The Game of Thrones creator is coming for your childhood.
I’m 41. Let’s get that out of the way.
A 41-year-old writing about superheroes has a whiff of desperation to it, I know, as if I were grasping for cultural relevance the way my dad used to reach for the TV remote. But as it turns out, the directors making your superhero movies are older too. Zak Snyder (Watchmen, Batman vs Superman) is 51, Joe Johnston (Captain America) is 66. Chris Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy) is 46, David Ayer (Suicide Squad) is 48, and Jon Favreau (Iron Man 1 &2) is 49. Both Shane Black (Iron Man 3) and Joss Whedon (Avengers) are 54.
Lists are boring, so I’ll stop now, but it’s worth nothing that these (all-male, another essay in that) directors have made notable movies in other genres, and yet they’ve chosen to expend huge creative capital to give us very expensive stories about a bunch of super-powered characters running around in tights fighting off other, ill-intentioned super-powered characters, as well as aliens and monsters.
Which is, when you step back and think about it, a little staggering. Let’s just clear our minds tabula-rasa-style for a moment and consider Spider-Man, a character I idolized as a five-year-old (so much that I wore a Spider-Man mask every day for a year.) What is his story exactly? Well, he’s an orphaned teenager who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and as a result, he swings around the city on ejaculatory webs punching and kicking men dressed as animals. Of course he does. That’s just what you’d expect to happen when someone’s put in that situation. Spider-Man’s real motto should be, “With great power comes great incredulity.”
But it’s not fair just to pick on Spidey. The psychological profiles of all of the heroes are ludicrous. Superman is an orphaned alien who flies around the city punching and kicking criminals. Batman is yet another orphan, whose parents were actually killed in front of him, darkening the superhero paint a bit. Rather than succumb to the hedonic lifestyle his billions would allow him — or, alternatively, using that money to effect systemic change in a city rife with corruption — he lurks around a city punching and kicking criminals while dressed as a fucking bat.
Incidentally, why do superheroes always live in cities? Aren’t there any rural superheroes?
I can forgive the capes and the corny catchphrases — it’s the why of the ceaseless heroics that stops me like a man in tights stops a runaway train. This isn’t just cynicism, as both superheroism and supervillainy seem like extreme and unlikely responses to suddenly being able to fly or stick to walls or tear a tree out of the ground by its roots. The narrative contortions required by contemporary screenwriters to justify the decisions made by comic book creators from fifty and sixty year ago are astonishing, and often they get out of it with humor, a self-referential joke discreetly letting the audience know, “Hey, we’re doing our best with what they gave us.”
And their best is impressive. In the past decade, the superhero movie has become respectable adult fare. While romcoms are almost universally dismissed, superhero films are accepted as a genre without experiencing that kind of derision.
I see three factors behind this ascension, though there may be more:
Money: superhero films make so much money that in our market-value driven society we will never aggressively deride anything lucrative.
Sexism: romcoms are aimed at women, while superhero movies are aimed at men.
Technique: the films are incredibly well-executed.
For technique, consider the analogy of French cooking. Unlike Mediterranean cooking, which is about the simple execution of fresh, high quality ingredients — line-caught red snapper on a grill with a little olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and that’s it — French cooking is about technique. It applies elaborate, complicated, experienced technique to things — intestines, a pig’s head — that you otherwise wouldn’t eat. But the technique is so obscenely skillful that it turns these unappetizing ingredients into delicacies.
In the case of superhero films, technique involves hiring highly skilled directors, actors, and screenwriters to transform children’s characters and stories into billion-dollar adult fare. (Caveat: legendary comics writers and artists like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, among others, have always written for adults). Except for a few clunkers, as a strategy it works very well. Iron Man was outrageously entertaining, with Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma powering the film like the arclight in his chest. Captain America: The Winter Soldier felt as suspenseful as a spy movie — if a spy carried a bright shield and wore a silly chinstrap. And Heath Ledger’s award-winning performance in the Dark Knight was legitimately disturbing.
So what does any of this have to do with George R.R. Martin?
Recently, it was announced that Martin would be adapting the Wild Cards series for television. I came across this mosaic book series when in high school, intrigued by the format of a series of stories written by different authors. At the time, I was an obsessive comic collector, and yet I easily made the leap from comic book to the Wild Cards paperbacks. The concept behind the series is that in 1946 an alien virus released into the Earth’s atmosphere kills off 90% of the people who contract it. Of the 10% who survive, 9% are turned into “Jokers” — mutated and deformed — and a lucky 1% become “Aces “— gifted with a desirable superpower.
It’s a solid premise, but what distinguishes it is Martin’s particular gift, which he demonstrates in his Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series: to take an unrealistic genre and stab it over and over in the heart with vicious and brutal realism.
The other thing Martin brings to this world is, no surprise, prostitution, perversion, and sexual violence. Wild Cards readers spend time with characters like Fortunato, a tantric magician who also runs a high-class prostitution ring (Littlefinger, anyone?) and whose near-limitless powers come from sexual energy; oh and he could also bring people back to life by ejaculating into their dead body.
Then there’s an assassin who poisons people with her vaginal secretions. And a few books into the series, things get even more twisted (and I repressed some of this from my fifteen-year-old brain, so apologies if I get details wrong): at one point, during a “body jumping” storyline, where people can take over other people’s bodies, a boy jumps into the mind of another person and rapes his own grandfather. This is where I stopped reading the Wild Card series, incidentally.
But it brings up an interesting question around where the cultural point of inflection is regarding superhero films and TV shows. There’s a glut of superhero content out there. It’s one of the reasons why Deadpool, which gleefully and dirtily skewered the conventions of the superhero genre, was such a hit. Deadpool showed there’s still some life in the superhero’s creative corpse so long as you cleverly poke fun at it (I said poke, Fortunato — back off).
Wild Cards, presumably, is taking the other approach: to pursue aggressive realism. It promises to do what no other superhero adaptation has really done, not even Deadpool (ultimately, the anti-hero acts heroically — he goes to the bad guy’s lair to rescue a woman in distress) or Watchmen (the first real take on grittier, authentic superheroism, which includes rape and murder.) Wild Cards will finally abolish the idea of superheroes. The people in the Wild Card universe aren’t heroes or villains, they’re just survivors. If you’re looking for the mark of adulthood, it’s right there: the death of heroes. Our parents are dying off or have died already. People we admired have let us down. We’ve let ourselves down. Growing up is about forging ahead despite that, and finding something to care about.
Maybe Martin and his Wild Cards co-writers and co-editors are right that the way out of the tired superhero narrative isn’t by retreating from it but brutally gutting it like an elk.
And yet, I can’t help but think that the way forward for superhero stories isn’t greater darkness — murder, incestuous rape, and all the other horrors the Wild Card world has in store for viewers — but through levity and charm. I watch The Flash with my daughter every week. It’s a little corny, and the tactical mistakes the protagonist makes in order for the plot to keep moving inspire occasional howls from us, but we enjoy it. There’s something to be said for lightness and heroism. They’re simple escapist virtues for children — and that’s ok. The disappointment and darkness of the world don’t need to be incorporated into every narrative. We can artistically investigate the many sinister complications of the human heart and our capacity for cruelty without making our childhood heroes strain narrative credulity to do it for us.
To put it another way: do you guys have to adult-ify everything? Isn’t porn enough for you, you merciless, stupid, selfish grown-ups?