For years now, I’ve heard people complain about how it’s time that super-heroes weren’t so dark and realistic. I’ve heard this relentlessly about super-hero comics, but I’ve also heard it about super-hero movies.
Most recently, such cries have been ratcheted up to a fever pitch, in response to The Man of Steel. (Spoiler warning, for those who haven’t seen it.)
Often, these cries are accompanied with sentences like “Do super-heroes need to be so hopelessly realistic all the time?”
Super-hero fans know that dark and realistic stories are associated with the movement known as “revisionism,” and these fans often lump this term into such complaints. I routinely read, for example, some permutation on “Isn’t it time we moved past all this dark and depressing revisionism?”
This has become a sort of standard narrative of the super-hero genre. The only problem is that it bears no actual correspondence with reality.
Revisionism, as a movement, effectively ended in the mid-1990s. Marvels came out, followed by similarly bright and hopeful and unapologetic super-hero works like Kurt Busiek’s Astro City or Alan Moore’s Supreme. But more than any other work, Grant Morrison’s JLA dealt the death blow to revisionism. After it became the top-selling monthly comic book, suddenly everyone was trying to ape its happy, deliberately unrealistic tone. By 1999, Warren Ellis was retooling his entire approach to super-heroes (and arguably his whole mentality) in order to make these comics sell, and the results were seen in Planetary and The Authority.
Seeing this counter-movement forming, I asked Kurt Busiek, in a letter printed in the first volume of Astro City, about how he conceptualized what he was doing with the super-hero genre. In response, he acknowledged that he understood what he was doing and coined the term “reconstructionism,” which I’ve used ever since to describe this movement away from revisionism and its realism.
It so happens that I like all of these works I’ve just mentioned. In fact, I consider them to be some pretty classic works of literature of significant historical importance. They also ask real questions about our relationship to power, about how genre literature works, and about how our sense of wonder can inspire or deceive us. In other words, they may have rejected revisionism’s dark realism, but they didn’t reject revisionism’s concern for narrative intelligence or literary values.
But these works’ quality isn’t the point. The point is that, since the latter half of the 1990s, with very rare exceptions, no one’s really been doing dark or realistic super-heroes.
Yet somehow it’s become part of the standard narrative that super-hero stories are still routinely filled with dark realism. That’s not the case, and it hasn’t been for 15 years.
When I read these complaints, I feel as if they’re stuck in a time warp. It’s the same thing people were saying in 1995.
It’s a classic straw man argument, one that opposes something as if it were dominant when in fact it hasn’t been for almost two decades.
This isn’t to say that there haven’t been occasional revisionist exceptions since JLA. Mark Millar‘s work tends to be a very slick version of revisionism, modified to fit the current demand for glitzy entertainment. Material like Wanted, The Ultimates, Civil War, and Superior is entirely within the revisionist mode. Yet the same people who complain about dark realism often embrace Millar’s work without seeing any contradiction. You can’t really complain about how realism has no place in super-hero stories and then praise The Ultimates.
Warren Ellis’s super-hero work, especially his work at Avatar, is equally revisionist. And there are occasional more mainstream examples, like Identity Crisis. But these are very much the exceptions, rather than the rule.
What’s come to dominate, instead, is a further evolution of reconstructionism. Keep in mind that revisionism, as embodied by brilliant works like Watchmen, Miracleman, and The Dark Knight Returns, filtered down into monthly super-hero comics in a way that perverted the original intent. Instead of taking the literary sophistication and realism of Watchmen, a lot of these comics just copied the violence of Rorschach. The violence of early Image Comics didn’t help, and pretty soon even the saccharine Superman titles were dripping with blood. In the same way, reconstructionism has filtered down into monthly super-hero titles, becoming a perversion of itself.
And so we’ve gotten the return of a Kryptonian Supergirl, the return of Krypto, the return and retroactive redemption of Hal Jordan, the return of the DC multiverse and of Earth-2, and even the return of Barry Allen. Hell, at the end of Blackest Night we got what felt like the return of everybody. With the 2011 DC relaunch, we even got Barbara Gordon back as Batgirl and the undoing of Superman’s marriage. All of this has been predicated on the assumption that the innocent Silver Age represents the truest and purest forms of these characters, a kind of State of Grace which must be returned to, after every dramatic status quo-changing storyline has run its course. Effectively, the entire history of revisionism has been wiped clean. It’s as if everything from Crisis on Infinite Earths onward that tried to inject realism and lasting change — including those post-JLA revisionist exceptions like Identity Crisis — has been systematically wiped from history and invalidated.
