September 3, 2011

Summer of the Super Hero - Part 1

Summer 2011 Super Hero Movies:
Thor (upper left); Captain America (upper right); Green Lantern (lower left); X-Men (lower right) 
by John-Brian Paprock

During times of insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty, we all hope for a hero to appear and save us from calamity and tragedy.  We wish that hero would have the qualities and abilities we lack in solving our dilemma - super powers.  Throughout history, the stories of heroes are prevalent.  Some of the oldest artistic renderings are of heroes - great hunters, gods, goddesses, angels, and saints.

During my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, comic books were a constant reminder of what was possible in the fictional worlds of super heroes who saved individuals, cities, nations, worlds and even universes!  Heros with super enhanced human abilities and those with alien abilities and those with technical expertise.  Some came to their super powers by accidents; others, born uniquely gifted; still others, created.

During the 1970s, the superhoeros in the comic books began to show more human than superhuman frailty.  Every super hero, no matter what their abilities, had a weakness - something that could be exploited by their arch-enemies.  But in the 1970s, superheros began to have doubts, struggling with regular human problems and complications of keeping their "secret identities" secret.  The secrecy was important because in the 1970s, the public in these comic books also began to question the moral ambiguity of masked vigilantes. Being a superhero was no longer simple - the seeds of this change can be seen in films that created the anti-hero - most notably "Rebel Without A Cause" and the biker movies of the early 1960s.  Even standard westerns, films that at one time held moral clarity, began to raise the questions like: who can be "good" when everyone is "bad"? 

This cultural shift from heroes of impeccable credentials who traveled the moral high road to the complications of unusual ability (and even appearance) in an increasingly pluralistic society with moral relativism was reflected in the printed comic books of my youth. These multi-media experiences of art, dialogue, story, character development, and serial experiences seemed to me a seemless connection to the TV society that became so dominant.

However, the technology of film-making in my youth was still closely attached to the stage. That began to change exponentially, begining in the mid-1970s.  A steady and ambitious effort to make special effects common to all films made science fiction and fantasy, with aliens and fables coming alive on the screen.  Still, even as the quality of special effects progressed during the 1980s and 1990s, film could not compete with artistic images linked by imagination in the comic books.

In the early part of this new millennium, film special effects and computer animation have finally reached the super level to bring comic books to life on the big screen.  Now everything super seems even more possible.  And the heroes of my youth are the new champions of the silver screen.  There have even been satires and farces of the complicated mythology of modern superhero-dom.

The summer of 2011 may well be remembered for the number of super hero movies released (and the number of announced super hero film projects) have taken over the "blockbuster" genre at theaters throughout the world. 
Four super hero films were top movies the weekend of their theatrical release this summer: "Thor," "X-Men: First Class," "Green Lantern," and "Captain America." 

And I dragged my 19 year old son to every one of them.

It is interesting to notice that only one of these was intended as a pre-quel. Although a good case could be developed that "Thor" and "Captain America" are actually sequels to the two "Iron Man" movies and prequels to the much anticipated multi-superhero team movie, "The Avengers" expected in 2012. All of these are part of the Marvel Comics pantheon of superheros. Except for "Green Lantern" which is from the major rival comic book company - DC Comics. DC Comics is the company that owns the rights to Superman and Batman.

I will be writing a short review of these four summer movies. In reflection, I found each of them had a special message about the spirit of humanity, maybe even a spiritual teaching or two. 

Before that, for your consideration, a passage from H. Michael Brewer's book  "Who Needs a Superhero?"

"We live in a scary world, and hero stories express our longing for safety and security. While we can sometimes hedge ourselves against disaster, life is ultimately beyond our control. If only some more-than-human power would set the world right, we think. If only someone could walk beside us to see us through the perils of life, someone genuinely good and supremely strong.

"So we keep looking for heroes. We idolize our athletes, but they scarcely make any real difference in the world. We elevate our leaders on lofty pedestals, but from that vantage their clay feet are all the more obvious. We expect miracles from doctors, cops, and firefighters, but they all fail us often enough to remind us that they too are only human, after all.

"When real heroes let us down, we turn to the fictional variety. The more troubling our times, it seems, the grander our heroes. In these days of terrorism, war, epidemics, ecological disaster, and shaky economics, we need superheroes, those costumed do-gooders who were born in the frightful shadows of the Great Depression and World War II. ...

"Admittedly, not all superheroes offer sterling role models. Like television, movies and books in general, the comic book field has its share of needless violence, sexual stereotypes, and other offensive material. But if we separate the wheat from the chaff, we'll find comic books offering much heroism, idealism, and sacrificial nobility as any area of the entertainment industry.

"In fact, nobody does heroes better than comic books. As far as I can see, there's just one drawback with these caped adventurers: they aren't real.

"That leaves us in a bind. Flesh-and-blood heroes aren't big enough to save us, and comic book heroes are make-believe. ...

"The spiritual hunger for heroes is woven into the fabric of the human creature. Our Maker built us with a persistent longing for a rescuer who will save us from injustice and suffering. We dream of a champion who will lift us and lead us home. In our bleakest moments, we pray for someone to save us from ourselves.

"Religion is the deepest expression of our longing for a savior; but all our hero stories finally point in the same direction. Every heroic saga, legend, and myth is ultimately a variation on one universal story: When all seemed lost, a hero stepped in to rescue us from the evil around and within us.

"As it turns out, this story happens to be true, and the hero is absolutely real."*

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