April 8, 2019; Hyperallergic
In a recent Hyperallergic article, Dan Schindel points to a new trend in superhero movies. While heroes usually protect the status quo, the new heroes address “real-world problems where the status quo absolutely needs upending.”
As a result, we get characters like Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming speaking out about class inequality, Black Panther’s Killmonger decrying the worldwide oppression of black people, or Infinity War’s Thanos being driven by fears of universal overpopulation.
Not only are these films high-grossing—Infinity War ranked first, Black Panther second, and Aquaman fifth—viewer response shows that they are siding with the villains over the heroes. Schindel notes, “#TeamKillmonger became a popular Twitter hashtag. Thanos got a huge subreddit literally called ‘/r/thanosdidnothingwrong.’ Even Patrick Wilson, who played Aquaman antagonist Ocean Master, acknowledges that ‘His fight is perfectly understandable.’”
Given the context—climate change and class and racial inequality that grow more dire by the day—Schindel argues that “radical action becomes an increasingly valid-looking concept.” But, he argues, “Hollywood productions can’t actually endorse radicalism. So anxieties around racism and global warming are ultimately marginalized, or even dismissed.”
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One of the ways these movies do this is by sublimating the social conflict to a personal one. While Black Panther’s Killmonger is angry with Wakanda for its isolationism, which left him on the outside, the focus of his anger is his cousin T’Challa, who he battles for leadership. Further, even though T’Challa eventually succeeds, “instead of taking any strong stance against structural inequality in other nations, he…builds some outreach centers.” And, while Infinity War tackles overpopulation, it ignores overconsumption, which might make some of its viewers uncomfortable. Aquaman’s Ocean Master seeks to protect the ocean from the polluting surface world but is driven by beating his half-brother to the kingship.
Schindel asks, “What will we see next? A ‘villain’ fighting on behalf of refugees? One who advocates for the redistribution of wealth? One who targets police who kill innocent people?” Let’s hope so.
Schindel asserts that while Hollywood sublimates social conflicts to avoid alienating viewers, viewers see the radical social messages in the story. The success of these movies may also be driven by people of color who are elated to see their stories onscreen, and perhaps, like me, wishing for them to go even further.
Many of us recognize the critical role of culture as the context for our work. Imagine films that not only do not sublimate social conflict, but offer various scenarios for transformation, like the scenarios South Africa used to imagine a world beyond apartheid. We could even move beyond the lone superhero to imagine a world where we all discover our unique super power and how to use it.—Cyndi Suarez