On the Importance of Having Superheroes

The Avengers has managed to take in more than $640 million worldwide in the last 12 days and set a new opening weekend record. What is it about superheroes that we can't get enough of?

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Like April's unseasonably warm spring weather (followed by a so-far gray May), the summer blockbusters have come a bit early this year. First, there was The Hunger Games, setting opening weekend records now trumped by Marvel's The Avengers, which has managed to take in more than $640 million worldwide in the last 12 days and set a new opening weekend record. If you haven't seen it yet, it's bigger and badder, with better special effects than ever. This writer saw it in 3D, but it would probably deliver the same punch without the silly glasses and pricier ticket. Given the hype and the apparent fulfillment thereof, if ticket sales and good reviews are to be believed, it seems clear the movie will keep attracting audiences for the short and long-term.

One could cite numerous reasons why the film has done so well: There's a celebrity ensemble cast; mass appeal; a story that can be understood on several different levels and by wide-ranging ages; sexy girls; sexy boys; the built-in comic fan audience and inside jokes for them; bangs and smashes and insane special effects and impressive fighting scenes...not to mention aliens and a nebbishy man who turns into a giant green monster, a phenomenon that invariably rips his clothing right off. That's enough to watch it once, and then there are the (two!) secret scenes at the end after the credits. Patience is rewarded.

As Richard Brody writes in The New Yorker, explaining further the levels upon which the film can be understood: "The Avengers is an impressive feat of cinematic engineering, a work of prodigious skill and efficiency that carries out its cartoonish mission while addressing graver concerns—the construction of a post-9/11 revenge fantasy that takes place against the backdrop of unpopular foreign wars." The L.A. Times' Steven Zeitchik adds that elements like "geek-speak" (the word tesseract, as you may have heard in comics/A Wrinkle in Time/Einstein's Theory of Relativity plays a big role), which are embraced rather than shied away from, help its popularity with the nerd crowd. That's pretty much everyone on the Internet these days. And so, there's a ton of tech appeal in this film, from the various computer screens that Tony Stark appears to pull out of thin air to analyze and obtain information to the high-tech warfare and devices employed in battle in air and water and beyond.

But aside from the skill and money employed in making this film and its expansive effects, what is it about superheroes? They're not real, obviously. We can't—really—relate to their lives or their realities or to much of anything that they do. In fact, the rare moments in which the superheroes are real, quibbling amongst themselves like childish average people and not being way too smart or suave or worthy or able to lift giant hammers, serve as reminders of our own weak humanity as compared to their uber-ness, so we laugh. These are the "just like us moments," but they're the exception, not the rule, and that's why they work. But this is also why the movies work. We want something bigger than us—these are like the steroid fables of our time, the giant, expansive, special-effects-laden lessons through which we can hope to look at humanity and do a little better in human-world. Perhaps they can help us better identify evil, since it doesn't hide but comes right at our characters, talking and sputtering with red-tinged teeth, so they can fight back.

The beauty of superheroes is that they're aspirational while at the same time relieving any pressure to actually become a superhero because, well, that's impossible. This is why small boys love the comics; this is why adult boys and girls are flocking to the movies. In the moment of watching, immersed, we think about what we would do, if that happened to us, and that's enough. In a time in which subtlety and a kind of hipster ennui or pride in cynicism or even apathy is often cited, wow, we actually rather like these basic moral tales on fancy tech backdrops with all the bells and whistles. Maybe it's because they give us something to believe in. Maybe we need that.

Take the character of Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson. Like the character of Katniss in The Hunger Games, she has skills you might not expect from her if you mistook her for what her unlucky Russian interrogator did—just another pretty face. Black Widow, or Natasha Romanoff, is a more complicated character than Katniss, though. Possessed of numerous languages, secretive, a spy from childhood with a "very specific skillset," she's not all good, though she's working for good now—she has, as she says, "red on her ledger." Flawed as she is, as they all are, that only serves to make her more empowering as a role model. You can imagine a young generation of girls watching this movie and thinking they want to be like her, now fighting for good, able to take down aliens and bad men and get bruised and bloody but never give up. As a woman, she's outnumbered in her gender (the other badass woman in the group is S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill, who gets fewer lines but still manages to escape and outsmart certain death over and over again while looking beautiful, as does Natasha). Maybe they're pretty girls, but they absolutely get their time to shine alongside and on equal footing with the guys in a non-sexualized way. While they do wear tight-fitting black clothes that reveal their femininity (this is a big-budget movie based on a comic book, after all, and the dudes are wearing some skintight stuff as well), they are not considered "less" either by the men or by each other—or even, gender-equally so, by the villains.

Another thing we saw in The Hunger Games was a society worse than our own, a place in which terrible things transcending the bounds of what we understand as "terrible" can and do happen (see: alien takeovers, kids fighting kids to the death). In these settings and situations our heroes—whether Katniss as skilled archer and survivalist or The Avengers' collection of superheroes and spies who never quit—have the strength to combat these greater-than-human evils with courage and usually some kind of success. While comic books have existed since before 9/11 and even before al Qaeda, there's a post-9/11 understanding of the plot lines now. How can a person look at a burning skyscraper, a bridge being bombed, or part of a major city being attacked without thinking back to what happened on September 11? The sight of Midtown being annihilated in this film as superheroes fight back and cabs and cars and office buildings and even Grand Central Terminal are destroyed is a sight that resonates, but only just. It's not as painful as it could be, because it is a world in which things would have gone differently. It's a way to play out our post-traumatic stresses in a way that, hopefully, helps us recover, which is why we see these annihilation-of-New York City films again and again, if not located at the World Trade Center, exactly—yet.

In this world, the heroes win, the alien attackers are pushed back, and there are casualties, sure, but no one we know, no one, save a character who may have put himself in harm's way for a very important reason, we care about. Although comic books and the plots within have existed for years, watching The Avengers may be most important to us a form of role-playing. We get to see it—whether it is a traumatic world event or something smaller and more personal—the way we wish it could be, with girls battling right alongside the boys, and just as well—and with the good guys (male or female) standing up to the bad and always winning.

Plus, as with any good fantasy, our deserving heroes get to take a vacation in the end.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.