• Kaycie Starlite

The Cultural Desert: How Superhero Movies Have Kept People Hungry

This year there was an opinion piece published in the Washington Post titled “America is incredibly divided. Superheroes can teach us how to come together again.” Whether you believe this sentiment to be true or not, it is a sign of a failed political system, in which the responsibilities of overcoming our own inherent flaws is placed on the hope that make-believe characters will fulfill the fantasy that they fulfill in the movies; to save us.

The article reads, “The goal of all this team-building? To establish something that can outlast changes of membership and the occasional apocalypse, an organization that is bigger than any one member. In an age when multinational cooperation is on the wane and trust in public institutions at a low ebb, watching superheroes invest in creating a shared symbol can be downright inspiring,” It is clear that people want the fictional function of superheroes to be performed by superhero movies in the real world. This is somewhat adjacent to liberal idealism; the act of alienating power into a structure that can only be changed by people who are changed by culture. The thought presented here is that if we watch enough of these superhero movies, then we will be transformed internally, and that will be the redemption of our doomed world and societal hang-ups.

This is a feature of our culture which is now synonymous with politics. The model that politics can intervene within the lives of other people and provide a motivation to organize large numbers of people, is gone now. Culture as politics is replacing politics. This is the death of culture. In the climate of cultural criticism, and the way we talk about and consume art, or entertainment of any kind, in our culture, has been mutated in a puritan sense, in that there’s a pressure to have to like everything that is churned out. As if experiencing these movies are major culture moments that affirm a value that you now represent having witnessed it. It is the closest thing to going to church. And If you don’t perform for these superhero movies, you are marked as a suspect.

Fans of these products say the movies have substance because they are the closest equivalent to modern mythology. This argument attempts to imbue Superhero movies as containing a cultural/historical value, instead of accepting them as popcorn movies. I don’t oppose the existence of blockbuster events, however I find issues when they are given an importance that is not warranted.

The messages portrayed in superhero movies are equivalent to those found in television programs to help children’s development: “It’s important to love your friends” “Lying is wrong” Etc. The writing for these shows is praised and applauded for its bravery and vulnerability, which indicates that people cannot handle complexity or conflict within their stories beyond “bad guy vs good guy.” It’s only seen as brave because it is a comfort against the people who run the world without a moral compass or compassion.

Wandavision is the most recent example I can draw from to highlight the phenomena that exists within these products. There was an article published in titled “"WandaVision" concludes by giving Martin Scorsese the MCU film he always wanted” Martin Scorsese, who is widely regarded as one of the most significant and influential directors in film history, made a comment in 2019 saying Marvel movies were “not cinema” which caused an uproar from Marvel fans. Even though marvel products hegemonically saturate our culture, fans cannot endure that not everyone will affirm that the movies are good. I believe this mob exists because of the internalized fear these fans carry; the products aren’t doing what they want them to do. People aren’t getting nicer and the world isn’t getting better. So instead of finding fault in the products, they find fault in others who do not “get it” because they can’t conceive of a world where that thing isn’t a part of their integral conception of themself.

In the media, you can own the entire marketplace--Disney practically has a monopoly on it. You can’t do this in politics, but politics can cause it. In our culture war, Disney has won it. As we clamor and fight, it isn’t enough to be a witness to it, you have to like it.

There is no movie that will ever be good enough for the amount of love, dedication, and time marvel fans invest in it.

There’s an article on AV Club called “Disney Plus’ Wandavision rewrites the myths of surviving trauma”. It reads “[as] she grapples with Vision’s violent death after Avengers: Infinity War where they’d just committed to their love for each other when Wanda was forced to sacrifice him to save the universe from Thanos, only to helplessly watch as the Mad Titan brutally tore the Mind Stone from Vision’s skull anyway.” We all have our own dorky cultural interests, pieces of media that we’ve cried to and formed an emotional connection with, but what makes the invasion of marvel media offensive, is that it shoe horns in real life problems. The article continues with: “In a sociopolitical climate shaped by movements like the Women’s March and #MeToo, trauma survivors deserve nuanced portrayals in the media that humanize us, not reduce us to cruel caricatures. WandaVision subverts this trope by confronting, rather than ignoring, the complex and debilitating effects of severe, repeated trauma. As a TV series, the show affords Wanda the opportunity to move through the entire reality of her trauma, ultimately transmuting her loss to further her personal growth and sense of self. Wanda meets her matches in Monica Rambeau and Agatha Harkness, who both catalyze her inevitable confrontation with her trauma. A precursor to her forthcoming appearance in Captain Marvel 2, Monica’s arc deliberately echoes Wanda’s, having returned after The Blip only to discover that her mother had passed away years prior. It isn’t until their confrontation in “Breaking The Fourth Wall” that Wanda actually hears Monica, allowing her to break through her wall of denial and projection. “I can’t control this pain anymore and I don’t think I want to, because it’s my truth,” Monica says in an attempt to reason with her, which seems to resonate before Agatha interferes.”

This quasi-religious treatment of marvel products begs for you to find emotional resonance in it, as well as not seeing anything in isolation. You can’t argue that these things don’t have the thematic weight they're claiming unless you’ve seen all the products. You have to have a religious faith in these movies, However, you’re deceiving yourself because you think this is the only “art” that you can relate to because you have an impoverished cultural diet because this is all you get. We all live in a cultural food desert.

The article continues with “WandaVision fully humanizes Wanda Maximoff in a remarkable way that honors the complexities and tragedy of trauma. She outright defies the myth that survivors are only “stronger” because of their pain, or forever “broken” by it. Rather than be resigned to a life of loss and doom, Wanda chooses to save herself from being consumed by her powers. She faces her truth, and takes responsibility for the pain she caused by committing herself to better understanding her powers. Since her first appearance on the big screen, Wanda Maximoff has been portrayed as a deeply caring person trying her best to do the right thing, driven by her strong desire to love and be loved, even after relentless heartbreak and grief. The events of WandaVision affirm that she’s been powerful and strong on her own all along, but just like any human being, needs to be held and supported in times of vulnerability.”

These superhero products become a narcotic when you exist in a world where you fantasize about having power. Power to change the world from the grim view that reality bathes it in. This is our world. We are all traumatized and afraid. We can’t overcome, deal with, or build upon our trauma by fantasizing about having godlike power. Watching this show is not a way of dealing with psychological issues. A humanized portrayal of mental illness cannot forward the building of an institution in which we are not othered and allowed to live with dignity. We are left floundering, hoping that the tv will lead to a shift in consciousness that will allow our lives to get better. But tv is created to make you consume more tv, so it cannot do the thing you want it to do.

And the thing is, at the bottom of everything, we are all hungry all of the time. We are starving. No matter if you can rattle off a list of influential films in foreign cinema or if you’ve never seen Mean Streets, we are all still searching for comfort, love, excitement, and everything that is the opposite of being alone.

Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash

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