hard to criticize The First Avenger for being so generous in its optimism.

    It’s not often that you find a cultural criticism that calls you to be *more* optimistic, and for that reason, I greatly admire and appreciate Captain America: The First Avenger, regardless of its more clumsy moments.

    • Carl says:

      You do realize your response was longer than my blog and, as always, I appreciate all comments. While I do agree we need to be reminded good is possible, I would prefer my good to be rooted in a somewhat more realistic portrayal of the world. And I fully realize not all superheroes are “perfect” but the films follow such a predictable and safe path that we know their outcome. Nolan is one of the few who bend the genre stereotype to make us evaluate how we are viewing the myth. That’s why I appreciate him so much.

      Also, I feel as if Captain America is merely Superman stripped of his fantastical powers made to serve a nationalistic purpose, which is a somewhat questionable tactic in my eyes. That’s why I wish the film had examined that a little bit closer. That being said, your passionate and verbose defense is welcome, but I do diverge from you on certain issues, as the usual.

      • I’m not asking for supporting evidence here, as we’d be getting off track, but I find your claim that Nolan’s world is “realistic” to be questionable.

        And you do realize that superhero movies are part of an *entertainment* *business*, right? Of course they’re going to have predictable plotlines: The hero is a normal person, albeit with some special something that sets him apart. Dramatic/scientific/mystical hijinks cause the person to become a superhero. There’s a girl the hero wants to kiss. (They will kiss either right before the climax or as part of the denouement.) The hero fails a small mission and/or suffers a personal loss. At some point, the hero needs a friend’s help to get him out of a jam. The Main Bad Guy threatens to kill lots of people. The hero overcomes great adversity and manages to win at the last possible second (a.k.a. once victory seems impossible). The hero settles into his role as a hero and prepares for the sequel, wherein he will have to fight Multiple Main Bad Guys.

        Guess what movie I was thinking of just now as I wrote all that? Batman Begins. And The First Avenger. And Spider-Man.

        A movie is a financial investment by people who want to make money, and these plot points are tried-and-true. People will pay to see this story over and over again with only a fresh coat of paint each time because it’s a fun story. I am often one of those people. It just works.

        I think I agree with Adam that what you’re really trying to say in all this is that you just don’t really like the superhero genre. Yes, Batman can do philosophy; something about his character and his setting makes him ripe for deeper examination of more sober issues. But that’s not normal, and in my mind, you just can’t blend a story like Captain America’s with the introspection of a Goodwill Hunting and expect anything other than the most hamfistedly preachy and obnoxiously phony movie of the summer. A lot of superhero stories just aren’t well-suited for that, which often makes writers’ attempts to go deeper in these movies strike the audience as insipid and out of place.

      • Carl says:

        I don’t categorically have a problem with superhero movies. I do, on the other hand, have a problem with films that treat the medium as only a business proposition as you have suggested. I don’t care if the film makes money, but when it’s solely created to do so I think that’s an unfortunate usage of film. That’s an opinion that most people probably don’t hold. Does that make me pretentious? It might, but frankly I’m tired of people saying that if you take the film for what it was that it was fine. I still think Captain America was a mediocre movie. I loved the first Iron Man, and it was nothing like Batman and ultimately didn’t delve into any philosophical issues. But it was a much better film than The First Avenger, the script was sharper and I cared much more about the characters than I ever did in Captain America. I can take Iron Man for what it is because it was a good, if relatively meaningless film. I expect the same things from genre films and mainstream films that I expect from arthouse and independent films. I want to connect to the characters and story and I want it to be well made. I hope that it touches on some deeper issues, but a film doesn’t have to do that for me to like it. The reason I dislike most superhero movies, the few that I’ve seen, is that they simply don’t fulfill those criteria.

        As for Nolan’s world being more realistic, I mean that most of the time his characters are real people that have real reactions. That’s what happens when you have a good script and great actors.

        As for this whole discussion, I understand my opinions on film are not the opinions of the masses, generally speaking. Do I find this state somewhat distressing? Yes, because I believe that film can do so much more than just entertain, and to see that potential wasted is sad. That’s my opinion and I’m sticking with it.

