Alan Moore is Wrong About Superhero Movies
Let’s retread a debate.
Disclaimer: I am not a scientist. My brain is dumb. I have a very rudimentary knowledge of certain sciences such as neurocinema. Mostly I just want to talk about Alan Moore and pretend to be smart while doing so.
Alan Moore recently gave an interview to Deadline. He was asked about his opinion on comics and superhero movies. Because he’s Moore and doesn’t care what he says, he didn’t shy away from the subject. This is apparently a big deal because headlines about this interview keep popping up wherever I go. They almost always include this quote:
[Superhero movies] have blighted cinema, and also blighted culture to a degree.
One can understand why this would be a perfect choice for a headline. I reference it myself in my own. And now I will include his response in its entirety, just so we don’t miss any context.
I had been doing comics for 40-something years when I finally retired. When I entered the comics industry, the big attraction was that this was a medium that was vulgar, it had been created to entertain working class people, particularly children. The way that the industry has changed, it’s ‘graphic novels’ now, it’s entirely priced for an audience of middle class people. I have nothing against middle class people but it wasn’t meant to be a medium for middle aged hobbyists. It was meant to be a medium for people who haven’t got much money.
Most people equate comics with superhero movies now. That adds another layer of difficulty for me. I haven’t seen a superhero movie since the first Tim Burton Batman film. They have blighted cinema, and also blighted culture to a degree. Several years ago I said I thought it was a really worrying sign, that hundreds of thousands of adults were queuing up to see characters that were created 50 years ago to entertain 12-year-old boys. That seemed to speak to some kind of longing to escape from the complexities of the modern world, and go back to a nostalgic, remembered childhood. That seemed dangerous, it was infantilizing the population.
This may be entirely coincidence but in 2016 when the American people elected a National Socialist satsuma and the UK voted to leave the European Union, six of the top 12 highest grossing films were superhero movies. Not to say that one causes the other but I think they’re both symptoms of the same thing – a denial of reality and an urge for simplistic and sensational solutions.
So let’s summarize. Superhero movies are escapism. Adults are being infantilized and crave an easy solution to the modern world. Their success stems from the same fundamental problem that helped Brexit and Trump. Comics were never meant for the middle class, they were meant for poor people.
I’m less interested in his views on who comics were meant for because this is a movie website, ultimately. I understand what he’s trying to say–whether correct or not is up to you–because he has long been associated with anarchism. What I want to tackle is the rest of it.
Is he wrong?
I Go Down a Rabbit Hole (Thanks Alan Moore)
Listen, you don’t have to sell me on the appeal of superhero movies. I’ve rated a few of them 10/10 and haven’t given an MCU movie a rating lower than 8 in years. You released ten of them a year and I will see every single one. And while I didn’t love all of the movies that were part of the defunct DCEU, I loved a few of them. I have written about my love of Batfleck. I will defend Batman v Superman until the day I die and still think The Dark Knight is one of the finest flicks ever conceived.
But here’s the thing: if you believe that superhero movies can infantilize us then we’ve already been infantilized by the rest of our culture. If you operate under the framework that movies have that kind of power then you must also accept that other forms of entertainment/art–sports, painting, literature, video games and so on–also have that power.
I’m aware that Moore was asked specifically about superhero movies but my point remains. Let’s use sports as an example. I’m a Canadian so hockey is in my DNA. Propagandhi–who I mention because they are an anarchist thrash-punk band and that seems fitting in an Alan Moore article–described hockey as being “in the end a kids game” in their excellent song “Dear Coach’s Corner.”
This can be applied to all sports. What are most of them but people hitting/throwing/playing with balls? Who would ever think to take such a simple act and make it into something enjoyable? Kids. That’s what playing is. Kids play sports. And that’s fine. Great, even. I miss seeing road hockey everywhere I go.
Like sports, movies are a language. They are cultural, they are important. They drive movements and make people connect. They’re a source for entertainment but also a source of meaning. You can find out things about yourself while watching movies.
They are also for kids because they appeal to base instincts and interests within all of us. Many of these are established early on, even if as we grow we may find different elements of storytelling more integral than others.
It seems more likely to me that it’s less about superhero movies infantilizing us and more about the market dictating what’s popular. If superhero movies didn’t break the bank they would eventually stop being made. You could make the claim that it is because people are trying to reclaim nostalgia but we do that in all walks of life.
There’s a reason that archetypes have persevered throughout the ages; because they work. There’s something innate in us that can be tapped into. We’ve always had the same types of heroes and villains in our stories. Them wearing costumes doesn’t change that.
To think that something like superhero movies can be held accountable for something much larger is simplistic. Even if it’s part of the equation it would be a relatively small percentage. I don’t actually think Moore believes that superhero movies are exclusively the problem, but it’s still a point worth noting. We can’t lay the infantilization of society (if it exists) at the feet of Captain America. Maybe Ant-Man, but not Cap. I’m joking, I love Paul Rudd.
This Is a Little Sarcastic, if I’m Being Honest
If you go through the IMDB Top 250 you will see a lot of serious, adult orientated films. Many of those can be deemed classics, and you would be wise–if getting into films–to seek out these. While plenty of them have made a lot of money, not all of them have, so it shows us that box office does not necessarily equate to quality.