While the above examples all come from DC, the same is true at Marvel. These days, it’s as if Civil War and its permanent shake-ups to the status quo never happened. Spider-Man’s marriage has been undone. And the X-Men might go through endless permutations, but Professor X will never stay dead for long. Hell, even Jean Grey refuses to stay dead for long, nor even remain corrupted. Scott Summers and Emma Frost will never be allowed to mature and move forward as a couple, because the State of Grace must always be returned to.
Revisionism opposed the concept of the State of Grace as something hostile to literary values and good stories. Revisionism embraced lasting change, whether it was replacing Flash, making Green Lantern a villain, marrying Superman, or letting characters like the Legion of Super-Heroes grow up. All of that’s long gone now.
Perhaps readers are confused by the fact that these monthly super-hero adventures are filled with violence. Perhaps super-hero readers are so ignorant of their own history that they only see “darkness” or “light,” and they label the former revisionism. But revisionism was never about darkness for its own sake. Its violence was an outgrowth of its concern for realism, a recognition that vigilantes like Batman and Rorschach were not psychologically well and that a world with all-powerful villains would see whole cities devastated. Violence by itself does not revisionism make.
But violence sells. Even the brightest, reconstructionist work requires conflict. It’s easy to generate conflict through exterior threats, like super-villain menaces. And it’s easy to dramatize these threats through violent displays, which kill off minor characters or even whole nations but which don’t really change the status quo.
Just because a story does this doesn’t mean it’s revisionist. Watchmen might have obliterated New York City, but its real conflict was almost entirely internal, as characters struggled with themselves and their own personal histories. Springing Rorschach from prison is a lot less memorable than the effect he has on his psychologist. And while everyone remembers the violence of Alan Moore’s Miracleman climax, what followed was a total restructuring of global society from the top down — a change to the status quo at least as dramatic as the orgiastic violence that preceded it.
There are no simple moral rights and wrongs in Watchmen or Miracleman or Identity Crisis. Because the real world isn’t black and white. Stories defined by black-and-white morality are usually (and correctly) understood as escapism, and revisionism wanted to elevate the super-hero from simple escapism and wish fulfillment and into the realm of real literature.
What the best reconstructionist works showed is that super-heroes could be fun and unrealistic while still being real and meaningful literature. Marvels, Astro City, Supreme, JLA, Planetary, and The Authority — all of these were bright and unrealistic works that still demonstrated sometimes titanic literary merit, as well as asking meaningful questions. They were about something, rather than being the simple escapism that had generally preceded revisionism. And in this, these works demonstrated that intelligence and literary merit weren’t the unique purview of revisionism. Super-heroes didn’t have to be realistic to be meaningful or have value.
Just as revisionism got dumbed down as it filtered into super-hero comics more generally, so too has reconstructionism. The very idea that a super-hero story might have intelligence and literary merit now seems shockingly old-fashioned. In fact, “escapism” isn’t even a bad word anymore. Even reconstructionism used to understand that, while fun escapism might well be its own reward, a story needed more than this.
Now, the idea that a super-hero story would deliver anything more than mindless entertainment feels antiquated — and in some circles, elitist. It’s an idea to which a lot of readers are shockingly hostile. It’s no longer considered a requite of any good story, whatever its genre or tone, as good reconstructionist works have always known. Instead, the idea of even trying to do more than providing escapist entertainment is now somehow tied to revisionism. Which, within super-hero circles, has generally been rejected violently for going on 20 years.
So this is what reconstructionism has become. In the same way that revisionism deteriorated into gratuitous darkness and violence, reconstructionism has deteriorated into glossy escapism. (I’ve sometimes termed this diminution of reconstructionism “regressivism,” especially given its regression to the State of Grace.) It so happens that, because violence is entertaining, a lot of this escapism has an awful lot of glossy violence. But don’t let that confuse you. It’s not revisionism, nor is its violence even a watered-down revisionist violence. You can tell because it’s glossy, because it’s not about a character being twisted by circumstance, nor a vehicle for interrogating issues such as morality or the role of the individual amid the specter of global thermonuclear war. Even the stupid revisionist violence at least paid lip service to such functions, or understood it was important to gesture in this direction. Even the Punisher’s most brutal actions were justified, from a narrative standpoint, by saying he’d been traumatized by Vietnam. The new, glossy violence serves no function other than to entertain — and perhaps to underline the fact that the villain committing this violence is really really bad and therefore, by contrast, the hero can seem really really good through no action other than opposing this manifest evil.
