by James Patrick Kelly
We live in a Golden Age of cinematic superheroes. The skies of our screens, both large and small, are filled with caped crusaders, while supervillains plot world domination in every metropolis. Three of the five biggest blockbusters of 2019 were superhero movies: #1: Avengers Endgame <marvel.com/movies/avengers-endgame>, #4: Spider-Man: Far From Home <sonypictures.com/movies/spidermanfarfromhome>, and #5: Captain Marvel <marvel.com/movies/captain-marvel>. I saw all three; you probably did, too. Although for many this supertrend brings unalloyed joy, there has been dissent, most famously that of cinema legend Martin Scorsese <imdb.com/name/nm0000217>. Commenting in Are Comic-Book Movies Ruining Film? <nytimes.com/2019/12/06/learning/are-comic-book-movies-ruining-film.html>, he stepped into a wasps’ nest when asked about superhero movies:
I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks.
His comments spurred attacks, counterattacks, think pieces, and hand-wringing about the future of movies. Scorsese himself published a subsequent opinion piece, I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain <nytimes.com/2019/11/04/opinion/martin-scorsese-marvel.html> in which he wrote mostly about cinema as an at-risk art form but offered more thoughts about the Marvel Cinematic Universe <marvel.com/movies>. “What’s not there is revelation, mystery, or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk.”
Most of the fallout to his critique was along the lines of Martin Scorsese Is a Great Filmmaker, and Dead Wrong About Marvel <thespool.net/features/martin-scorsese-marvel> and
What Martin Scorsese Gets Right (& Wrong) About Marvel Movies <screenrant.com/martin-scorsese-marvel-movie-criticism-right-wrong>. Supporters and fans were quick to point out the complex issues that these movies have (sometimes) addressed, like racism, sexism, colonialism, government corruption, and environmental degradation. They took Scorsese to task for judging that which he has not seen and chided him for not knowing which characters belonged to Marvel and which to DC! They accused him of general snobbery about wide screen adventure and argued that the emotions in a superhero movie can be as big as the explosions. They pointed to the many superhero masterpieces like Black Panther <marvel.com/movies/black-panther>, The Dark Knight <warnerbros.com/movies/dark-knight>, and . . . um . . . well, maybe Logan <20thcenturystudios.com/movies/logan> . . . wait, give me a minute here . . . did I mention Black Panther?
When I was a kid, I read DC <dccomics.com> and Marvel <marvel.com/comics> comics voraciously. My favorite characters weren’t always headliners: The Flash, Green Lantern, and Adam Strange from DC and the Human Torch and the X-Men from Marvel. And I loved reruns of the 1950s Superman television series <supermanhomepage.com/tv/tv.php?topic=cast-crew/george-reeves> with George Reeves. But I have to say that over time my interest in superheroes waned as my infatuation with science fiction grew. Later, while I appreciated 1978’s Superman: The Movie <superman.fandom.com/wiki/Superman:_The_Movie>, which I consider the first true superhero movie (fight me), I watched with a critical eye and found parts wanting in ways that were important to me as an SF writer. Some might caution that I shouldn’t judge it as science fiction because it’s a superhero movie. Different intentions, different narrative protocols—and difference standards of excellence. But if that’s so, then we are nearer to understanding Scorsese’s critique.
For instance, here’s a question: Batman or Superman? If you’re a science fiction writer, the answer is clear. Because we can imagine tricking out a superb athlete with an array of augments and crime-fighting gadgets, Batman passes the possibility test. But Superman? Consult the many websites devoted to the science of the Man of Steel like this one <scienceworld.ca/stories/science-superman> or this <time.com/4271903/science-of-superman-batman-v-superman> and you will find very smart people scrambling desperately to explain his heat vision, freeze breath, ability to fly, and invulnerability—and failing utterly. And let’s not even mention the Kryptonite problem! A product of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Superman shares cultural DNA with the pulp SF stories of the same era, using the veneer of superscience—more like rubber science!—to rationalize fantastic adventure tales. While SF moved on, or at least has tried to, the superhero genre never did.
In fact, the creators of these tales let their imaginations run gleefully wild as they breached the ramparts of plausibility. Peruse the MCU’s List of Powers and Abilities <marvelcinematicuniverse.fandom.com/wiki/List_of_Powers_and_Abilities> and you’ll find not only the standard list of science-busting supergifts, but also exotic powers like petrification, fire breath, density manipulation, and evil sense. And once superhero writers allow their characters to sense evil, it is a very small step to embrace magical powers <comicbasics.com/superheroes-who-use-magic>. And so they eagerly have.
