America Needs Superheroes

September 18, 2020

In these dark times, with a pandemic raging and a president named Trump, America needs superheroes, desperately, and so thank goodness for the movies.

We live in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And not everyone is pleased. I understand. I really, really do. Superheroes control the box office, and this makes many of my friends in the film business and in film studies deeply upset.

If it don’t wear a cape these days, it don’t fly.

As a scholar, I regret that most Hollywood films must be blockbusters, and that these days most blockbusters are founded on pre-existing intellectual property. Remakes and sequels have limitations, both real and reel.

Most of the time my job is film historian, and I’ll be the first to agree that modern cinema relies too much on its own history, recycling old titles and stories because they have built-in brand names. Franchises are the quick route to financial success, it seems.

But I also know that particular types of film have dominated earlier eras as well. Hundreds and hundreds of westerns flickered onscreen in the 1930s and 1940s, before the genre moved to TV for much of the fifties and sixties.

Musicals were once extremely popular, but no more. And when I was a teenager in the eighties, it seemed like every other VHS tape in the video store was a slasher movie.

Genres grow and wane in popularity. The superhero film will at a given point recede, even if it takes several more years.

And with all of my reservations, I’m here to say that we need superhero movies right now. We do, more than ever before, because there’s a shortage of them in everyday life.

We used to look up to many politicians. No more. Most of the time we have to look down on them these days. The same goes with others who used to deserve our respect. Scandals at universities, in the church, in the military, and among the police abound.

Professional sports are hardly the place to find role models either. Where indeed have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Are there heroes in this big, blue world? Of course there are. Acts of kindness and charity do exist in an overly selfish and cruel world. Some people dedicate their lives to solving crimes or curing cancer. 

Thank goodness for CNN Heroes: Everyday People Changing the World. But in general, real-life heroes don’t get much press. We don’t hear about them.

And to be sure, there are great, great people in the military, in the church, on the police force, and elsewhere. It’s like when we were children, and the bad kid ruined things for the rest of us.

There’s so much wrong in today’s America. We might disagree sharply on much of what’s wrong, but it’s hard to argue this is a great time for the country. And our old heroes just don’t live here anymore.

But villains do. Trump turns every day into a trauma. Jeffrey Epstein was worse than Doctor Doom, and COVID-19 is the new Thanos. And what about all those commentators peddling hate on the radio and television? There’s so much division these days that we don’t just need heroes, we need superheroes.

In the first Avengers movie, Captain America wears the stars-and-stripes costume because people may just need a little “old-fashioned” these days. That’s a fact.

Ethics and honesty and kindness are in short supply. Or if they aren’t, they certainly are in the national dialogue, in the media.

At its best, the cinema — including, yes, blockbusters — can teach us, inspire us, and help us find the best in ourselves. The music swells, the hero dispels the villain, and our goose pimples rise, imagining that we can do the same.

Happy endings are important onscreen because there’s too few of them in our daily routine. If that means capes and spandex, I’m all for it.

Yes, most of the time, I’m watching DVDs of old films, from the heyday of New Hollywood or Old Hollywood, made long before the Big Bang that spawned the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Nevertheless, I’m deeply grateful that Black Widow and Wonder Woman and Captain America and the others are out there, fighting the good fight, for truth, justice, and the American way. Too often it seems like no one else is. Chadwick Boseman and the Black Panther will always be very, very important.

America needs superheroes, now more than ever before. Our nation’s lonely eyes should turn to them, at least for a little while longer.

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Gary D. Rhodes is an Associate Professor of Film and Mass Media at the University of Central Florida. He has written and directed numerous films, and is the author of twenty books about the cinema.