Wealth has always been the greatest (unspoken) Superpower

money-superheroI just saw Doctor Strange in theatres.  It’s a good movie, but this is not a review.  I went into the movie not knowing much about Doctor Strange.  His was not one of the titles I followed in 80s.  But when I saw the movie, I recognized something familiar about his origin story: like most superheroes, he starts rich.

I guess I started to realize something was up with the economic distribution of superheroes when I thought about all the gadgets Iron Man and Batman both had.  Unlimited weaponry, endless supply of toys.  But it was when I was teaching a class on Superheroes, Social Justice, and the Principle of the Common Good (the kind of class you can develop at a Catholic Marianist University like University of Dayton) and as a class we started to see a pattern in the heroes.  While each of them manifested different powers—most of them, most of the famous ones, had something each of us did not.  Most had sources of wealth and positions of elite privilege before they got superpowers.

This is important to think about when we think of Superheroes and Power—that power is often not given to those who have no power before, but is given to those who have always had power.   With a few notable exceptions, becoming a superhero requires money.  This means that the average person doesn’t become a superhero without money—just like they don’t become a lot of things in the real world without money.  And that is an interesting thing to think about when you think about superhero escapist fiction.  We have all these possibilities!  We can choose ANY storyline.  We think it’s about a redistribution of power—that ANYONE can become a superhero–but analyzing origin stories, the results say something different.

The Net Worth of Superheroes

Those who have power in the superhero universe and who have the job of protecting citizens are often unacquainted with most of the 99%, are used to being wealthy and powerful, and are often living far removed from common society in Fortresses of Solitude, atop penthouses, or in private academies on large estates, or in mansions or whole buildings in downtown NYC (there are exceptions—I can hear you already, bursting to say names—but I’m talking about a surprising majority of the major superheroes we have today).

Continue reading

New Armour, Same Climax: a review of Iron Man

Now the title is gonna make you think I didn’t like Iron Man. But I did. I enjoyed it. Robert Downey Jr. is not the most conventional superhero actor–and he definitely brings a new level of cycnism and self-deprecating humour to the superhero idea. The heart-device is completely cool–and makes our hero vulnerable. There’s great stuff here that stretches the superhero genre. But I’m noticing something about Marvel superhero movies that is making me just a little…well…concerned.

Iron Man had a great beginning. Starting the movie with a horrendous attack in Afghanistan, it then brought us back in time 36 hours to show how things got so wonky for Mr. Tony Stark. Usually superhero movies stick to straight biopic rules–start us at childhood, move us forward—but I like this prelude dug out from the middle of the movie. Then it brought us up to where we began and put him in Afghanistan, with terrorists. This was such a bold plot move by the writers–to make Iron Man contemporary, to make him relevant. (Why didn’t they stay there?)

When terrorists begin to rebuild Iron Man version 1, and have a Jericho missile (missiles that look like fireworks–fun!) and threaten to fire it –and do– then the unique story of hero facing war in the middle east takes a left turn back into cliche. Iron man zooms over and takes care of pesky, GOOD, plot with one shot.

Inevitably, in these superhero movies, one hero must face one villain (or in the case of Spidey 3, 3 villains!) and inevitably it must be someone with mucho screen time, who is close to our hero who decides to follow in the footsteps of the hero and brazenly “duplicate” the process of “transformation”. Abomination in Hulk; souped up Jeff Bridges in Iron Man; even in some ways, Venom (the “copy” of Spiderman) in Spidey 3 (the Goblins earlier, the mad Doc Oc).

But what a story Iron Man left behind! Weapons manufacturer held hostage by Afghani terrorists who turns the table on them–shown to a theater of people who are longing for an end, or any victory, in this war; why didn’t they just send Iron Man back into the fray again and again? They could have shown us that the issues were complicated, the fixes not so easy and that Iron Man was really one big Tank as hero–a suit of armor with weapons. Tony Stark is still a weapon–he’s manufactured himself as a weapon. He has not changed, in a sense, though he has foregone making money from the weapons industry–a huge difference. But that’s not really followed up on because we’ve got to move this plot towards Jeff Bridges and the one-on-one shoot ’em up which has become the hallmark of superhero movies.

Perhaps superhero movies have been influenced by the game industry, pitting the largest foe at the end of the movie–a foe that is his “equal” if not his doppelganger. But then, it could just be adventure plots which nearly dictate that a climax has to be between the protagonist and the antagonist. It’s just that Jeff Bridges was the B-class antagonist and the Afghanis were so much more interesting. More complex. It is their style of fighting–which resists making one man a central figure (Bin Laden is not in control in Iraq–Al Queda is a hydra with many heads, hence the difficulty of defeating it)–which challenges the antagonist-protagonist motif.

Wouldn’t you like a movie that dealt with the issue of the war from a superhero POV? We almost had it. And then Iron Man went on autopilot.

Still Iron Man is a great movie for what it is: two hours of great entertainment. Robert Downey Jr at his best. Jeff Bridges looking cool as a bald, bearded guy. Gwenyth Paltrow as Pepper Potts. Dialogue is snappy. There’s lots of good joke moments. Rent it and enjoy. But I had a writing teacher tell me this once: “The good is the enemy of the best.” And here, I think this is a good movie that wanted to be the best.

For another thought on this movie–and a four star rating–read Roger Ebert, my hero.