Shattered Glass: why we need to stop deconstructing our superheroes

M Night Shyamalan’s ambitious yet empty end to his comic book-inspired trilogy should be the last attempt to make faux-intellectual points about big screen heroes

This weekend sees the release of M Night Shyamalan’s Glass, the long-awaited follow-up to his 2000 superhero drama Unbreakable and his 2017 thriller Split. Like Unbreakable, Glass is interested in deconstructing the figure of the comic book superhero (and supervillain), calling attention to the tropes of its own genre while placing them in a larger historical and pseudo-scientific context. But whereas this meta-narrative examination felt fresh and exciting in Unbreakable, it now proves to be an utter bore.

That’s because deconstructionism – the form of philosophical and literary analysis that seeks to understand the relationship between a text and its meaning, often by acknowledging and/or subverting pre-existing conceptions or structural expectations – has become the modus operandi of superhero movies.

The argument could be made that such has been the case since 1989’s Batman. Tim Burton’s gothic vision, alongside Michael Keaton’s neurotic interpretation of the character, may not have comprised a full-on deconstruction, but they both leaned heavily in that direction. (Burton’s second installment, Batman Returns, went one step further, bringing to the fore the heavy undercurrent of kink intrinsic to the superhero mythos.)

While this new, darker version of Batman took moviegoing audiences by surprise, loyal comic readers were already well acquainted with him. