At the risk of sounding like every dateless, neckbeard sporting, fedora enthusiast finding himself without a date on a Friday night, what is the appeal of assholes? Specifically, why do we as a society seem to exalt the lowest common denominator when it comes to our fictional heroes? Why do people write think pieces about it?
With DC’s Sun God patriarch snapping necks to solve problems and Marvel’s resident boy scout lighting up the screen this week in his own excellent foray into summer blockbusting, there seems to be a pretty divisive split between what it means to be a good guy. Somewhere in that middle is a grown man wearing jorts and brightly colored t-shirts hugging small children at scripted sporting events.
If you talk to the average moviegoer, or comic reader (or wrestling fan) it’s been a very long time since someone standing up for what’s right without being a sarcastic, violent asshole about it was someone we wanted to support in media. Die-hards may have been outraged at the climax of Man of Steel, but the number of people who squealed with glee at Superman cold murdering someone to solve a problem is probably a lot higher than one might think. Not surprisingly, one particular Vulture article addresses this head on, advocating that a hero like Captain America is only interesting when he’s portrayed as a prick.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier painted it’s titular hero in broad, relatable strokes, presenting him as the very best of the Greatest Generation, a man who lives by (and nearly died for) a moral code that is as difficult to abide by as it is easy to mock. It’s reductive yet commonplace to dismiss heroes like Steve Rogers and Not Zack Snyder’s Clark Kent. People negate their worth both as characters and myths by deeming their goody-two-shoes nature as boring or predictable.
In professional wrestling, fans say the same about John Cena, a sort of postmodern Hulk Hogan who replaced saying your prayers and eating your vitamins with the triumvirate grail of hustle, loyalty and respect. He’s a friendly, upstanding guy who abides by the rules and devotes all of his free time to hanging out with Make-A-Wish kids. Surprise, surprise: people fucking hate his guts. Some of that disdain comes from stagnation. His character hasn’t evolved much in the last decade, but, as with the aforementioned superheroes, people rarely criticize these “supermen” for not evolving. The crux of their scorn is born from a fundamental lack of admiration for an adherence to lofty standards.
Why is that?
Two and a half years ago, I ranted on Twitter about Superman and why it makes no sense for people to dislike him the way they do. My general feeling then was just that people had some sort of hard line aversion to identifying with someone who always tries to do the right thing, as though great power and great responsibility were peanut butter and arsenic. I mean, I get it. I used to think Captain America was weaksauce milquetoast and that he would be way cooler if he was more of an antihero. For context, however, when I thought this, my favorite filmmaker was Kevin Smith, my favorite band was Limp Bizkit, and I was a couple of years out from being really into Mark Millar. Luckily, time is less of a flat circle than Rustin Cohle would have you believe.
The point is, I grew up. I stopped being a world-hating boychild whose blood type was misplaced anger. I stopped conflating negative character traits with positive signifiers. One of the reasons people seem to criticize optimistic superheroes is because they aren’t realistic enough, but I think they’re missing the point. We created superheroes because we needed something “unrealistic” to save us. Realism is relative. The argument that a superhero who is a bit of a dick all the time is more real or interesting than one who is decent and upstanding all the time is complete bullshit. You know what’s boring? A lack of conflict.
Think of every independent movie you have ever seen about malcontent twentysomethings standing around being pithy and passive aggressive to one another with improvised dialogue and no budget. When someone criticizes the filmmaker for the story being bland and the characters being unlikable, their response is normally that they’re drawing from “real life.” Somehow, they feel their stories are better than Hollywood shlock where the hero beats the villain and gets the girl because “that never happens in real life.” The problem is, it never happens in their lives because they aren’t fucking heroes. They’re selfish, myopic assholes who can’t deign to fathom anything more aspirational than the pathetic muck of their own solipsist existence.
So, too, are the detractors who are unimpressed by an unkilling Superman, a Captain America who doesn’t lean heavily to the right, or a babyface fighter who just wants a good clean win. If you don’t like a Superman story because he has too many powers and smiles too much, it’s because the story you are reading isn’t challenging him enough, nor does it have enough variety of content. If you think Captain America is too good a person, then you probably don’t know very many good people. You’re not mad that John Cena is too nice. You’re mad that he wins all the time and doesn’t compete in believable fake combat.
