• Joseph Holmes

Where Are the Great Superhero Metafiction Movies? AKA, What's Up with Glass?

Updated: Jan 26, 2019

Unbreakable (Touchstone Pictures, 2000)

We live in a time of incredible superhero dominance over pop culture. Every year, studios release multiple superhero films that regularly dominate the box office. (In 2019 alone, we have Glass, Captain Marvel, Shazam, Hellboy, Avengers: Endgame, X-Men: Dark Phenonix, Spider-Man: Far From Home, New Mutants, and Joker). TV networks are airing and streaming multiple superhero or superhero-adjacent programing. (Airing right now are Arrow, Gotham, Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Gotham, Runaways, Gifted, and Netflix's Marvel library.) These movies and shows dominate the industry and pop-culture conversations, from talk of shared cinematic universes, the representation in Black Panther, to James Gunn's firing, to Henry Cavil's mustache.

So where are all the great new superhero metafiction movies?

Metafiction is defined by Merriam-Webster as "fiction which refers to or takes as its subject fictional writing and its conventions". Metafiction is essentially stories about stories.

Metafiction serve an important function in storytelling. It help us to take a step back from the stories we tell ourselves in our moment and culture in time so we can question and explore the world we live in, what assumptions are driving our actions, reveal to us what is good about them and what might need improvement. Just like Dawn of the Dead and Get Out were horror films that were commentaries on real-life issues like race relations and last year's Ralph Breaks the Internet and Searching were commentaries on the internet, Westerns like Unforgiven help us see how Westerns perpetuate good and problematic narratives, Scream and Cabin in the Woods show us the weird tropes of horror films, The Truman Show exposes the manipulative, limiting, and exploitive artifice of television for the masses, and films like The Fall, Big Fish, and Stranger Than Fiction show how stories work and why we need them. Just like our lives are driven by our families, our political and economic systems, our lives our driven by the stories we tell, and so meta-fiction can question those narratives and give us better ones.

Superheroes are now the primary mythology by which our culture expresses and learns our moral language. Superhero films have been the most mass-market way we talk about tolerance (X-Men, Black Panther), coming of age (Spider-Man, X-Men), family (Incredibles, Guardians of the Galaxy) global politics (Iron Man, Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther), repentance, (Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man) ethnic and cultural identity (Captain America: The First Avenger, Black Panther), feminism (Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel), good and evil, (The Dark Knight, Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, Unbreakable) terrorism (The Dark Knight), class conflict (The Dark Knight Rises) and how to deal with a morally dubious cultural and family legacy (Captain America: Winter Soldier, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther) for almost 20 years. It is how most of us are being shaped to look about the world and talk about the world we live in and our place in it. If there is one genre we need meta-fiction about, it's superheroes.

Of course, there has been great superhero meta-fiction in the past. Adam West's Batman was a classic 60s parody of the superhero genre. 1987s Watchmen pointed out that superheroes are just men with power and that men with power suck. 2000's Unbreakable explored how superhero stories put forward a particular affirming narrative for how you should act in the world. Incredibles explored superhero values as an adolescent fantasy that conflicts with adulthood. 2010's Kick-Ass movie asked what it means to be a superhero in our world where there are no superpowers and superhero comic book logic doesn't apply. But after that, the superhero meta-fiction just stops. (Aside from 2011's underwhelming Watchmen adaptation and 2013's underwhelming Kick Ass 2.) This is odd considering how much bigger superhero movies have become since then. This was before Marvel's The Avengers came out, before we knew if "cinematic universes" would work, before Superman was rebooted and the DC's cinematic universe rose and fell, before superheroes swallowed to TV, before celebrities like Oprah were praising superhero movies like religious events.