Such superficial violence isn’t realistic, and it’s certainly not revisionism. It’s in fact exactly what you say you want, when you say super-heroes should be fun and entertain. That’s what this reconstructionist violence exists to do. It certainly doesn’t exist to ask questions, or dramatize what would happen if super-heroes were real. There are no real psychologies involved, because that would be realistic, and realism was part of that terrible thing called revisionism, which is the enemy to an awful lot of super-hero fans these days.
This is a tension within reconstructionism that goes back at least to Kingdom Come. That work embraced the then-new reconstructionist mode, but it was filled with copious amounts of devastating — and beautifully rendered — violence. The primary function of which was simply to say super-heroes shouldn’t do this, all the while entertaining us with what we’re being told is wrong to include in super-hero stories. (And you’ll note that the much less violent sequel, The Kingdom, didn’t do nearly so well.)
Yet it’s somehow become part of the current reconstructionist narrative that revisionism and darkness and realism are barbarians at the gates and still a very real threat to our escapist pleasures. In this way, reconstructionism has descended into a sort of perpetual revolution, ever guarding against some capitalist threat that was all but banished now 15 years before. And so I hear these complaints, as if super-heroes have been oh so very dark and so terribly, terribly serious lo these last two decades.
In fact, what’s far more dominant than any attempt to use super-heroes to say anything, or to live in a realistic world with realistic psyches, is the idea that it’s not simply realism that’s the enemy. It’s the basic rudiments of logic and story.
And so it’s now common for super-hero fans to condemn even the notion that their stories should make sense. When someone points out a plot hole, instead of acknowledging it but defending the story as a whole, super-hero fans now routinely point out that these stories are fantasies, in which logic and even internal consistency need not apply. In other words, these stories are escapism and nothing but, and if buildings blow up the only question that need be asked is whether it was entertaining, not whether it makes sense on any level. Nothing matters other than whether a sequence is sufficiently “kick-ass!”
A lot can be said about such a situation. For example, one could point out that this is a profoundly anti-intellectual business. One could also point out that no super-hero fan has a right to expect that genre to be taken seriously, when it’s so glaringly hostile to good storytelling. That was something the revisionists sought to correct, in elevating super-heroes beyond escapism into the realm of real literature. You can be hostile to intelligence in fiction if you want, but you don’t also get to demand a seat at the adults’ table.
The one thing that can’t be said about the current situation of super-hero fiction is that it’s in a state defined by realism, darkness, seriousness, or elite literary values. In fact, it’s become rather hostile to those things — things which, in 2013, have become revolutionary.
Now, some would say that these overall trends vary by character. The current consensus is that Batman ought to be depicted in a dark and more-or-less realistic fashion, while Superman should not. But this is simply a generalization about the tone of most of the successful stories starring each character. There’s nothing wrong with a campy Batman. And there’s nothing wrong with a realistic Superman. Yes, All Star Superman is a reconstructionist masterpiece. But Red Son is a revisionist one. Alan Moore’s Supreme is great, but so is his Miracleman. To say that Superman can only be used in one type of story is insulting to the character, but it’s also ignorant of this history, in which Superman has been successfully adapted into very different kinds of narratives.
Others might say that, while revisionism has admittedly been on the outs in super-hero comics since the mid-1990s, super-hero movies are quite a different matter. But that’s not true either. Recent super-hero movies have overwhelmingly been as escapist as their comic-book counterparts.
The Marvel movies are a perfect example. There’s little deeper than the thinnest veneer of entertainment on offer in Thor or Captain America: The First Avenger. One of the reasons I enjoyed Iron Man 3 was because it didn’t completely betray all the issues it evoked, such as the problematic relationship between corporate weapons manufacturers and the state, the moment they got in the way of glitzy super-hero fight scenes. That’s become a very odd thing, in super-hero movies, which are as hostile to realism as their comic-book counterparts.
Of course, everyone points to Nolan’s three Batman films. The darkness and realism of these films is often greatly exaggerated, partly due to how the movies themselves communicate their own tough tone. But their Batman doesn’t kill, and they very rarely show violence on screen. The final film gives Batman a rather unwarranted happy ending and the city unveiling a bronze statue in a violent and criminal vigilante’s honor — hardly dark, realistic, or revisionist touches. And despite all the movies’ bluster, they’re only about as realistic as non-campy James Bond films. So there’s no Killer Croc, but there’s plenty of high-tech gadgets, some of which threaten whole cities and almost none of which make all that much logical sense.
But the Nolan films are also the exception, not the standard. They’re the work of a single director, and they’re far outnumbered by the Marvel movies alone. Who exactly is copying the Nolan films’ dark tone? Even the two most prominent DC super-hero movies released during the Nolan series didn’t do so. Neither Superman Returns nor Green Lantern was particularly dark.
