A Superhuman History of Violence

Since the earliest records of history, humans have loved a good edge-of-your-seat violent action spectacle. The Romans had their gladiatorial games, 16th century Parisians had their infamous “cat burnings” or simply threw animals into fighting pits for entertainment, and war has inarguably been an honored part of human culture for centuries. However, this trend seems to be dying as our society becomes more empathetic and our persuasion towards violence becomes one of disapproval rather than glorification. So what has taken the place of sating our up-until-recently blatant blood-lust? The surprising answer appears to be multimillion-dollar superhero blockbusters.

The turn of the century was evidently the perfect time for comic book heroes to finally take over the big screen. Since then, superhero movies have displayed considerable endurance and prevalence in the film industry, perhaps more so than any genre to come before them, with more than a dozen top grossing box office hits under their utility belts. In fact, superheroes have thrilled the world since National Allied Publications was founded in 1934 and Timely Comics followed in 1939 — both now known as DC Comics and Marvel Comics respectively — and have continued to see popularity since, but their transition to the screen both in theaters and at home has been a rocky one to say the least; well, until recently.

You might be thinking, “Isn’t it possible this success is simply a result of the complex subject matter speaking to the audience in a profound way?” It’s possible, my well spoken friend, but if you look at the primary subject matter in each of these superhero movies you will find that they offer very little in common.

It can certainly be argued that Bryan Singer’s revolutionary X-Men film in 2000 opened the door for the flood of silver-screen comic book adaptations that followed. However the X-Men have always stood as a not-so-subtle metaphor for various Civil Rights movements, most recently the LGBT rights movements. This theme is strongest in Singer’s much loved sequel, X2, in which one mutant’s parent (upon his “coming out”) poses the desperate question, “Have you tried… not to be a mutant?” Soon after the success of X-Men came Sam Raimi’s modern interpretation of Spider-Man in 2002, and while the wall crawler remains a symbol for kind-hearted justice, his story is a rather obvious allegory for puberty, complete with Uncle Ben’s ever quoted line, “With great power comes great responsibility,” a representation of the influx of new powers and abilities we have as adults and our responsibility to use them for good.

Following these movies were Christopher Nolan’s refreshing (and much needed) reboot of the Caped Crusader, Batman Begins, and his Marvel counterpart Iron Man. Two fairly interchangeable heroes who operate as a one-man judge, jury, and executioner — or imprisoner in the case of Batman. These heroes have no problem violating the privacy of the everyman to protect us from the villains among us, and in fact do so on a regular basis. In the end, the lesson these two teach is that we cannot be trusted with our own freedom. Lastly we come to one of America’s newest — and incidentally oldest — favorites, Captain America. The First Avenger fights Nazis, oppressive new world orders, and in his latest movie, his/our own government. Upon the discovery of their schemes to remove personal privacy and freedoms in a revolutionary threat-prevention system, Cap poses the challenge to his superiors, “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.” The rest of the movie sees Captain America risking life, limb, and reputation fighting to ensure that the citizens of the world retain the freedom to choose their own fate.

This is why I find it hard to believe any one person can love all of these movies on the reasoning that the subject matter appeals to them. On the rare occasion that the underlying lessons do connect, they do so seemingly only to contradict one another.

In spite of this, superhero films today rake in billions of dollars at the box office, attracting millions of audience members, most of whom will find as much enjoyment in the latest addition to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series as they will when viewing Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I would argue that this is because humans have a deeply embedded violence fetish. Recently, although it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when, society decided it is no longer acceptable to glorify and exploit the violent acts of simple men. This could have presented a problem, because as Livescience’s Jeanna Bryner points out in her article “Humans Crave Violence Just Like Sex,” the brain draws a distinct feeling of reward from actions and observations of violence. The study Bryner’s article concerns discovered that, “… the same clusters of brain cells involved in other rewards are also behind the craving for violence.” With the end of the study seeing this statement from study member Craig Kennedy: “We learned from these experiments that an individual will intentionally seek out an aggressive encounter solely because they experience a rewarding sensation from it.”

So how do you make your escape into a violent world when the world around you no longer accepts violence at the ordinary human level? This brings us to one of the many great things about superhero movies, which is that they provide their own sense of justification for the violence they deliver. We can eat popcorn through our eerily enthusiastic grins as our wide eyes take in the combined force of the Avengers and a massive army of aliens leveling Manhattan, and still feel superb at the end of the movie. It’s okay for Christian Bale to use his unfathomable funds to dress as a bat and beat the pulp out of an army of thugs because we can rest assured that he is doing it for all the right reasons; because his sense of justice is absolute.

In the end, humans have made the semi-subconscious discovery that the same trust we have always placed in superheroes, as impartial leaders with only our best interests at heart, now allows our consciences to shrug off the considerable body counts that pile up around them. While our society has evolved into one far more empathetic and accepting than that of our barbaric ancestors, we humans have retained our inherent fascination and love of violent spectacles, simply moulding it to fit in with our modern sensibilities. Presently it takes on the guise of the exciting superhero flick, and while it’s okay to tell yourself that you took the kids to see The Avengers because heroes teach valuable lessons, you can also rest easy knowing that it was probably because somewhere you heard there were as many explosions as there were lines of dialogue and it contained a fight scene so big it made Manhattan disappear. So as long as comic book heroes continue to deliver our favorite pastime in an easy to stomach package, I look forward to a long future of cinematic dominance for them still to come.