Superheroes and Art

Until the time comes when both my boys are home my writing focus will be on the NICU journal. I am not posting all of it online as it will eventually be available for purchase. However, I am more than happy to occasionally post a few excerpts. The following is one on a topic many are currently debating. Are superhero movies art?

Let’s revisit a topic we discussed before. What is art? That question is being asked again as two of the greatest filmmakers of all time Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola took aim at the recent trend of superhero movies calling them at best amusement parks and at worst despicable. They both agreed that they weren’t cinema. They were not high art. Not that long ago saying that summer blockbusters are not art would not have been controversial in the least, but we have a more personal connection to the superhero genre of films.

Even my calling it a genre would diminish it in the eyes of some. Think about the bookstore for a second and how its layout is categorized. There are sections for Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction/Fantasy, and Literature. The separation of the genres from the Literature section implies that those genres are not literature. They can, and do, become literature but it takes great achievement by the authors, but this designation is always somewhat ridiculous. Why are Raymond Chandler and Harlan Coben found in the Mystery section and Agatha Christie and Michael Conolly in Literature? Aren’t they all mysteries that happen to also be literature? Why is Margret Atwood literature and William Gibson science fiction? There appears to be no rational answer other than whoever canonized the organization of bookstores decided what is genre fiction and what is literary fiction and there is an absurdity inherit to this categorization.

Hierarchies of art have and will continue to exist in society. Cultures decide and argue about what is and isn’t art. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola calling a series of big studio summer blockbusters designed primarily to entertain and make as much money as possible not art should not be controversial except the superhero genre of movies are our modern myths. What, really, are the differences between The Avengers and Jason and the Argonauts other than a couple thousand years separating the team ups? There is a good argument to be made that survival and time can make anything into art.

Your mother and I took you to the Chrysler Museum this past weekend as high contrast pictures can help your eyes develop. While there we walked through the lower level and looked at the ancient art. This includes relics from all over the world but let’s talk about one particular object here and compare it to a more recent, and highly controversial piece of art. Think about a Greek vase. While it does have painting on the outside it wasn’t made to sit in a museum. It wasn’t made to be art. It was made to serve a function. To hold water or wine or another liquid. It was made to be an everyday household object, but it has survived, in remarkable condition I might add (it is difficult to look at it and believe it is thousands of years old), and now it sits in a museum as evidence and example of ancient art.

An everyday, household object sitting in a museum reminds me of another, more recent, work of art, Duchamp’s Fountain. Fountain is nothing more than a urinal turned on its side and signed and dated by the artist. Duchamp in signing the work used the pseudonym R. Mutt, but that is neither here nor there for the discussion at hand. Duchamp took something ordinary and commonplace altered it slightly and put it in a museum. If alteration is part of what makes art then Fountain is even more a work of art than a Grecian vase, but I would be willing to bet those that believe in a true hierarchy of art would not see it that way. What cannot be argued is that a Grecian vase and a urinal are both common, ordinary objects that have found themselves in art museums. Their paths were very different, but both ended up in the same place and call into question how we view art.

Scorsese and Coppola are very much men that believe in a hierarchy of art and a separation of cinema, film, and movies. They would view art on one end of the spectrum and entertainment on the other and the superhero movies they rage against sit firmly in the entertainment camp, and using their definition they are not wrong. Superhero movies are highly produced, crowd tested, manufactured films. As I said earlier in this journal the question of what is art is one not worth answering. Not that it isn’t worth thinking about or discussing, but that it is, by its nature, a question that has no answer. Art is organic and personal. It changes from era to era and culture to culture and sometimes even person to person.

The closest definition of art I can give is that it says something about the human condition, but we humans can and do rationalize anything. The blank walls in art museums say something about the human condition, because what is more human than the empty and hollow spaces between the beautiful, meaningful, or horrifying? If art is anything that says something about the human condition then nearly everything is art, and perhaps that is the way it should be. Our lives could all use a little art and if we can find it in anything then we’re all the better for it.

If we are to use my above definition it is quite easy to find art in the superhero movies. I’m not sure how many you’ve seen at this point in your lives but as I do plan on purchasing the Disney streaming service for us you should have seen a few of them. The scene I find most poignant and artistic comes from the end of Captain America: Civil War. The movie is about the fracturing of the Avengers. How they end up on different sides of a debate of how superheroes should be regulated. The climax of the movie pits Captain America against Iron Man in a brutal fight after Iron Man, Tony Stark, discovers that Captain America’s friend Bucky, Winter Soldier, killed his parents while being mind controlled.

Tony Stark will not be satisfied until he takes his revenge and Captain America is not going to allow him to kill his friend. They fight and eventually Captain America wins by driving his shield into Iron Man’s generator and disabling his suit. With that Captain America drops his shield after being told it was a creation of Tony Stark’s father and he doesn’t deserve it and the camera pans out to a broken and beaten Tony Stark who has just allowed his thirst for vengeance destroy the team he assembled to save the world. In many ways this is the moment of failure that plays out in future films but this scene is only the set-up to the poignancy of the film.

Tony Stark wasn’t the only person that had his parents killed by Winter Soldier. T’Challa, Black Panther, lost his father much more recently. In fact his loss takes place earlier in the film, but he understands that Bucky is being mind controlled and his actions were not his own. T’Challa goes beyond simple forgiveness. He helps Winter Soldier to take control of himself and gives him a place to live in Wakanda. And it is here that we find the duality of human nature. T’Challa is the ideal of forgiveness, understanding, and charity and Tony Stark is the emotional need for vengeance and release of anger. In the end Tony Stark destroys his own dream while T’Challa gains a powerful ally. If that contrast of the human condition and the ideal are not art then I am not sure I know what is. Superhero movies do come with a glossy paint job, but underneath that there are still stories. Stories that aren’t too much different than the myths of the Ancient Greeks, but instead of Agamemnon struggling with the decision of sacrificing his daughter to appease Artemis and return the winds you have Iron Man making a rash decision to sacrifice his friendship in order to gain vengeance for the loss of his parents. Both stories express the human condition one is just a lot more shiny and full of CGI but that doesn’t diminish its standing as art.  

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