Category: Culture

Should We Take Superhero Movies Seriously?

superhero movies modern myths

Superhero stories: modern myths for a twenty-first century audience.

“Just because someone stumbles and loses their path doesn’t mean they can’t be saved.” – Professor Charles Xavier (X-Men)

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post asks “Are movies like ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ worth taking seriously?” The real question that the column addresses, however, deals with whether fantasy blockbusters warrant serious reception by critics:

Mass culture…gives critics an unusually broad sense of what audiences are responding to in a work and how they read a movie. And by meeting moviegoers where they are, critics have opportunities to talk to our readers about big issues in a more penetrating way than is possible in our current political deadlock.

The public decides which movies they want to see and which ones they like, regardless of what critics review. And our culture has decided to embrace superhero movies in a big way.

Currently, of the top ten highest grossing films worldwide, three are superhero movies (The Avengers; The Avengers: Age of Ultron; Black Panther). Four are fantasy blockbusters (Avatar; Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2; Star Wars: The Last Jedi). That leaves just three films that don’t fall into the category of fantasy blockbuster (Titanic, Furious 7, and Jurassic World). (Wikipedia)

We know what fans are paying to see in theaters. The question is why? Read more

The Star Wars Generation Awakens

generation-star-warsIn 1980, my family took a vacation in Lake Tahoe with some of our relatives. We rented a cozy cabin and spent the week listening to the only decent eight-track tape anybody had bothered to bring; I heard Blondie’s “Call Me” a thousand times while playing Risk that week.

1980 was a special year, because that was the year the much-anticipated sequel to Star Wars came out. My cousin, who was two years my senior, was infatuated with Star Wars. I remember his room being littered with Star Wars toys. He had every action figure imaginable and they all fit neatly into a Darth Vader action-figure case. He also had Luke’s land speeder and an Imperial Walker. I can’t recall a lightsaber specifically, but I’m sure there was one nestled somewhere among all the other Star Wars toys. It was an impressive collection.

Anyway, he’d already seen Empire Strikes Back by the time we went on our annual summer vacation, but he wanted to see it again. If I remember correctly, he had to see it again. His persuasive skills were unmatched, so eventually, he and I were shuttled to the theater and dropped off. It was the first time I was allowed to go to the movies without my parents, which was a big deal, considering how overprotective my mom was.

The Star Wars Generation

Going to the movies without adult chaperones was a big a deal, but not as much of a big deal as Star Wars was. I think you had to be a kid in the late seventies and early eighties to truly appreciate just how much it permeated the entire culture. We were the Star Wars generation.

I was just a hair too young to really remember when Star Wars came out. I’m not even sure if I’d seen the first film when I went to the theater and saw its sequel. But I do remember that it was a hot topic for conversation, and not just among children or the sci-fi crowd. Everybody was wowed by it. I can’t tell you how many times my parents have said, “It was unlike anything we’d ever seen.”

But that’s not how it was for me. Star Wars is something that has always been there; it’s woven into the tapestry that is the backdrop of my life.

The Force Awakens

The original movie was a breakthrough film unlike any before or since. It was the little movie that chugged along and exploded into a phenomenon.

The newest installment in the Star Wars franchise hits theaters this Christmas. It’s called Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and what an apt title. Return of the Jedi left us with just two souls who had the potential to tap into the force: Luke and Leia. And now after all these years, they are returning. The title suggests a Jedi revival, something Star Wars fans have spent decades hoping for.

I must say. I literally screamed when Han and Chewie appeared. Screamed I tell you! What can I say? I grew up on this stuff. And no matter how many times I watch this trailer (I’ve watched it a LOT of times), I still get all excited like a kid about to walk into Disneyland every time Han says, “Chewie, we’re home.”

Back when the films in the original trilogy were being released, there was no streaming video. We didn’t even have VHS tapes yet. You had to see the film while it was in the theater, which is why fans trekked to the cinema to see their favorite movie over and over again. Your only other hope was that it would eventually make its way to prime time television.

