In the last few years, the West has experienced a cultural shift, and it involves men dressing up in tights. Superheroes are in high demand. In fact, it seems nearly impossible to go to the movies without seeing a new trailer, whereby a hero arises, explosions abound, and clever one-liners burst from the screen. By my reckoning, there has been something like 60 plus superhero movies in the past decade alone. This rise of men in capes on the big screen has inevitably translated into large profits for comics. Guy Lubin, executive editor of Business Insider, reported, “Domestic sales of comics and graphic novels have been rising for years, reaching $870 million last year, up from $265 million in 2000.”
This growing number of superheroes in the theaters is certainly a cultural trend, one that has widespread impact on our collective values. To clarify my stance: I’m not the grumpy old man, sitting on his porch, yelling about “those darn kids and their darn superhero movies. Whatever happened to a normal movie where men dress up as women and get themselves involved in hilarious tap-dance competitions?” I hope to one day be that grumpy old man, but I’m just not there yet. Still, I simply want to know why. Why has our society taken such a keen interest in what appears to be characters made for children?
(A picture of Alan Moore and his beard)
In an interview last year, comic book legend Alan Moore gave his take on this shift, writing,
“To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence. It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics.”
Moore proposes escape to be the common man’s solution, but it seems unreasonable to vilify escapism; that is, I feel that escape is mistreated here. In the word escape, one almost always tends to think about retreat. And retreat is nearly always synonymous with defeat, except in 1812.
In 1812, for instance, Napoleon’s Russian campaign was marked by retreat, particularly the retreat of the Russian army into the depths of its country. The French army responded by delving further into the country despite the onset of a harsh Russian winter. Napoleon pressed on, eventually making his way into Moscow. Instead of finding supplies and food (both of which his army desperately needed), he found the city mostly barren. Napoleon had to run back to France, losing about 400,000 men (80% of his troops) in the failed campaign. The retreat of the Russians was not, therefore, a defeat. It was victory. Napoleon’s escape, on the other hand, was an absolute disaster. He reminded the world of one of the most important history lessons: never invade Russia in the winter.
Escape, therefore, is neutral. It inherits the motives of the individual, and never does it act as a positive or negative entity unless first acted upon. Now if the general public has, as Alan Moore insisted, given up on trying to understand the complex world we live in, and turned towards trying to understand the much simpler world of superhero fantasy, then perhaps we are in trouble. Society needs people to answer its difficult questions, and certainly a population that avoids complexities in pursuit of meaningless realities can’t address complex problems. Rather a society that avoids issues may address the complex problem—except a society of avoidance will come up with the wrong answer, like an uneducated man given a calculus problem. The man may work towards an answer, but without proper training he will most certainly come to the incorrect conclusion. Now there must be a good deal of people who use escape negatively to avoid complex moral questions.
But are the realities of fantasy realms and superhero films absurd or meaningless? Or does our escape signify not a retreat from complexity, but a retreat to an ideal?