Editor’s note: The following is a reprint of an academic post that originally appeared at Edward’s blog here.
Some time back, John Haldane gave a Thomistic Institute talk here in Los Angeles on the theme of evil in the movies and in the movie industry. During the Q and A (at about the 40 minute mark, and again after the 1:16 mark) the subject of superhero movies came up, and Haldane was critical of their current prevalence. In developing this criticism, he draws a useful distinction between fantasy and imagination.
Imagination, as Haldane uses the term, is a way of exploring aspects of reality and possibilities that are grounded in reality, even though it makes use of scenarios that are fictional or even impossible. Imagination is healthy and can increase our understanding of the moral and social worlds. Fantasy, by contrast, is unanchored in reality, and indeed it reflects a flight from reality and the discipline it imposes and responsibility that it entails. Haldane gives as an example the movie Pretty Woman, an absurdly unrealistic portrayal of prostitution and human relationships.
Fantasy can be harmless in small doses, Haldane allows, but when a culture becomes dominated by it, that is a sign that it has become decadent and unwilling to face reality. And the prevalence of superhero movies, Haldane says, is an indication that American society is increasingly retreating into fantasy and away from reality. He rejects the suggestion that such movies can be compared to the myths of the gods in ancient cultures. Such myths, he says, are essentially exercises in imagination, whereas superhero movies are sheer fantasy.
I think there is some truth to this analysis, but only some. Some superhero movies are indeed exercises in fantasy, but some are, in my view, clearly exercises in imagination.
Not long after hearing Haldane’s talk, I happened to come across a 1978 television interview with the late Harlan Ellison during which (beginning just before the 5 minute mark) Ellison criticizes the movies Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars, and modern American society in general, on exactly the same grounds raised by Haldane. He doesn’t use Haldane’s terminology, and in fact partially inverts it. Ellison uses “fantasy” to mean what Haldane means by “imagination,” and he uses the expression “space opera” to refer to one type of what Haldane calls “fantasy.” But in substance, the distinction and the sort of points Haldane and Ellison are making are identical.
(Side note: Remember when you could find extended intelligent discussion like this on television? Remember when you could casually smoke on television, as Ellison does during the interview? Remember Laraine Newman, another guest on the show who also contributes to the discussion?)
Interestingly, though, Ellison was also well-known to be an enthusiast for comics, including superhero comics, and even wrote them from time to time (though this doesn’t come up in the interview). I don’t think there is any inconsistency there.
Suppose that, like me and like Haldane (though unlike Ellison) you are a conservative Catholic. Then, I would suggest, it is easy to see that there are themes in many superhero movies, and especially in the Avengers series that is currently the most popular of all, that are clearly reflections of imagination rather than fantasy.
Take the characters who, in the Avengers movies as in the comics, have been regarded as “the Big Three”: Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man. Captain America represents patriotism, the military virtues, the earnest decency of the common man, and in general a Norman Rockwell style nostalgia for a simpler time. Thor – as part of the Asgardian pantheon ruled by stern Odin, to whom he must prove his worthiness – represents the higher realm spoken of by religion, and our obligations to the divine patriarchal authority who governs it. Iron Man is a business magnate who represents confident masculinity, superior ability and great wealth, and the noblesse oblige and rebuke to egalitarianism implied by them. These are deeply conservative themes, and it is astounding that these characters are as popular as they are in a society increasingly suffocated by political correctness.
Or maybe not. For such themes have appeal because they reflect human nature, and human nature does not change however much we try to paper over it with ideology and propaganda, and however corrupt human behavior and human societies become as a result. People will yearn in at least an inchoate way for the traditional institutions and ideals without which they cannot fulfill their nature, even when they are told they ought not to and have halfway convinced themselves that they ought not to.
I would suggest that the Marvel movies have the appeal they do at least in part precisely because they both convey these traditional ideals, but do so in a way that is fantastic enough that the offense to political correctness is not blatant. A film series whose heroes are a square patriotic soldier, the son of a heavenly Father come to earth, and a strutting capitalist alpha male sounds like something tailor-made for a Red State audience, and the last thing that would attract A-list actors and billions in investment from a major studio. Put these characters in colorful costumes, scenarios drawn from science fiction, and a little PC window dressing (such as portraying their girlfriends as a soldier, a scientist, and a businesswoman, respectively), and suddenly even a Blue State crowd can get on board.
