Why are there so many super-hero movies nowadays?


Hey, want to hear a disturbing thing? Victor Klemperer, a German Jew and scholar who evaded the Nazis and ultimately wrote about Nazi propaganda under the third reich, had this to say on the subject of heroism (when he was trying to educate young people on the propaganda of Naziism):

I have observed again and again how the young people in all innocence, and despite a sincere effort to fill the gaps and eliminate the errors in their neglected education, cling to Nazi thought processes. They don’t realize they are doing it; the remnants of linguistic usage from the preceding epoch confuse and seduce them. We spoke about the meaning of culture, or humanitarianism, of democracy and I had the impression that they were beginning to see the light, and that certain things were being straightened out in their willing minds—and then, it was always just round the corner, someone spoke of some heroic behavior or other, or of some heroic resistance, or simply heroism per se. As soon as this concept was even touched upon, everything became blurred, and we were adrift once again in the fog of Nazism. And it wasn’t only the young men who had just returned from the field or from captivity, and felt they were not receiving sufficient attention, let alone acclaim, no even young women who had not seen any military service were thoroughly infatuated with the most dubious notion of heroism. The only thing that was beyond dispute, was that it was impossible to have a proper grasp of the true nature of humanitarianism, culture, and democracy if one endorsed this kind of conception, or to be more precise misconception, of heroism.

Quote of Victor Klemperer, found in Jason Stanley's How Propaganda Works

What was it about the idea of heroism that could push people towards being Nazis? And, was their view of "heroism" so different from ours?

Nearly all hero movies involve one thing; killing bad guys. It is, of course, always a justified killing, or a moral killing, but when we go to a super hero movie, we basically know what is going to happen. People are going to get killed. And, we like that as a culture. We find it satisfying when "the bad guy" gets what's coming to him.

But of course, who gets to say who is the bad guy? Who gets to make that call? Superhero movies make it look like a clear and cut case, but really they are both an artifact and a perpetuation of a murderous culture. The USA was founded on the genocide of the Native Americans, and in order to motivate European settlers to kill the people whose land they were taking, the USA had to create a culture that found this to be an honorable and respectable way for people to make lives for themselves. Perhaps one of the more obvious places this plays out is in "Westerns" or "Cowboy and Indians" movies. These movies, especially the earlier ones, tended to be fairly racist often portraying Native Americans as savages to be killed. More modern Westerns tend to shy away from this, but this kind of ethos, this desire for us to have an enemy who deserves to die has lived on.

Somewhere, deep in our horrible hearts, there seems to live the secret belief no one is more honored than he who kills the bad guy. No scientific achievement or humanitarian creation can possibly compare. This is the mark of our terrible past that we all still carry, and superhero movies are how we continue to feed it. We create these movies as an expression of this deeply held value, because it feels satisfying to us to watch someone kill a person "who deserves it." And, we perpetuate this value by getting our kids to watch these kind of movies, so they also learn to feel satisfied when the bad guy "gets what's coming to him."

We are living out old propaganda that hasn't washed away, and creating new propaganda to pass on our values to our children. But, this propaganda gets us to hate each other. It gets us to want to destroy people who are different from us, it feeds our animosity toward our political rivals. It's at the heart of a very deep sickness.

So, what should we do? Stop watching super-hero movies? Somehow, convincing people to give up their vices never seems to work so no, I don't recommend that. Just notice what is happening. Be aware when a movie is setting someone up to be "irredeemable" and consider why that might be. Notice when witnessing violence makes you feel satisfied, and when it feels good to see someone put in physical pain.

And question it.
Published on Friday April 6, 2018