Many (most?) of the highest-grossing movies of all time are superhero movies, which arguably constitute a new genre. Responding to this trend, the director Steven Spielberg surmised in 2015 that “there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western.” Is the staggering appeal and cultural prominence of superhero movies simply the product of low-brow entertainment, or is there something more significant going on? Challenging the view that philosophical inquiry should not concern itself with such mundane phenomena, I will argue that superhero movies are successful (in part) because they portray heroic ideals that, for mainly evolutionary reasons, humans need to refer themselves to.
Of course, religious texts, symbols, and legends already do this. I will argue, however, that superhero movies are distinguished from these traditional sources by the fact that their larger-than-life characters and plots emerged from experimental storytelling. Superhero movies may count as some of the most expensive creative undertakings in human history, but they originate from comic books that are, by design, cheap (hence the expression “pulp fiction”). This low cost and high potential for gain gives authors and artists an incentive to try new things without fear of reprimand. Like sea turtle hatchlings that are vulnerable but numerous, only a subset of the stories told in comics retain the attention of readers. Hence, for each superhero that makes it to the big screen (Ironman, Black Widow, etc.), hundreds remain known only in “fan” subculture (Doctor Fate, Sentry, etc.). This ability to err lets the comic book medium experiment with myths in a way that satisfies the need for ideals but is freed from the strictures of religious custom.
Seen in this light, figures like Black Panther supply guidance about how to battle one’s shortcomings to overcome surprises and challenges. Importantly, this guidance is not didactic: the best superhero movies do not preach; rather, they exemplify conceptions of good and evil via the praiseworthy and blameworthy actions of their protagonists and supervillains. The exaggerated stylization that we find in superhero movies (costumes, athletic physiques, superpowers, emblems, etc.) actually serve deep-rooted semiotic and aesthetic functions. Wearing a shirt with a superhero logo is a way of telling oneself and the world that one aspires to act in a heroic fashion. As I put it in my book, Myth, Meaning, and Antifragile Individualism: “A popular internet meme like ‘What would Batman do?’ is thus a massive ethical tome, subjected to maximal informational compression.”
Solutions to new problems begin in our imaginations, which in turn need new contents. Superheroes are a purely secular way to take charge of this activity. Indeed, no one pretends that the figures in question have a divine or supernatural origin. We know full well that Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger and that Spiderman was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. We also know full well that these figures went through multiple revisions (or “retcons,” short for “retroactive continuity”). Even so, the open acknowledgement that these are fallible human creations does nothing to diminish the inspiration that people derive from these characters and stories.
Historically, this is unprecedented (certainly at so large a scale). It would be a mistake, then, to dismiss the philosophical significance of superhero movies. This, at any rate, is what I hope to show.