After my movie ALGORITHM went viral, I reached out to Lexi Alexander. I heard about her on Twitter as someone worthy of respect. She got in touch with me and we had dinner one night. I agree. Lexi’s got a ton of respect from me. She’s a fighter, both physically and for justice. She introduced me to some really amazing people and I hope my friendship with her and the other fighters I’ve met as a result, I hope that friendship lasts a long long time.
After my dinner with Lexi, I watched her movie Punisher: War Zone. I told her I was glad I had dinner with her first because I would have been really intimidated by her if I’d seen it earlier. The conversation we had that night has determined a lot of the direction of my current project Intelligent Design.
But all that’s really just preface.
Punisher: War Zone didn’t do well at the box office. Up until a few minutes ago I didn’t know why. The movie is one of the best Marvel movies released to-date and should have done amazingly well. Many argue its poor performance was because it was rated R, but Deadpool is also rated R and it just broke weekend records with a release weekend north of $200M globally.
The reason Punisher: War Zone didn’t do well and Deadpool did has nothing to do with quality or rating. I realized the reason when I was thinking about Superman and how the past several versions of that hero haven’t done well either.
And, it’s why the recent Dark Knight trilogy movies did do so well.
It’s about a zeitgeist, a general feeling or ethos in a global society. You see, art is defined by three factors:
1. Talent, which you can’t learn;
2. Skill, which you can learn;
3. A dialogue with culture.
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As I mentioned above, Superman’s and Punisher’s lack of spectacular success has nothing to do with skill or talent. Instead, it’s that last part, the dialogue with culture. Punisher was released in 2008, just before the global economic catastrophe.
People were feeling pretty good. The 9/11 attacks were fading slowly from memory and the horrors of war were fading too. Obama had just been elected and his entire campaign was based on a single slogan: hope.
Lexi’s Punisher is a dark world and a darker hero who is essentially a sociopathic killer, except he only kills bad people. He was not the hero people wanted. They didn’t want to dwell in a world where everything is darkness, especially when they were hopeful about all their real estate investments.
Superman, by contrast, is the hero for the extremely optimistic in a time where there are clear divides between good and evil. Superman came out in 1933, in the midst of the great depression. He wasn’t rich. In fact, he was the step-son of a farmer, the very kind of person suffering most during the depression.
Shortly after the depression hammered the U.S., Hitler rose to power and made the good/evil distinction all the clearer, which only increased as the degree of Nazi atrocities revealed themselves. Superman was the perfect hero for that time.
* * *
Now, we don’t have that clear distinction between good and evil. It’s hard for all of us to side with the U.S. and it’s constant trumpeting of how evil terrorism is. We don’t trust our politicians because we know they’re all corrupted by the rich elite. We know our food is poisoned by the very people who grow it. We can’t invest in the stock market because either we don’t make enough, or if we do, it’s become rather erratic of late. Higher education is rapidly becoming something only the rich can afford, or for which the poor must hawk their futures.
In that kind of world the kind of superhero isn’t one of realism, but of total fantasy. The hero of today must seem to be in our world, but in a way that is totally impossible. A movie about those kinds of heroes must be relatable as people, but otherwise the movie must be totally about escapism in the worst possible way.
That story doesn’t relate to us, saying we have to fight injustice, like Batman, or strive for our best selves, like Superman, or give into the raging insanity and fight to the death with the immediate evil all around us, like Punisher. That lets us forget about our debts, and the political lies, and the grind of daily work that seems to produce no long-term fruit. It’s escape. That kind of story gives us the breathing time we need so we can go back to that seemingly hopeless life we live with no possibility of change.
That’s where the current Marvel Cinematic Universe meets us.
* * *
Deadpool’s success last weekend isn’t a sign of change, but a deepening of the depression crushing the current zeitgeist. Deadpool lives in the same universe as the rest of the MCU characters, but instead of being morbid, he’s cynical, joking about everything, saying it’s okay to give up hope and just laugh as we walk down this road to hell, lightingmile-markers on fire because it’s fun. Because, what difference does it make?
The kind of superhero we like says more about us than it does about the superhero, which is what all good art does. It’s a dialogue with culture, a mirror, showing us ourselves and saying, “Look. This is where you are. Is it where you want to be?”