Home media changed all that, which is why I was able to plop down in front of a television and enjoy the original Star Wars trilogy (OK, not the true original where Han shot first, but the closest thing to the original that we fans can get our hands on). It’s been years since I really watched all three movies. Oh they’ve been on the television, playing in the background, and I’ve watched a few scenes here and there or caught clips of the films while watching documentaries, but this is the first time in years that I parked myself in front of the screen and paid close attention to the films.

So I was a little hesitant. What if the movies didn’t hold up? What if they felt dated or cheesy after all these years? Would Chewie suddenly look like a homemade stuffed animal? Would the droids feel fake? Would the chemistry between the actors be weaker than I remembered?

Well of course not. The original Star Wars trilogy is a timeless phenomenon for good reason: it’s a story that stands the test of time. I blasted through my Star Wars marathon and was sad when it ended. But luckily there’s some consolation: I’ll get to revisit the beloved world of Star Wars later this year when The Force Awakens hits theaters. I. Can. Not. Wait.

Today is Star Wars day: May the fourth be with you.

On the Importance of Science Fiction

importance of science fiction

Thoughts on the importance of science fiction.

This past November, while accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards, Ursala Le Guin had this to say:

“I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction — writers of the imagination, who for the last fifty years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.”

The so-called realists have indeed excluded, and oftentimes looked down on, authors of speculative fiction, claiming that genres like sci-fi, fantasy, and horror are shallow in nature, that these genres exist for sheer entertainment and have nothing of substance to offer the public.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

In fact, this view is held more broadly by many people toward the arts in general. Too often, I’ve heard politicians, pundits, and ordinary citizens complaining about the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and what a waste it is. As if the arts were insignificant or meaningless, as if works of literature existed for nothing more than leisure.

The Role of Art

Art has an important function in society, one that goes beyond pure entertainment, escapism, or even self-expression. While we could classify some works as strictly for entertainment purposes, there is plenty of art in all disciplines that goes much deeper, from painting and sculpture to music and dance to film and television, and of course, literature.

Great art provokes us to think. It arouses curiosity. It shows us the world from a different perspective. It often imparts truths that we aren’t privy to. And there is a longstanding tradition of art that begs for — or sometimes demands — social change.

The impact of books like To Kill a Mockingbird on our culture cannot and should not be underestimated. Whether it shows us the horrors of war, the effects of oppression, the wrongfulness of injustice, or the dangers of technology, art can serve as a valuable tool for exploring and understanding the world we all live in.

Art is important. But that doesn’t mean all art is important.

It’s true that the speculative-fiction genres are often more entertainment based than, say, literary fiction or historical fiction. Such works are often packed with wow factors: exploding space ships, fire-breathing dragons, and other-worldly creepsters that go bump in the night. I must admit that these genres do often pander to mindless entertainment, especially on the screen.

But the exceptions are notable, and they are many.

Science Fiction’s Role in Our Culture

fahrenheit 451Consider Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury wrote the book during the McCarthy era, when people in the United States were being witch-hunted and persecuted for holding unpopular political opinions (unconstitutionally, I might add). The story reminds us that the practice of book burning as a way to suppress dissenting thought has been a gross violation of individual liberty throughout the ages. Fahrenheit 451 was a necessary commentary on censorship of all kinds.

When news about the NSA collecting our personal digital data broke, I was smack-dab in the middle of George Orwell’s 1984, a book that explored what it would be like to live under a futuristic authoritarian regime that watches over its citizens even in their own homes. The book serves as a critical warning against a government with too much power. On a side note, it also enriched the English language, giving us words and phrases like Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, and Orwellian.

But let’s go back further and examine the origins of science fiction. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been called the first science fiction novel. This universally known story provides a warning to those who would meddle with nature and create new life forms, which may then wreak havoc and destruction upon humanity. Frankenstein’s monster is the precursor to films and television shows like The Terminator, The Matrix, and Battlestar Galactica, all of which provide futuristic examples of what might befall humanity if we reach the singularity and create artificial intelligences that exceed our own intelligence and could overpower us.