For most comics fans, DC’s adaptation of the Injustice: Gods Among Us video game is a trash masterpiece that exists solely for ribbing purposes, but I don’t have enough digits on either hand to count the number of people, in real life, who have told me how much they loved it, not because it is laughably awful, but because they loved it’s portrayal of Superman.
Yes, that Superman. The one who straight up murders the shit out of The Joker and then outs Batman’s secret identity on Twitter. This is a real comic that was published and there are people who enjoy it because, to them, it finally makes Superman cool. We’re more than ten years removed from Joe Kelly’s “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?” and people still think Superman is lame if he isn’t basically an out of control Wildstorm parody of himself?
It’s telling that when wrestling fans complain about John Cena, he’s often unfavorably compared to The Rock, the Attitude Era megastar turned action hero who preceded him as the face of the WWE. To be fair, Cena is by no means perfect, and is considerably more fallible than either Supes or Cap, but there is an undeniable sweetness about him that endears him to the youth in a truly inspiring way. Of course hardcore viewers lament that he replaced a guy whose primary function was talking in the third person and suggesting people shove things up their own asses, sideways.
Were these people all bullied as kids and then developed some weird Stockholm syndrome for their respective wedgie givers? We can’t look at a guy who can fly around the sun, or toss a shield (or clothesline real good) without wanting to extrapolate those strengths to their absolute worst application?
Captain America doesn’t need to be a xenophobic John Wayne to be entertaining. That just isn’t the character. I don’t think he needs to be a leftist soapbox either. Sure, he was a soldier in WWII, and yes, he wielded a gun, but guess what? Jack Kirby designed him with a shield. Not a sword. Not a lance. A fucking shield. Do you really want to belittle that inspiring an image by reducing him to Fox News Punisher? This isn’t me saying my favorite version of a character is better than your favorite version of a character. I just think we really need to question whether or not the term “weaponized homophobia” is something we want to have to type when describing the fictional beings we call our heroes.
My biggest beef with Mark Millar’s often referenced take on Captain America isn’t that Ultimates is a bad comic. By no stretch of the imagination would I compare it to Injustice or Ultimatum. It has it’s strong points (largely Bryan Hitch’s art) and I respect that it’s an alternate interpretation of the mythology designed to attract new readers, but who were these new readers Marvel felt they needed to reach? Did Millar focus group this with a small group of horny, pissed off 12-year-olds? Every single moment Steve Rogers appears in a panel feels like it was rewritten by kids angry enough to swear but afraid their parents would catch them, an actuality that would legitimately explain why Captain America refers to people as “meatball’ and “jerk.”
To quote one of the aforementioned Kevin Smith’s characters, “Nobody talks like that. That is fucking baby talk.”
What’s so interesting about a close minded, hyper-violent manchild with superpowers, kicking people in the nuts and emphatically pointing at his own forehead after eviscerating an alien? Why is that so much better than the way Chris Evans has portrayed the role in the MCU? I’m not against a more conservative take on the character. Remember in The Avengers when Steve says “There’s only one God, and he doesn’t dress like that?” That was a smart line. It furthered the feeling that this was a man from another time having difficulty being thrust into this insane new world. You know what was great about it, too?
HE DIDN’T SOUND LIKE A COMPLETE FUCKING ASSHOLE EVERY TIME HE OPENED HIS MOUTH.
There’s just no earthly reason to need to dumb down or compromise these characters to appeal to some imagined Muscle Milk & Bud Light fringe contingent who would support these properties if only they were brought down to their pathetic level. That’s not some nerdy, pent up jock hate, either. I just personally imagine that the same person who would rather read or watch a superhero who kicks the shit out of someone doing graffiti is someone who would think it was a good idea to get their protein for the day in while knocking back beer that tastes like stale water.
Captain America wouldn’t be more interesting if he were a jerk. He’d just appeal to more people who don’t need superheroes in the first place. Superheroes are supposed to save us, not reinforce how shitty some of us are.
It’s okay to admit that we want more from fiction. Real life isn’t so hot, guys. Turn on the news. There’s no weakness in acknowledging a need for heroes who are better than us. It gives us something to reach for.