New York Times movie critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott held their annual joyless, ridiculously political summer movie conversation on the front of Sunday's Arts & Leisure, focusing on the glut of superhero movies: "Super-Dreams Of an Alternate World Order – The Modern Comic Book Movie Has Become a Hollywood Staple. But Exactly What Is It Selling?" Dargis managed to make a villain out of President Reagan, while Scott chimed in by complaining that movie superheroes are "avatars of reaction" and that the last X-Men movie was insufficiently attentive to the civil rights movement (really).
The reliably liberal Dargis also tried to ruin the summer movie seasons of 2008 and 2011, with lectures on "separate and unequal" roles for women in movies. On Sunday she made the same points, adding a hit on "the Reagan years" that seems there only to validate the conservative joke that liberals blame everything on Ronald Reagan.
Dargis: One problem is that public intellectuals like [Edward] Wilson no longer have the forums they once did. There are oppositional voices, yes, yet they can be difficult to hear in the contemporary media context, with everyone always selling the exact same thing at the exact same moment. A recent editorial in The Columbia Journalism Review points to a reason: “Six companies dominate TV news, radio, online, movies, and publishing. Another eight or nine control most of the nation’s newspapers.” The media consolidation that traces back to the Reagan years has had enormous deleterious consequences on American movies. We’re at a paradoxical moment when new digital technologies have created more and more stuff, movies included, even as the consolidation of the media gives us fewer real choices.
Scott: But comic book fans need to feel perpetually beleaguered and disenfranchised, marginalized by phantom elites who want to confiscate their hard-won pleasures. And this resentment -- which I have a feeling I’m provoking more of here -- finds its way into the stories themselves, expressed either as glowering self-pity or bullying machismo. There are exceptions: Mark Ruffalo’s soulful Hulk (though not Eric Bana’s or Edward Norton’s); most of the X-Men. But even that crew of mutant misfits turned protectors of humanity exists in a circumscribed imaginative space. As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out in a New York Times Op-Ed article last summer about “X-Men: First Class,” that film noticeably refrained from connecting its chronicle of prejudice and outsider-dom in postwar America to the contemporaneous drama of the civil rights movement.
To do so would have been too risky. And much as they may fetishize courage and individualism, these movies are above all devoted to the protection of a status quo only tangentially (or tendentiously) related to truth, justice and the American Way. The DC and Marvel superheroes, champions of democracy in the ’40s and ’50s and pop rebels in the ’60s and ’70s, have become, in the 21st century, avatars of reaction.
Dargis: They’re certainly avatars of reaction in how they justify and perpetuate the industry’s entrenched sexism. You just have to scan the spandex bulges in “The Avengers” to see that superhero movies remain a big boys’ club, with few women and girls allowed. Yes, there are female superheroes on screen, like Jean Grey from the “X-Men” series, but they tend not to drive the stories, while female superheroes with their own movies never dominate the box office. Most women in superhero movies exist to smile indulgently at the super-hunk, to be rescued and to flaunt their assets, like Scarlett Johansson’s character in “The Avengers,” whose biggest superpower, to judge by the on- and off-screen attention lavished on it, was her super-rump.
The movie industry has also adapted to survive, yet it persists in recycling maddeningly troglodytic representations of women that its embrace of superheroes has only perpetuated and maybe exacerbated. For all the technological innovations, the groovy new Bat cycles and codpieces, superhero movies just recycle variations on gender stereotypes that were in circulation back in the late 1930s, when Superman and Batman first hit. The world has moved on -- there’s an African-American man in the Oval Office, a woman is the secretary of state -- but the movie superhero remains stuck in a pre-feminist, pre-civil rights logic that dictates that a bunch of white dudes, as in “The Avengers,” will save the world for the grateful multiracial, multicultural multitudes. What a bunch of super-nonsense.
-- Clay Waters is Editor of the MRC's TimesWatch site