  • Typically, I agree wholeheartedly with your opinions on such things, but in the case I couldn’t possibly disagree more. First, I think you’re making a mistake that Dr. Miller warned us to avoid: you failed to take into account the scope of each movie. The Avengers doesn’t fail to live up to the same standards as TDK because it’s aiming for something entirely different; in this case, it wants to be an incredibly faithful adaptation of its source material and a snapshot of what Captain America was supposed to be about. In this, it is a resounding success.

    For years comic and game fans have become, well, frankly pissed at Hollywood for trying to do something with their franchises which was never part of the source material. Captain America managed to prove that it is possible to stay true to the roots while not making a crappy movie (see also: Spiderman 1). The fact that the high-flying patriotism and relentless belief in good seem out of place in our society isn’t an issue with the movie; it’s a reminder that society has fallen so far from the golden standards it once idolized (if never actually living up to that Norman Rockwell ideal). If we think it unrealistic, we have only ourselves to blame for the cynicism and darkness. That, and, well — it’s a comic book. It’s not SUPPOSED to be realistic.

    Marvel, for the record, has adapted to the modern age. In the comic line, Steve Rogers was killed (google death of captain america), and the new Cap’ is a much grittier, more realistic version (though admittedly i haven’t really been reading comics lately, so this is mostly just from the summaries I’ve read). But this is not a film of the modern Captain America, it’s an origin story of the First Avenger, and as such it ought to (as it does) reflect the overabundant patriotism and bloated heroism that birthed not only the events of the comic but the actual comics themselves (note: Captain America WAS part of that wartime propaganda).

    The movie may not have much of a lasting impact beyond entertainment (except, perhaps, awakening a renewed sense of hope in the power of positive thinking), but in terms of the goal it set out to achieve (to accurately capture on film the birth of America’s first “Avenger”) it’s damn near perfect. Nolan’s films may have more lasting appeal or philosophical merit, but it’s apples and oranges.

    • Carl says:

      I hear you, but is taking the scope of a film into consideration excuse for a bad film? I liked Captain fine until that war montage scene which supplanted the cartoony vibe with this weird cinematography and made for 3d scenes. Totally unnecessary.

      Did it capture that time well? Maybe, but you can capture a epoch in history and also comment on it and add to the cultural currency surrounding it which the film had ample opportunity to do and failed.

      Also, I’ll throw it out that this post was as much about Captain America as it was about superhero films and myth. Captain America just being my most recent example of an underwhelming superhero film, at least in my eyes.

      • Taking the scope into the film provides the criteria by which you determine whether it was bad. In the case of Captain America, it was absolutely not bad by any proper standard. It was a well-made movie. It was an excellent adaptation. That cartoony vibe is precisely what comic books were like in the forties, and contributed to the overall feeling of authenticity; as such, they were very much necessary.

        I don’t think it’s fair to be angry at a movie for not being a different movie. Not every movie has to be a social commentary to be good. And though I don’t really care enough to actually figure out how to word a rebuttal, I’ll simply say that I am opposed to the sentiment expressed in “the film had ample opportunity to do [what you said] and failed.” That’s like accusing a baseball player for not playing basketball and calling him a failed athlete because you didn’t like the type of athleticism he displayed.

        Sounds like you should have written (or should write?) a different blog that says “I saw Captain America, and it reminded me of all the problems I have with the superhero mythos.” Not saying I’ll agree with your objections, but I’d agree with the framing ^_^

        I’ll accept that Captain America was an underwhelming film, but it is an exceptional superhero film, and on that matter I won’t be standing down.

      • Carl says:

        Well we will have to agree to disagree because I thought the film was flawed. I wasn’t upset at the cartoony vibe, I liked it until they randomly changed it for a few scenes. I thought that his relationship with his friend carried little to no weight and I didn’t care when he died. I would have liked them to develop the love interest more. There are reasons I thought the film was flawed other than it failing to make a social commentary.

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