Tom Hiddleston, who plays Asgardian god Loki in Thor and will be the main antagonist of The Avengers, pens a nice little reflection on the impact of superheroes on his own actorly ambitions, and the role superhero stories can play in exploring big questions:
Superhero films offer a shared, faithless, modern mythology, through which these truths can be explored. In our increasingly secular society, with so many disparate gods and different faiths, superhero films present a unique canvas upon which our shared hopes, dreams and apocalyptic nightmares can be projected and played out. Ancient societies had anthropomorphic gods: a huge pantheon expanding into centuries of dynastic drama; fathers and sons, martyred heroes, star-crossed lovers, the deaths of kings – stories that taught us of the danger of hubris and the primacy of humility. It’s the everyday stuff of every man’s life, and we love it. It sounds cliched, but superheroes can be lonely, vain, arrogant and proud. Often they overcome these human frailties for the greater good. The possibility of redemption is right around the corner, but we have to earn it.
The Hulk is the perfect metaphor for our fear of anger; its destructive consequences, its consuming fire. There’s not a soul on this earth who hasn’t wanted to “Hulk smash” something in their lives. And when the heat of rage cools, all that we are left with is shame and regret. Bruce Banner, the Hulk’s humble alter ego, is as appalled by his anger as we are. That other superhero Bruce – Wayne – is the superhero-Hamlet: a brooding soul, misunderstood, alone, for ever condemned to avenge the unjust murder of his parents. Captain America is a poster boy for martial heroism in military combat: the natural leader, the war hero. Spider-Man is the eternal adolescent – Peter Parker’s arachnid counterpart is an embodiment of his best-kept secret – his independent thought and power.
I don’t know if arguments like this will convince doubters like the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane to take superhero movies seriously. But it makes the point that these holdouts are a minority. All critics have biases, and perhaps it’s better that those biases be put on display by someone like Lane, who thinks that Battlestar Galactica is a waste of his infinitely precious time, or the New York Times reviewers who make their contempt for fantasy every time they write about Game of Thrones. I’m not saying that genre material should be turned over to reviewers who privilege science fiction or fantasy over other frameworks. But if you want to give culture that a lot of people take seriously a fair shake, it’s probably worth assigning it to a reviewer who is open-minded about it. Bad things can make a lot of money, or garner high ratings. But quality doesn’t automatically decline as profits and ratings increase. It’s a shame that some folks deny themselves great fun out of close-mindedness, and unfortunate when they try to dissuade others from that enjoyment as well.