And while the latter two Nolan Batman films were incredibly successful, they were beaten by Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, which was anything but dark or realistic. That film did an excellent job in its mode. But you can’t pretend that somehow dark realism is the dominant tone of super-hero movies.
To complain about how super-hero movies are too dark or realistic is as wrong as complaining about super-hero comics being that way. In some ways, it’s worse. Because super-hero movies still haven’t found their Watchmen — a revisionist masterpiece featuring super-powered characters (unlike Nolan’s Batman films, which don’t feature super-powers). If complaining about dark, revisionist super-hero comics pretends it’s still 1995 and is still railing against something that hasn’t been the norm for most of two decades, complaining about dark, revisionist super-hero movies is even more paranoid and out of touch with reality. Because those movies never got their revisionist heyday. Such complaints are really ideological, aimed at making sure super-hero movies never do. So hated is revisionism, realism, or even narrative intelligence that it now must be banished even from where it’s never been.
That’s been part of Zack Snyder’s point, in adapting Watchmen and in making The Man of Steel. The recent release of the latter has sparked virulent protests from many fans, complaining about the movie’s bleak realism, as if super-hero movies have ever had any of that to begin with.
There are indeed many faults in The Man of Steel, and I can respect that some people (including the venerable Mark Waid and Sequart’s own Mike Greear) don’t like the film. I can even respect that many don’t prefer their Superman to be realistic, in the same way that I can respect those who simply prefer Batman either realistic or campy. That’s a personal preference, with which it’s hard to argue.
Of course, viewers got their happy Superman. It was called Superman Returns. It was beautiful, it was heartwarming, and it is roundly derided. You can complain that it owed too much to the earlier movies, although that was a form of paying homage to the happy Superman some fans are now calling for. And you can complain that that movie did dare to forge new territory by making Superman confront his mistakes in the context of parenthood, although given how mild this subject matter was, this complaint really comes down objecting to a super-hero movie making anyone think or having anything to say whatsoever.
A lot of criticism of The Man of Steel has focused on the climax, in which Superman kills Zod, as if it’s some sort of dark perversion of Superman or of the super-hero more generally. But Superman’s killed Zod before in the comics. And while I understand wishing Superman in particular should remain pure, it’s not hard to see a rejection of realism more generally.
Real heroism doesn’t mean writers rigging the deck in order to avoid tough moral choices. It means negotiating reality, in all of its moral complexity.
Most of those making such complaints about Superman killing are Americans, and Americans live in a nation that’s busy killing people with drone aircraft based on nothing more than that the victims fit the profile of someone who might be involved in terrorism. If polls are to be believed, the vast majority of Americans support this policy, and others like it, as a necessary response to the practical difficulties of confronting the threat of international terrorism.
It’s not my point here to take any stance on this political subject, which is beyond this essay’s scope. But there’s something profoundly perverse, while this is going on, about Americans objecting to Superman being forced to take the life of an immensely powerful villain who’s practicing terrorism on a scale unimaginable in the real world.
Why, that’s tantamount to saying that yes, the real world might be filled with death and terrible choices, but we read and watch super-heroes to escape this. To be entertained. To be shown a fantasy world in which no such terrible choices need be made. A world in which there are good guys and bad guys. A world we inevitably would leave, identifying with the good guys and gabbing with our friends about how inspiring these heroes are, without ever having to, well, be inspired to address anything difficult, much less how we ourselves could be the good guys while far worse than what we’ve been shown is being done in our name.
That’s insulting to the super-hero genre, which can be used to tell lots of different stories — meaningful and beautiful stories that can change our lives as much as stories in any other genre. I don’t think anyone would say they expect detective stories to be nothing but escapist entertainment. Even action movies, while they’re expected to deliver an adrenaline rush in the same way comedies are expected to deliver laughs, are praised for addressing social themes in intelligent, sophisticated, and coherent ways.
And those who know anything about the super-hero genre know that its best works have always done the same. While that’s especially true of Watchmen and other revisionist classics, that’s also true of the best of the fun, reconstructionist super-hero stories.
But when we’re busy killing people en masse, in the name of patriotism and national security and Freedom, in real life, and we can’t tolerate a single justifiable homicide in someone we consider to be a great fictional hero, there just might be something deeply wrong culturally.
There’s nothing wrong with escapism per se. But there are times when escapism is part of the problem. When the gap between reality and our fictions is so great that it strains the conscience.
Maybe the last thing we need to be doing in such circumstances, either as thinking human beings or as citizens, is to bury our heads in such brightly colored sand.