Two recent films seem to try to deconstruct the superhero genre yet ended up failing: Incredibles 2 and Glass. Both had brilliant opportunities to be smart meta-commentaries on the genre and our relationship to it: both were sequels to movies that had deconstructed superheroes prior (Incredibles and Unbreakable), both of them lived in worlds saturated with superheroes (either in real life or comic books), and both of them had plots where the antagonist questioned the validity of superheroes (a villain who claims superheroes made us lazy and a villain who claims superheroes don't exist). Why did these movies fail as meta-commentaries on the superhero genre? First, both movies didn't update their commentary on superheroes to match the new times: Incredibles 2 still parodied only the same cliches about superheroes that were well known during the early 2000s when the original Incredibles came out; Glass still referenced superheroes only as a niche oddity only nerds knew about and you had to research by going to a comic book store, when everyone knows superheroes now and knows their tropes today primarily through movies. Both of them have their villains say a lot of things about the problems of superheroes, but none of them are terribly convincing, and the movie doesn't play out play out those problems in the story or show us how they apply to our world, either validating or rejecting them. Incredibles 2's villain "Screen Slaver" claims that superheroes and social media/entertainment make people passive and lazy, yet we never see superheroes having that effect on people, we are never shown the link between people in the movie depending too much on real-life superheroes and people in our world depending too much on entertainment superheroes, and when Screen Slaver claims that superheroes can't be trusted, but the plan relies on using mind control on superheroes, that seems to undermine Screen Slaver's credibility regarding whether the villain believes in their own distrust of heroes. Glass's therapist Dr. Ellie Staple claims that being a superhero is a delusion that's a way of not dealing with harsh realities and traumas, but her arguments aren't very convincing and the movie doesn't play those out in any more than a couple scenes before rejecting it, nor does it make a link between the characters using these fantasies to protect us from past trauma and us in the real world doing the same thing. Compare this to The Dark Knight or Spider-Man: In The Dark Knight, the movie plays out Joker's claims about how corrupt humanity is by the people who behave the way Joker says they will and the people who show him wrong. In Spider-Man, Green Goblin's claim that no one will appreciate Spider-Man's heroism is both validated and refuted by the people in the story who reject and support Spider-Man. What's sad is how easily these movies could have been exactly the stories we need. Imagine if Incredibles 2 showed the heroes wrestle with whether they do make people passive by showing a fall in people getting involved in social causes when they're around. (Picture a shot where Elastigirl is watching people watching videos of her exploits on their cell phones while walking by a homeless people or a building saying "volunteers wanted".) Then at the end you have the heroes's hope restored when normal people inspired by them do step up to help the heroes save the day. Imagine if Screen Slaver mind controlled a respected hero earlier in the movie that The Incredibles had to fight, which makes normal people have a conversation of whether heroes can really be trusted, and when the mind control is revealed at the end Elastigirl confronts the villain with the fact that if their beliefs were true they wouldn't have to lie about it. Imagine that Glass opened with Dr. Ellie Staple discussing on a talk show the harms that believing in superheroes and their "good vs evil" ideology has on young people and political discourse. Suppose Joseph Dunn and the M. Night Shyamalan Cameo Man talked about their favorite superhero movies and what they like about them. What if Dr. Staple met with David, Kevin, and Glass, multiple times and they argued back and forth about the validity of their interpretation of events, building the tension each time as Dr. Staple's interpretation of things seem more and more plausible. You could have explored the ways that people can look at the same facts and have different interpretations. You could have referenced the conflict between Freudian philosophy, which believes mythology can be explained way as neurosis, and Jungian philosophy, which believes that mythologies are stories exploring something real in our experience of the world. You could have played with genre in the film by having all of the characters believe they are in a different film genre and in each of their parts of the story the movie plays that way, whether it's a superhero story (David Dunn), a Beauty and the Beast story (Casey Cooke) or a psychological horror (Dr. Staple). Suppose the supporting characters did their outside research on superheroes from movies and comic books rather than just comic books. And imagine how much more satisfying it would have been at the end if (spoilers) David died in a tender moment Joseph's arms and Joseph discovered he was a superhero hero too to carry on his dad's legacy (paying off Glass's remark that this was an "origin story"). So if it would have been so easy to make these kind of meta-commentaries, why didn't they do it? More importantly, why hasn't somebody done it yet?

There are a lot of possible reasons. It may simply be that the people making the meta-commentaries are too old to get what it's like to grow up with your imagination saturated by superheroes, so can't pick it apart effectively. (A similar problem plagued Ready Player One.) And for those of us who have, perhaps we're too close to superheroes and superhero culture to be able to parody or analyze it properly; after all, our imagination is completely saturated with superheroes, so it wouldn't be implausible for us to not be able to see outside of it. Movies also take a long time to make, so maybe we just haven't given it enough time. Maybe superheroes movies do such a good job at parodying and deconstructing themselves (E.G., Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool), that there's little room for meta-commentaries to exist. And whatever superhero movies don't do themselves, there's YouTube series' like Honest Trailers and How it Should Have Ended to lampoon and deconstruct the genre. Or maybe it's that we're afraid.

Maybe we're afraid if we look to hard at superheroes we'll realize that they don't hold up. Maybe we can't take the idea that our favorite story our culture tells about us is a lie, that if we think about it too hard, investigate it too long, we'll realize the one story our society tells that makes sense of our world is a lie, and we won't be able to enjoy it anymore. Maybe we can't take that because we don't have any better stories to help us make sense of life. We're not a primarily religious country anymore, we are conflicted about our national heritage, we don't have heroes of our past that we believe in anymore that inspire us to be better people. And there's a reason for that: too many of the people who preached religion and patriotism people turned out to be racists, slaveowners, sexists, and whateverists. Learning that about them made us lose faith in what they taught. Who can root for a hero in a Western anymore without remembering--at least for a moment--that him winning means genocide of American Indians? Superheroes are pretty much all we have left. And maybe we're afraid that if we look too closely we'll lose them too.

There is a scene in The Prestige where the two magicians confront each other and one of them chastises the other for not understanding the calling of a magician:

You never understood... why we did this. The audience knows the truth. The world is simple. It's miserable. Solid... solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second... then you can make them wonder. And then you... then you got to see something very special. You really don't know. It was... it was the look on their faces...

It makes sense not to think too much about what gives us joy if we believe the world is ugly. If we think that we have to choose between happiness and truth then you can understand if people choose to think less and enjoy life more. If you believe that's how the world is, I can understand.

But I don't believe that. I think the more you investigate the real world the more beautiful it gets, not less. I think the more we investigate the most beautiful stories the more we realize how true they are. Because in the end of time at the bottom of all things, truth and beauty kiss each other. That's why I overthink films. Because I think the more you think about films--the really good films--the better they get. That's why I overthink religion and philosophy. Because I think the more you think about God and reality the more true they are, and the more beautiful they get. And anything that falls away under the pressure is not actually as beautiful as we think it is. I think it's possible to be religious and acknowledge the flaws of religious people. I think it's possible to be a patriot while acknowledging the flaws of patriots. And I think you can pull apart superheroes and discover superheroes are even more beautiful underneath. That's what makes The Dark Knight so amazing, is that they challenge superheroes to their very core and show how the superhero ideal still stands tall. I think that religious, patriotism, and superheroes can handle the best critiques that you can throw at them because they're true. Anything that's true can.

So let's tell stories that take apart and challenge superheroes. I have a feeling that they will bounce off like so many bullets. More than that: the superheroes will be better for it.

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