Monday, August 15, 2016

Are Male Superheroes on the Way Out?

Screenrant recently declared that this year “is shaping up to be a breakout year for female heroes (and villains) of every sort.” The online magazine profiled “15 Characters Who Will Make 2016 the Year of the Female Superhero,” including such popular figures from the comics as Harley Quinn, Scarlet Witch, and Supergirl. That’s fifteen this year alone – superheroines who are taking the cinematic wheel and forcing the male Old Guard like Batman and Superman to take a back seat. What does such a role reversal mean? Is it just a temporary trend or are we witnessing a cultural shift in our perception of heroism? And why does it matter? 

In recent decades Hollywood has increasingly presented strong female characters who can hold their own in action flicks, thrillers, and sci-fi epics. The dramatic difference now, though, is that Hollywood feels the time is right to give such characters their own movies, bucking the traditional wisdom that female leads can’t put enough people in cinema seats. Whether that risk will pay off financially remains to be seen, but in any case, the sense is that the culture is ripe for women to step into butt-kicking heroic movie roles that once belonged entirely to men.

It’s not that male superheroes are in danger of becoming extinct. There is no shortage of them already, and Marvel seems to pluck more out of its bottomless magician’s hat at will. But their female counterparts are now poised for world domination. Oscar winner Brie Larson, for example, will play Captain Marvel, the first superheroine to headline a Marvel Studios film, in a flick that may actually be directed by the first woman to direct a superhero movie. Wonder Woman is finally set to break out on her own next year in a highly-anticipated film. The President of Marvel Studios has revealed that, of all the previously minor Marvel characters who are likely to get their own films in the coming decade, the studio is “most emotionally and creatively committed” to one starring Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. And although The Rocketeer was not technically a superhero, Disney is planning a sequel to the 1991 film which starred Billy Campbell; but in the follow-up, to be called The Rocketeers, the jet pack-wearing pilot this time will be an African-American female.

Meanwhile the more traditional superheroes don’t seem to know what to do with themselves anymore. They’ve been reduced to battling each other, as in Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, as often as they fight their evil nemeses. Many consider Wonder Woman’s debut in that latter film to be the movie’s high point. And in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, Chris Hemsworth’s Norse god has even shorn his long locks; is it too much of a stretch to suggest that this is symbolic of how the rise of superheroines is draining him and his cohorts of their power, a là Samson at the hands of Delilah?

Okay, that last example was a bit of a stretch, but the point is that the old familiar superheroes are beginning to feel stagnant and occasionally even morally confused, while the women are an invigorating breath of fresh air. Even many male comic book geeks seem just as eager as fan-girls are for the breakouts of such characters as Harley Quinn and Wonder Woman. But while this wave of female empowerment may be exhilarating for many, there is also an element of emasculation here as well.

That may seem like an absurd statement. Isn’t that taking this comic book juvenilia too seriously? Aren’t superhero movies for kids? But that’s exactly the point. Such extraordinary characters as, say, Captain America are important because heroes are symbols of the way a culture views standards of courage and virtue, power and freedom, good and evil. From the Goliath-slaying David to Beowulf to Superman, our legendary heroes define our times and help our youth – in particular our boys – develop a moral imagination. Superheroes are valuable personae for preparing boys, through play and fantasy, to choose good over evil and to one day stand courageously themselves against evil in the real world. And “when a culture falls down on its job of constructing a meaningful hero-system for its members," writes the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, life “explodes in anarchy and chaos.”

Boys – more than girls – need a cultural pantheon of vigorous warrior heroes in place as role models of both physical and moral power. Why “more than girls”? Because despite Hollywood’s current politically correct obsession with depicting women as warriors who are every bit the equal of men, in reality men are and always have been, with rare exceptions, the fighters, the protectors of the weak, the defenders of home and country.

This is not at all to suggest that women are incapable of courage or patriotism or ferocity in defending hearth and family, only that for thousands of years battle has properly been the domain of men and will continue to be. The stories of our heroic icons are the inspiration for our future heroes, and today those stories are largely being told in movie theaters. So by all means, Hollywood, empower women to be heroines in their own right rather than victims, but don’t let our heroes diminish in the process.

From Acculturated, 8/10/16