Taylor Mitchell, A&E Editor
Superhero movies have evolved in our culture as the modern equivalent to the spaghetti western. They are mass market entertainment to the highest degree, movies meant to entertain and make their studios a whole heaping lot of money. They are made to be almost universally relatable and consumable to increase ticket sales. The continued popularity has caused many to see them as having flooded the market, a bubble getting ready to burst, much like westerns before them. This has even been applied to the greatest of these super hero film franchises, the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Please don’t misunderstand me the MCU has very consistently provided entertaining movies that are much loved by audiences around the world. Yet, much like the rest of the superhero genre and westerns before it the MCU is filled with primarily movies not films. A movie is there to entertain, a simple product of your enjoyment, while a film presents an idea and uses that to challenge you in some way. A film isn’t made to be inherently relatable it’s made to make a point. Superhero movies are movies, just as many westerns were, but just as Shane and The Outlaw Josey Wales are films of the highest order, I believe we are starting to see true films pop up in the superhero genre. One must look no further to find these than the aforementioned MCU and its recent hits Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War.
Black Panther is a movie often praised for its depiction of an Afro-futuristic society and its willingness to tackle the important issue of the effects that slavery and years of oppression have had on both the continent of Africa and those of African descent. Yet, the movie doesn’t use this as a backdrop, this isn’t just given lip service, it is the root conflict of the film. Every conflict both within Wakanda and T’Challa come from people with different ideas of how Wakanda should address this issue. The main conflict of the film is rooted in the ideological conflict between T’Challa’s struggle to stick to his father’s policies of non interference, and his cousin, Erik Killmonger’s idea that Wakanda should not just be responsible; but actually actively overthrow the oppressors. In the end, T’Challa’s answer to the question comes somewhere in the middle, that the only way to deal with oppression is to lift up the oppressed. Yet, this debate isn’t new, its old and its bitter.. We are still having this same debate that leads Black Panther into conflict, yet many times we ignore it. I think the film resonates with people because it forces them to confront this issue, they are made to decide if it is better to do nothing or to act. It then offers two options on what this action should look like. It shows all sides their faults, their triumphs, and what leads to each conclusion. It isn’t common for a superhero movie to tackle an issue like this and certainly not in this level of detail, but in so many ways this is what makes Black Panther so great. It engages us with a subject that is relevant to our society while entertaining us.
Infinity War, on the other hand, challenges us more in its structure than its content. By this I mean that Thanos, the undisputed big bad of the MCU, goes through the traditional story beats reserved for a films protagonist. With this distinction the film allows us a look into how he justifies his own actions. It forces the audience to come to the conclusion of understanding a genocidal maniac even if they are incapable of agreeing. Presenting Thanos in this light, while making it very clear he is still a monster, forces the audience to decide where the line is. In the end, the villain is given a triumphant moment, not the heroes. This forces people to consider the fact that what has happened is a triumph, just not in the way we would prefer.
I think that the reason these films resonate is because they challenge us. Like some old greats like Shane they have something they want us to walk away with. They want us to think and confront something about ourselves and and our society. That is when films are at their best. The same is true for superhero movies. If they are willing to keep challenging us instead of just entertaining us, I wholeheartedly believe they will be around just as long as westerns have been.