January 16, 2019

Superhero Movies Are Religion for the Nonreligious

“Through the vast complexity of their imagined universes and through their iconic status in mass culture, superhero-comic stories have morphed into a secular religion. That’s why fans’ reaction to criticism reaches a pitch of aggrieved dignity: if a movie has been admitted into the circle of canon, negative views of the movie are received as a rejection not merely of fans’ taste but of their belief system. (And movie studios ignore fan service at their own risk.) As a comic-book-reading child, I didn’t care much about story and, years later, came to liken reading comics for their stories to buying Playboy for the articles. But the movies, meant largely for people who aren’t children, sacrifice sensory and aesthetic thrills for the earnestness of textual intricacy. With their aura of the sacred, superhero movies have also acquired an air of the sanctimonious and a fixation on doctrinal purity. New installments are often designed to satisfy the craving of the devout for fidelity to the underlying mythology—or for a mythology to adhere to.

This season alone offers plenty of evidence for superhero movies’ role as a surrogate religion—as in “Aquaman,” where the money line is “The king is risen.” The protagonist’s given name is Arthur, and the drama draws on Arthurian legend, replacing a sword with a glowing golden trident—albeit one that isn’t pulled from a stone but pursued like the Holy Grail and forged in an ancient variety of 3-D printer. The character has recently appeared in two other DC Comics movies; this is his first free-standing movie, and it’s appropriately clotted with the blend of backstory, exposition, character introduction, and general table-setting that’s euphemized as world-building. That’s why much of the film’s dialogue plays out like the reading of a board game’s rules while it’s being played, in stentorian tones borrowed from public-television historical dramas and Shakespearean filmstrips. It would have saved time and money to make the rules downloadable with the purchase of a ticket.”

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