The Eventual Heat Death of the Superhero Franchise

The end of the universe may come as a state of perfect equilibrium, a point of balance between all forces and exchanges such that nothing is capable of happening. At that point, we will all be thoroughly bored to death. This year’s blockbuster contributions from both Marvel and DC have brought us incrementally closer to such a death, a series of films depicting the superheroic clash of various costumed ideological vehicles, all amounting to more or less nothing.

Why is it that the best superhero stories are almost always origins, with each subsequent installment getting worse and worse, until finally the studio opts for a total franchise reboot? Part of the answer has to do with one of the most basic rules of storytelling, which is that characters should have an arc.

The most obviously compelling arc for the superhero is the ascent to herodom–the acquisition of power, the mastery of that power, and the triumph over evil–the modern American iteration of the Campbellian monomyth. These are transformative myths, showing us how we might transcend our mere humanity through genetic predisposition, science gone awry, or the light of an alien sun.

From a narrative standpoint, what’s interesting is watching how our regular protagonist is changed in the presence of superhuman power. Do they head underground to seek out others like them? Do they don glasses and work as a reporter for the local news? Do they announce their identity to the world, becoming a symbol for capitalist imperialism, or do they just keep going to highschool, trying to get laid and save lives between classes?

The difference between the various iterations is the degree to which the presence of power subsumes the individual. The crux of the superhero narrative is the sacrifice of the original self, sometimes destroyed entirely, sometimes relegated to the status of mere alter-ego. The transformation that takes place is from person to symbol, face to mask, name to moniker.

But what happens after that? This is the question which has killed more heroes than any evil supergenius or megalomaniacal demigod ever could. Because once the hero has become symbol, the story is no longer about the relationship between humans and power. Instead, it becomes an abstracted clash of ideologies which will inevitably devolve into a forty-five-minute-or-more battle royale involving CGI ad nauseum. Cities will be pulverized, faceless cronies pounded into pulp, but none of it will mean much of anything.

 

The worst recent offender in this regard is undoubtedly Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie so utterly devoid of meaning that it actually sucked out Ben Affleck’s soul. Much ink has already been spilled extolling how bad this movie is, so I won’t beat the proverbial dead kryptonian except to say that central to its sense of complete emptiness is the film’s failure to present its characters as people instead of symbols, which results in nobody really caring what happens to anyone. Affleck and Cavill lethargically throw each other through buildings for a while and then fight a completely unremarkable space lab mutant. Superman is killed, but not really though. Nothing is gained or lost.

Captain America: Civil War is essentially the same story, but it’s packaged better in terms of its characterization, which helps its heroes more effectively bear the burden of their symbological weight. The conflict is almost identical, but it taps into the zeitgeist more coherently, posing the admittedly quite salient question of whether or not the Avengers (read: America) should submit to bureaucratic oversight or simply act unilaterally according to their own moral judgements.

Tony Stark, the corporation-as-person-with-a-conscience, says of course, we should be bound by the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, while Steve Rogers, the freeze-dried relic of post-WWII exceptionalism says no, we can’t risk compromising our extrajudicial effectiveness by submitting to all that red tape. We’re the good guys, after all. Lines are drawn and heroes come out of the woodwork to bash each other into a stalemate of epic proportions.

The most poignant part about this movie is that the outcome of all of this is the institution of a familiar brand of neoliberal doublespeak. The Avengers are formally dissolved, their members imprisoned in an attempt to save face with the global community, but Tony ends up secretly freeing them from their undersea prison facility, granting them carte blanche to act behind the scenes, fighting our wars in proxy. The narrative motion is towards a state of equilibrium, of geopolitical stasis, though that stasis, we learn, is only maintained through the constant opposing pressure of unseen forces.

The widely anticipated Suicide Squad, slated for an August 5th release, promises to take this theme to the next level, presenting us this time with a lineup of DC’s most lovable villains tasked with the same secret preservation of the status quo. There’s a commentary here on the nature of violence committed by the modern state, simultaneously condemned and sanctioned, but how clearly and unapologetically Suicide Squad articulates this idea remains to be seen.

 

Political commentary aside, the other aspect of this sense of narrative stasis has to do with invulnerability, a trait shared by just about every superhero to some degree, and one which makes it really difficult to write a story that has compelling stakes. Our knowing that these heroes can’t be killed kinda destroys any hope of creating tension in fight scenes, which turn out to make up a large portion of all of these movies.

