Tuesday, December 15, 2015

COLUMN: Superheroes

I've been fighting a particularly nasty sinus cold for the past week.

This alone isn't especially column-worthy, but it does explain why I've spent the past week laying low in a haze of antihistamines and Netflix, mindlessly watching the few remaining TV shows that I had yet to binge on. This led me down a road I usually manage to avoid, and a genre of entertainment that I tend to ignore.

Take away my nerd credentials if you want, but I've never really cared for superheroes.

When I was a kid, I definitely went through a comic book phase. I still have hundreds of 'em boxed up someplace. Don't get any ideas to steal them, though, because they're not worth squat. Serious collectors treat comic books like fragile works of art, sealed away in protective plastic and handled only when necessary. MY comics, on the other hand, look like they've been through a war. Most are ripped and torn, dinged and dented. Many have water damage because I used to enjoy reading in the tub. I was never a comic collector; I was, however, a faithful comic reader.

When I went to the comic shop, though, I'd skip right past all the assorted Super, Spider, Bat, and X Men and instead go straight for MY favorite: the "poor little rich boy," Richie Rich. Years later, these comics are appallingly awful. Basically they're just page after page of lousy puns and this wealthy child lording his family's billions over his friends. Why this captivated me as a kid is beyond my comprehension. How it didn't warp me into some kind of money-obsessed, day-trading racketeer is probably just sheer luck.

Even as a kid, I remember thinking that the idea of superheroes was just unrealistic. In reality, of course, the odds of getting bitten by a radioactive spider and developing web-slinging powers are about on par with the odds of becoming a child trillionaire who eats hot dogs in the shape of dollar signs. So I have no good reason why I shied away from superheroes. I just can't ever picture myself identifying with one, unless Stan Lee up and creates Sinus-Man, who fights off evil with the power of Super-Phlegm.

This makes me officially out of touch, because a few years back, superheroes experienced something of a renaissance. Directors figured out a way to tell superhero stories without the inherent corniness that plagued the early Superman and Batman movies. New flicks starring Spiderman and the X-Men came out and were really quite good. Robert Downey, Jr. breathed life into Iron Man. Christopher Nolan came along and turned the Batman saga into nail-biting, Oscar-worthy cinema.

Nowadays, hardly a month goes by without some new superhero saga hitting screens both big and small. Even lesser-known franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man are finding hungry audiences and cinematic success. Marvel has a dozen superhero movies in development right now, and DC's not that far behind.

So why now? What is it about this day and age that sends people to their TVs and movie theaters to watch folks with superhuman abilities? I don't know if I have all the answers, but after a week spent binge-watching Arrow and The Flash, I'm starting to understand the appeal.

More often than not, superhero stories come down to one defining universal trait: good defeating evil. These days, our world could use a little more of that. You watch one of these movies and you leave feeling GOOD about humanity. We live in an age of deep conflict. All around the world, passionate wars are being waged over concepts that we don't even fully understand. Sure, you can easily point to extremist groups and yell, "VILLAIN!" But what makes it tough is that even nutbag groups like Daesh don't THINK that they're being villainous. In THEIR minds, they're the good guys and WE'RE the villains. Using their horrifying logic, they somehow think that terrorism is HEROIC. They're not recruiting members by holding up signs saying, "Come join Team Bad Guy! EVIL FOR THE WIN!"

Superhero stories leave no room for argument among sides. The bad guys are irrefutably bad. They're self-aware of their villainy and they revel in it. The Joker cackles menacingly. Lex Luther revels in his greed (he probably read too many Richie Rich comics as a kid.) They reduce all conflict down to right vs. wrong -- and right ALWAYS wins.

Of course, if you start to dig deeper, you realize that it's not all that cut and dried. Batman is a definitive good guy, but at his core, he's only really motivated by vengeance and is just kind of a huge bummer to be around. The Green Arrow doesn't even have any superpowers -- he's simply a vigilante who's pretty good with a bow. The Hulk is basically a straight-up monster that other superheroes have to aim at the bad guys and hope for the best.

There also doesn't seem to be a whole lot of consideration in these new superhero offerings as to collateral damage. Back in the day, if Superman had even scratched Lois Lane, he wouldn't have been able to live with himself. Compare that to the Avengers, who in THEIR first movie basically levelled all of Manhattan while fighting the good fight. Batman used to secure bad guys with a "BIFF!" and a "POW!" Today, The Flash collapses skyscrapers just to go back in time to fix his own family drama. Arrow leaves a trail of dead henchmen a mile long every time he runs for coffee.

The simplistic superhero message of good over evil is about to get even MORE convoluted. Next year's "Batman vs. Superman" will pit good guy against good guy. The new Captain America movie will see the Avengers square off against one another in a civil war. Worst of all, the upcoming "Suicide Squad" presents a moral sticky wicket when the government blackmails a handful of supervillains to do their bidding. The line between good and evil is becoming grey even in our entertainment escapes.

We don't need a gray area. We need to be able to leave theaters with the smug satisfaction of knowing that good will ALWAYS triumph over evil. That there is a clear right and a clear wrong, and your own moral compass will lead you down the path to heroism or villainy. If only there were some movie out there that could break it down so simply, to cut through the rhetoric and the grey areas and give us a Good and a Bad. A team to cheer and a team to boo. Heroes and villains. A light side and a dark side.

I'll see you in three weeks for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." It really IS what the world's waiting for.

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