As their superpowers proliferated, the conflict between the heroes and their antagonists became more problematical. While early on it made sense for Batman to chase down the local bank robbers and crime lords, Superman and his formidable progeny were vastly overqualified for that kind of law enforcement. For the adventures to be interesting, there needed to be a balance between the abilities of superheroes and the baddies, since blocking punches and dodging bullets was way too easy for most caped crime fighters. The antagonists needed powers of their own, weapons that could pose a challenge. Superheroes needed supervillains <comicvine.gamespot.com/profile/arrowfan237/lists/top-100-supervillains-according-to-ign/14055> to carry the fight to them as they sought to forward their insidious plans <cbr.com/supervillain-schemes-worse-than-infinity-war>. Plots in the superhero genre often relied on a continual raising of stakes in the conflict between protagonist and antagonist, so there evolved not only a superpowers arms race, but also escalating threats of mortal danger. First just one person’s life might be at risk, then maybe a family, a school bus filled with frightened kids, a town, a city, a country, the very planet itself. And even that might not be enough; going for broke is the default supervillain move. The threat might easily turn astronomical! The universe today, the multiverse tomorrow, reality itself, torn asunder! Preventing such a calamity would often result in a signature climax, where hero and villain went at each other in a brawling spectacle of fists, missiles, thought waves, or energy bursts. Of course, not all superhero tales go so far over the top. There is plenty of room for variation and while these are very common tropes, they don’t necessarily define the superhero genre.
Like other critics of Martin Scorsese’s intemperate remarks, I regret that he tried to stigmatize an entire genre based on cursory knowledge. We who know and write science fiction have suffered that kind of lazy disregard all too often. But while I enjoy well-crafted superhero tales, for me they are at best an occasional treat because of all the baggage that has attached to them. Mishandled tropes can easily become cliché and too much spectacle shrinks a story’s characters to action figures. We have all suffered through more than a few empty or self-parodying examples of the genre.
It’s no surprise that ranking sites keep popping up to document our superhero Golden Age. You want to know The 25 best superhero movies of all time, ranked! <gamesradar.com/best-superhero-movies>? How about The 50 best superhero movies of all time, ranked <businessinsider.com/50-best-superhero-movies-of-all-time-ranked-marvel-dc-and-more-2018-3#50-batman-forever-1995-1>? Wait, Insider’s business page is paying attention to superhero movies? Why not? Avengers Endgame has grossed a cool 2.798 billion dollars to date. Meanwhile Rotten Tomatoes <rottentomatoes.com> weighs in with its pick hits from television with the 100 best superhero TV shows of all time <editorial.rottentomatoes.com/guide/best-superhero-tv-shows-of-all-time>. I’ve long since lost track of the comics world, but here’s what looks like a creditable hall of fame selection for that medium: Ranked: The 100 Greatest Superheroes in the History of Comic Books <comicbasics.com/ranked-the-100-greatest-superheroes-in-the-history-of-comic-books>.
But while superheroes dominate comics and are the current stars of television and the movies, they have yet to conquer print. Maybe fans get their caped crusader fix in those other media. However, it is also the case that the many extravagances of the genre do not translate from screen to page. Fiction works best at human scale and its pleasures can be subtle. There are certainly recommendation sites for great superhero fiction, but the counts tend to run smaller. Not 50 or 100, but 9 Novels for superhero fans <bookriot.com/novels-superhero-fans> or Five must read novels about superheroes <voxmagazine.com/arts/books/five-must-read-novels-about-superheroes/article_fb6f4612-16c8-11e8-b9b4-5f524e177769.html>. A good place to start a reading list is the SF Encyclopedia’s entry on superheroes <sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/superheroes>.
I can personally recommend Carrie Vaughn’s Golden Age series <tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/AfterTheGoldenAge> and the hilarious Soon I Will Be Invincible <sooniwillbeinvincible.fandom.com/wiki/Soon_I_Will_Be_Invincible_Wiki> by Austin Grossman, as well as three short story anthologies, Behind the Mask <newpages.com/book-reviews/behind-the-mask>, edited by Tricia Reeks and Kyle Richardson, Super Stories of Heroes & Villains <sfsite.com/00a/ss406.htm>, edited by Claude Lalumière, and Superheroes <lookingforagoodbook.com/tag/super-heroes>, edited by Rich Horton (full disclosure: I have a piece in this last book).
But by far the most successful superhero fiction series is Wild Cards <wildcardsworld.com>, edited by George R.R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass. This shared universe is the creation of fifty collaborators, many of whom appear frequently in these pages, and includes solo novels, mosaic novels, and anthologies. It describes the aftermath of a deadly virus outbreak that kills many of its victims but give those who survive a mind-bending assortment of superpowers. Since its beginning in 1987, the franchise has produced not only books but audiobooks, comic books, role-playing games, and coming soon, a new TV series on the Peacock streaming service.
As I was writing this column, it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember reading many superhero stories here. So I asked Sheila, who admitted that she didn’t often buy these stories but reminded me that she had published a few, notably “The Mutants Men Don’t See,” by James Alan Gardner, which won our Reader’s Poll in 2017. Was she getting many super submissions? Her reply: “I see loads more than I buy. There has to be something that transcends ‘superherodom’ for the story to work for Asimov’s. . . . Jim’s story is just brilliant. It captures the reasons teenagers yearn to be superheroes, but also has that wonderful twist. . . . Although I recently published a story about an elderly superhero, I’ve rejected a few other tales that had aging superheroes, superheroes in nursing homes, etc. They weren’t bad, but in general they seemed to still be more about the superhero in question than a universal human issue. I only have so much room in my inventory and I think those stories might have just worked better for a different editor. Obviously, the big battle rarely works on the page the way it does on the screen.”
There you go, Asimov’s aspirants: tips from your editor. And maybe it’s time for me to try another superhero story.
Copyright © 2021 James Patrick Kelly