These dystopian examples all present dire warnings for humanity. But let us not forget one of the most beloved science-fiction franchises of all time, which had a more positive message. Star Trek is packed with social, political, and philosophical questions and ideas, but at its heart, it is one man’s vision for the ideal future of humanity. That man is Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek.

Art, Liberty, and Science Fiction

There’s a reason that the points of fascism often include disdain for and suppression of artistic expression. Free expression is important to individual liberty, of course, but artistic freedom is also a necessary expression of thoughts and ideas, some of which have proven to have tremendous impact on human cultures around the world.

Some art is for entertainment, and that’s fine — desirable even. We all need a little escapism every now and then. But art is at its finest when it provokes us — to think, question, take action, or make change in the world. And science fiction in particular has a longstanding tradition going back to its earliest works of providing intellectual stimulation and forcing us to examine our societies a little more critically or with a lot more awe and wonder.

During her acceptance speech, Ursula Le Guin said something else that deserves consideration. She said, “Books, you know, they’re not just commodities.”

What are your views on science fiction? Are you a fan? Do you prefer stories that entertain you or provoke you? What are some of your favorites?

For the Love of Superheroes


Superheroes: a cultural phenomenon.

I bet when superheroes first hit the newsstands, people thought they were just a fad. But superheroes are here to stay. You know why? Because we love them!

The superhero fandom is massive, loud, dedicated, and willing to spend their dollars and go to great lengths to express their love of all things superhero. From vintage comics to replica costumes to conventions and countless websites dedicated to superhero love, it’s clear that superheroes are a worldwide phenomenon.

But what is it about superheroes that has won the hearts of legions of fans? Is it their alter-egos? Their flashy costumes? Their superpowers?

Why All the Love?

I recently found myself wondering why we love superheroes so much. At first, I thought it was pure wish fulfillment. I mean, who wouldn’t want the ability to fly, right? We love them because we want to be them.

But superheroes are often dark, haunted, or miserable. Just look at Wolverine. He never smiles! Batman’s always brooding. Hulk is always pissed off about something. I got to thinking that maybe we love them because we can relate to them. They have strengths and weaknesses, just like we do. The only difference is that their strengths and weaknesses are super magnified.

Then it occurred to me that there’s a hero inside each of us, a desire to make the world a better place. Superheroes are the ultimate symbols of heroism. We are drawn to them because we want to save someone–maybe the world, maybe just ourselves.

I do think these are a few of the reasons we love superheroes so much, but I also think there’s more to our adoration.

It’s All About Hope

Suddenly it dawned on me: we love superheroes not because we want to save someone but because we want to be saved.

It’s not a stretch to say the world is fast approaching a dystopian state of affairs. There’s a mass shooting almost every week. Wars wage on indefinitely. Little girls are shot in the face for wanting an education. Governments are spying on citizens en masse. People care more about who their favorite celebrity is dating than the fact that 200 to 2,000 species go extinct every year. Rape victims are blamed for getting assaulted. Approximately one in twelve teens engages in self-harm, cutting or burning their own flesh. Over 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression. Global warming is devastating the planet. In the United States, one of the richest countries in the world, fifteen million children go to bed hungry every night. We pack prisons full of non-violent offenders and then set rapists and murderers free because of overcrowding.

We live in a world where shit like this happens. That’s the reality. So we read the headlines and wish the Avengers would drop out of the sky and save us from the madness.

Superheroes make us believe the big bad bullies of the world can be taken down. When the difficulties seem insurmountable and problems seem unsolvable, superheroes show us that anything’s possible, that truth, virtue, and justice can win in the end.

Each superhero story is a rallying cry for underdogs all around the world. They give us hope. That’s why we love them so damn much.

Superhero Love Jam

In the end, I think we each love superheroes for our own personal reasons. They appeal to us on many levels, and we all have our favorites. I’m partial to Catwoman, although I’m told she’s more of a villain than a superhero. What about you? If you could be any superhero, who would you choose and why?