Deadpool approaches the issue in an interesting way–Wade Wilson can’t be killed, so they just fuck up his face really badly. His superheroic origin is founded in an act of aesthetic violence, and the ensuing revenge flick is basically an exercise in exploring the graphic freedoms afforded by an R rating in a genre that typically taps out at PG13. Violence becomes the end rather than the means. Death becomes pure entertainment.

This is established from the opening fight, in which Deadpool has to kill a gang of mercenaries with only twelve bullets. The whole thing turns into a bloody slapstick act, openly and self-indulgently masturbatory–I’m touching myself tonight, he says when it’s done, sniffing gunsmoke.

The best part about Deadpool has always been his awareness of his status as a superhero in a comic book, treated as a delusion in-world, but one that allows him to break the fourth wall and address the audience, or even cut his way through the pages to give advice to his past self. His understanding of his role in the narrative becomes its own superpower, though different writers have emphasized this aspect of his character to different extents.

The movie gets at the fourth wall awareness in the form of Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern jokes and quips about its own comparatively small budget, but in a way, its self-aware superficiality becomes a kind of meta-commentary on the meaningless surface-level violence in the average superhero movie. Still, the problem of dramatic tension persists. All-in-all, it’s a pretty boring movie, succeeding only as a comedy, because it understands that Deadpool doesn’t take himself very seriously.

 

On the other end of the spectrum lies X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest installment of one of Marvel’s oldest movie franchises, and the the third since Marvel reacquired the rights from Fox and did what they call a “soft-reboot.” The only remaining element from the old days is the timeless bod of Hugh Jackman, who has now appeared in eight movies as the same hero, a record if you don’t count voice actors. 

The stakes of this movie are no less than the end of subjectivity at the hands of Apocalypse, an ancient villain who has accrued a host of powers by ritualistically transferring his being from body to body throughout the ages. All he needs is Charles Xavier’s telepathy in order to control every mind on earth, which he does at one point in order to enact a policy of complete nuclear disarmament, apparently having taken a leaf out of Gertrude Stein’s book:

I like to read detective and mystery stories. I never get enough of them but whenever one of them is or was about death rays and atomic bombs I never could read them. What is the use, if they are really as destructive as all that there is nothing left and if there is nothing there nobody to be interested and nothing to be interested about.

In her final essay before her death, Stein takes a rather contrarian stance on Nuclear weapons as being boring in their own right, so destructive that their use would mark the end of all thinking subjects, and therefore the end of all meaning, which naturally makes for a pretty meaningless ending.

Apocalypse’s plan is almost the opposite. He wants to condense the number of thinking subjects to just one, himself, but the problem is that as a subject, he’s completely one-dimensional. He hardly even speaks. Most of his screen time is spent walking around slowly, looking grim and turning things into sand. He’s so boring that everyone he recruits ends up betraying him once they realize how utterly uninteresting his vision of the future is.

That being said, the real story here is the battle for the soul of Magneto, and in that regard X-Men: Apocalypse does find some success, largely thanks to Michael Fassbender’s performance, but also because the conflict he faces is the same one we’ve been talking about all along: that of human character versus ideological vehicle. Ultimately, it takes him meeting such a vehicle in Apocalypse for him to remember his humanity and decide not to kill everybody after all.

Maybe that’s what the movie is trying to get at–the triumph of interesting villains over boring ones, and maybe the reason the X-Men franchise has remained viable for so long is that there’s always a fresh supply of mutants for origin subplots to keep everything interesting. Still, there is a kind of stagnation that has and will continue to take place the more times they reboot and remake these movies. Each one you watch only increases the sense that they are all ultimately the same. The ouroboros digests its own tail until eventually the whole thing is made entirely out of its own shit.

Herein lies our Apocalypse, the story of a soul passed down from body to body, gaining power but losing personality, until all it can do is go through the motions, acting exactly as we expect it to, nothing more and nothing less. Our legends tell us that our universe will likely end in a state of perfect stillness, a gridlock of unstoppable forces and immovable objects humming in place. But fear not–it will certainly be made again. It’s going to be good. I hear this time around, it’s going to be more gritty, and real.


Henry Whittier-Ferguson