Now, there are no traditional ideals more battered in contemporary Western society than masculinity, and the paternal role that is the fulfillment of masculinity. But these are precisely the key themes of many of the Marvel movies. The longing for a lost father or father figure is the core of all of the Spider-Man movies, as I noted in a post from a few years back. (In the Spider-Man movies that have appeared since that post was written, Tony Stark has become the father figure whose instruction and example Peter Parker strives to live up to.) The theme is also central to the Guardians of the Galaxy series, to Black Panther, to the Daredevil movie and Netflix series, and to the Luke Cage and Iron Fist Netflix series. The Thor movies are largely about the conflicted relationships Thor and Loki have with their father Odin, whose approval each of them nevertheless seeks. The bad consequences of rebellion against a father or father figure is the theme of the original Spider-Man series (wherein Peter initially refuses to heed his Uncle Ben’s admonitions), of the first Thor movie, and of Avengers: Age of Ultron (whose wayward son is the robotic Ultron, at odds with his “father” Stark).
The Hulk movies are largely about the consequences of failure as a father (whether Bruce Banner’s father in the original Hulk movie, or Betty Ross’s father in The Incredible Hulk). Ant-Man is essentially about two men (Scott Lang and Hank Pym) who have partially failed as fathers and are trying to make up for it. The Punisher Netflix series is essentially about a husband and father seeking vengeance for the family that was taken from him.
But it is the two stars of the Marvel movies – Tony Stark/Iron Man and Steve Rogers/Captain America – who are the most obvious examples of idealized masculinity. And their character arcs through the series are about realizing that ideal. Each of them starts out as an imperfect specimen of the masculine ideal, albeit in very different ways. With Stark it is a vice of deficiency and with Rogers it is a vice of excess. But by the end of their arcs, in Avengers: Endgame, each achieves the right balance. (It might seem odd to think of Rogers rather than Stark as the one prone to a kind of excess. Bear with me and you’ll see what I mean.)
On the traditional understanding of masculinity, a man’s life’s work has a twofold purpose. First, it is ordered toward providing for his wife and children. Second, it contributes something distinctive and necessary to the larger social order of which he and his family are parts. Society needs farmers, butchers, tailors, manual laborers, soldiers, scholars, doctors, lawyers, etc. and a man finds purpose both by being a husband and father and by filling one of these social roles. Though the traditional view regards women as “the weaker sex” and as less assertive than men, it understands a man’s worth and nobility in terms of the extent to which his strength and assertiveness are directed toward the service of others.
Liberal individualism, both in its libertarian form and its egalitarian form, replaced this social and other-directed model of a man’s life’s work with an individualist and careerist model, on which work is essentially about self-expression and self-fulfillment – making one’s mark in the world, gaining its attention and adulation, attaining fame, power and influence, and so forth. Nor is it even about providing for wife and children, since sex and romance too came to be regarded as a means of self-fulfillment rather than the creation of the fundamental social unit, the family. (Feminism took this corrupted individualist understanding of the meaning of a man’s work and relationships and, rather than critiquing it, urged women to ape it as well.)
In the first two Iron Man movies, Stark is initially a specimen of this individualist mentality. His work is oriented toward attaining wealth, fame, and power. He uses women as playthings. He has a conflicted relationship with his late father, and is contemptuous of authority in general. He is judged by SHIELD to be “volatile, self-obsessed, and [unable to] play well with others.” But he is gradually chastened by the consequences of his hubris – by being captured and injured in the first Iron Man movie; by being forced to face up to the limitations on his power to stop an alien invasion like the one that occurred in Avengers; and by the miscalculation that led to Ultron’s rebellion and the many deaths it caused. By Captain America: Civil War, Stark is humbled enough to accept government oversight, and being left defeated and near-dead by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War completes his chastening.
By Avengers: Endgame Stark has become a family man. By way of time travel, he makes peace of a sort with his father. In the first Avengers movie, he had casually dismissed Rogers’ talk of the need for self-sacrifice with the confidence that an alternative solution would always be possible for a clever person like himself. By contrast, in Endgame, he sees that he needs to lay down his life in order to save his wife and daughter and the world in general, and he willingly does it. To be sure, he is in no way neutered. He retains his masculine assertiveness, strength, and self-confidence. But they are now directed toward the service of something larger than himself.
Rogers, by contrast, is from the first Captain America movie onward driven by a sense of duty to his country and to the social order more generally, and is willing to sacrifice everything for it, including even his own happiness and indeed his own life. He is also a perfect gentleman, and his only interest where women are concerned is with the one he would like to marry and settle down with if only he had the chance. Like Stark, he is relentlessly assertive, confident, and competent, but unlike Stark these traits are from the start directed toward the service of a larger good.