Below is a .gif (that I made, huzzah) of the 100 highest-grossing movies according to Box Office Mojo, adjusted for inflation. I took the liberty in labelling which ones could be considered kid friendly. It’s not scientific, it’s partially for a laugh, and I may have messed up on a few. I used Common Sense Media for some. I also took what Alan Moore said and applied it to the movies. This was done because he talked about how superhero movies infantilize us, but Iron Man is suitable for ages 13+ according to Common Sense Media. I didn’t use the word “kids” literally, so I also mean teens. Those damn kids.
So now you might be wondering why I’d waste my time? What point am I attempting to make? I’m just singling out that kids movies have existed forever and they make money. These movies adhere to the same archetypes that superhero movies do. They have the same stories, just told in a variety of ways. From action to comedy to drama to horror, all across the board we see reiterations of the same tales. Would you say that the popularity of E.T. infantilizes adults? No, of course not.
His opinions just reek of elitism to me, which is not abnormal for him. And I say that with love because he has been behind some of the finest comic book runs in history. Some of his bibliography has been translated successfully to movies. I respect the guy immensely, but his criticisms of superhero movies are needlessly harsh.
He admits to not seeing them so that makes sense. If he had seen some, with an open mind, he might have noticed how a bunch of them strive for more than just being exciting. Black Panther, Joker, The Dark Knight trilogy, Batman v Superman, Man of Steel (Zack Snyder in general), Avengers: Infinity War (and Endgame), Captain Marvel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier; all of these are examples of superhero flicks that go for it. You can love or hate these, but it’s undeniable that they’re either going for some sort of social commentary or are subverting the formula, such as in Infinity War.
He argues in that interview that once comic books got serious they became lesser. He resents having written The Killing Joke and thinks that Adam West’s Batman is the most accurate representation. I don’t agree with his views but there’s still a level of consistency present.
Are They Escapism, or Is Something Bigger at Play?
Finally, I need to talk about escapism. He mentions that people are attempting to escape reality. I know a lot of people who prefer to watch movies that allow them to flee the problems of their lives. There’s nothing offensive in wanting to relax and indulge in some form of entertainment. Life is stressful, we need to unwind.
But is it really escapism?
In a sense, yes. You can turn on Captain America: Civil War and watch modern gods battle each other. As far as I can tell, we have no other ways of experiencing that, nor would we want to in real life because that’s frightening. So in that regard, yeah, wanting to witness something not of this world is entirely understandable. You don’t have to fear Thanos.
But Thanos exists.
He’s an intelligent but off his rocker villain with a singular goal. He’s just not embodied but a big purple dude in real life. You can probably think of someone that you would consider evil right now. If not, you may just fear someone evil emerging from the darkness. He may not want to cause genocide and balance out the world, but he (or she) may have some ideas that you feel are nefarious. Like Thanos, there might be an internal logic in this person’s beliefs that makes some kind of sense.
I mention this because of neurocinema (there it is!). It’s a relatively recent branch of neuroscience that has gained prominence since the early 2000s. It has technically been present in a baby form for decades. Before it was a science it was an idea.
Since then we’ve created fMRIs. I’m not brainy enough to explain all of it so I won’t even try: I’ll simply state that they have given scientists a way to study brains. This has been adapted for use in the study of cinema.
Some studies have suggested that our brain activity can synchronize with other viewers to fairly large percentages under certain circumstances. A study used a Hitchcock film and it correlated to quite a high percentage. Hitchcock was known for being very deliberate in how he manipulated audiences.
Other forms of visual entertainment, such as more open-ended videos, yield different results. They correlate to a lower percentage of brain activity synchronization. It appears, as of right now, that something tightly edited and presented can sway us more than something that has a message that’s up for interpretation. A coherent structure has a larger success rate.
Some studies have suggested that being a passive viewer may not be as achievable as we once thought. Because certain areas of the brain that we use when confronted with threats or other issues activate when watching movies as well, it is at least worth considering that maybe movies can’t ever be entirely a form of escapism.
Of course, one study can’t prove a theory. Multiple studies make it more possible because they’ve been replicated. Science evolves so it can’t be sat on. I’m also not an expert so take everything I say with a grain of salt. There are limitations to fMRIs, caveats to the studies, but I still find them interesting.
This is all important because when Alan Moore states that people are trying to leave the real world and retreat to something easier to manage, that may not be the case. A sizable portion of population may think they are doing that, but in my eyes it’s conceivable that they flock to the newest superpowered blockbuster because it reflects how we feel and the stories we love.
Instead of escaping, maybe it’s the opposite. It may be a way for viewers to regain some semblance of control of their own lives, albeit in an indirect way. No, Guardians of the Galaxy won’t fill the void in your soul, otherwise I would have filled mine at least three times. But for a brief moment it may empower you. It may give you the satisfaction you crave to make it through another day. That will, in turn, give you another chance to achieve your goals. A dislike of superhero movies does not mean that the populace has been dumbed down.
This article is not meant to be a takedown of him. I mean, he’s more famous than I’ll ever be so that would be a silly thing to attempt anyway. In reading his interview I was flooded with some thoughts, so I refreshed my memory on what I knew about neurocinema and then I regurgitated out this article. My hope is that even if you disagree that you found something enticing about it.
Let me know in the comments below what you think about Alan Moore and his comments. Are superhero flicks a blight on cinema and culture, or is he ignoring key components to the argument? Perhaps it’s a complicated mash-up of different opinions and elements. Or maybe it doesn’t matter because the movies are ridiculously fun.
So I guess, in closing, all I’ve been trying to say this entire time is: tag Doctor Doom into the MCU, baby!
Alan Moore doesn’t give sufficient credit to this guy.