Superhero Movies And the Meaninglessness of Good v. Evil

Because it’s The Dark Knight Rises week, I wanted to flag this post by Jim Emerson on the facileness of “Good v. Evil” as a superhero movie theme. He writes:

What I really want to talk about here are how some superhero movies develop their themes. “The Amazing Spider-Man” touches on the issue of vigilantism, but only superficially — certainly not as seriously as in either Tim Burton’s or Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. The psychology of the (anti-)hero is usually interesting — and Peter finds himself repeating patterns of denial and abandonment he’s suffered at the hands of his own father and Dr. Connors. What drives someone to put on a unitard and try to catch criminals? That’s always an underlying question. Tony Stark puts on a whole metal suit in an effort to atone for his military-industrial sins.

What’s not a theme is a simplistic formulation of “good vs. evil,” although I see critics, fans, pundits and filmmakers announcing it as if it were supposed to mean something all the time. It might be a simple math problem, or a wrestling match (ask Rev. Harry Powell about Love vs. Hate), but it’s not a theme. Good and evil exist only in the human heart and mind and cannot be artificially separated — one always contains the seeds of the other. I’d argue that the idea that the world can be broken into such categories is, perhaps, essential to the very definition of evil itself, which is at least more provocative than pretending that it’s so easy to tell one from the other. It’s not always so clear-cut. And it makes for lame drama, because if the choice is clear, nothing is at stake. The Big Lie about the Holocaust, to use the most extreme popular example of the 20th century, is that it was perpetrated by people whose only motivation was to “do evil.” I see that as a form of Holocaust denial, an abdication of responsibility and a refusal to deal with the realities of human nature.

I think this is exactly right and deeply important, and it gets at one of the things that frustrates me so much about so many superhero movies. Cheering for someone who we are told is a hero, even if we have no idea what they stand for and what they stand against, feels good, but it’s ultimately a distraction, an experience that produces the feeling that we stand together with the people cheering alongside us in the theater even if we understand ourselves to be championing totally different things. What does Spider-Man, in his latest iteration, stand for? The idea that the police are an institution limited by both resources and perspective whose work should by the work of vigilantes, even if their agendas compete? What do The Avengers stand for? The idea that the world should not be blown up by fanatics and also that Nick Fury is better-equipped to make decisions than the council that oversees him, which has total screen-time amounting to less than the shortest fight scene in the movie? Good v. evil is a convenient distraction from having to talk about actual issues, like civilian control of superpowers as a stand-in for the military, or the impact of corporate influence on the scientific process, on which people in the audience might actually disagree. If the thing on which we can reach consensus is that it would be better not to be involuntarily turned into giant lizard-beasts and/or devoured and conquered by them, that is a pretty low baseline from which to start.