Rogers’ flaw is that he is if anything a bit too absorbed in this larger good. At least initially, he is too much the man of action and the good soldier, with all the virtues but also with the flaws that that entails. He is a little too deferential to authority. In the first Avengers movie he glibly asserts: “We have orders. We should follow them” – only to find out that perhaps he should have questioned them. The way institutions and authorities can become corrupted is impressed upon him far more dramatically in Captain America: Winder Soldier, to the point that in Civil War it is Rogers who is urging Stark to be more skeptical of authority.
In general, Rogers’ optimistic “can do” spirit sometimes borders on naïveté, and it takes the catastrophe of Infinity War to teach him that the good guys don’t always win and that some problems can only be managed or mitigated rather than solved. For much of the series, Rogers also has little life outside some military or quasi-military organization – the army, SHIELD, the Avengers. Without a war to fight, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He is square, prone to speechifying, and awkward with women – in Winter Soldier proclaiming himself “too busy” for romance, preferring to lose himself in one mission after the other. Only after near-death and victory in a “mother of all battles” in Endgame does he become convinced that he has the right to retire and “try some of that life Tony was telling me to get” – traveling back in time to marry the woman he thought he’d lost forever.
The theme of the parallels and differences between the two characters provides a backbone to the Marvel movies. Both Stark and Rogers are supremely confident and competent. They are both natural leaders. Each stubbornly insists on pursuing the course he is convinced is the correct one. They are too similar in these respects – though also too different in the other ways just described – to like each other much at first. The world is not big enough for both egos. They learn to like and respect each other only gradually, through many ups and downs.
Hence, in the first Avengers movie, Stark is jealous of the admiration that his father had had for Rogers, and Rogers is amazed that Howard Stark could have had a son as frivolous and unworthy as Tony. By Civil War, Rogers ends up having to defend the man who had (under mind control) murdered Howard – defending him from Tony, who seeks to avenge his father and now (temporarily) judges Rogers unworthy of his father’s admiration. Stark starts out arrogantly rejecting any government control over his activity as Iron Man, only to insist on government control in Civil War. Rogers starts out dutifully following orders in the first Captain America and Avengers movies, only stubbornly to reject government control over the team in Civil War. In Age of Ultron, Rogers criticizes Stark for acting independently of the team, and in Civil War, Stark criticizes Rogers for acting independently of the team. Rogers feels guilt for failing to prevent the death of Bucky, his comrade-in-arms. Stark feels guilt for failing to prevent the death of Peter Parker, to whom he has become a father figure. Rogers lays down his life in the first Captain America movie, only to get it back. Stark preserves his life against all odds throughout the whole series, only to lay it down in the last Avengers movie.
I submit that its complex portrayal of these competing models of masculinity is part of what makes the Marvel series of movies a genuine exercise in imagination rather than fantasy, in Haldane’s sense of the terms.
One wonders, however, whether this will last. A few years ago, Marvel’s comics division notoriously reoriented their titles to reflect greater “diversity” and political correctness – an experiment that critics labeled “SJW Marvel” and that resulted in a dramatic decline in sales. The trend has been partially reversed and did not at the time affect the movies, where much more money is at stake. But there are signs that a milder form of the “SJW Marvel” approach will make its way into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the next phase of movies.
For example, the title character of Captain Marvel is portrayed with little emotion, no love interest, and lacking any of the femininity, vulnerability, and complexity of characters like Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow or Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch. As Kyle Smith noted in National Review, Brie Larson portrays her instead as “fiercer than fierce, braver than brave… insouciant, kicking butt, delivering her lines in an I-got-this monotone… amazingly strong and resilient at the beginning, middle, and end. This isn’t an arc, it’s a straight line.” Into the bargain, this C-list character, dropped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe out of nowhere, is suddenly proclaimed “the most powerful character” in that universe.
In short, Captain Marvel is transparently an exercise in feminist wish fulfillment. More to the present point, it is sheer fantasy in Haldane’s sense, rather than imagination – a portrayal of the way a certain mindset wishes the world to be, rather than a fanciful representation of the way it really is. And, as Smith points out, its title character is for that reason completely boring. (Contrast this with Marvel’s Netflix series Jessica Jones, which – despite its own feminist undercurrents – is not boring, and whose female characters are well-rounded and interesting.)
If future Marvel movies follow in this identity politics oriented direction, they will in fact become what Haldane (in my view mistakenly) thinks they already are.
Originally published here.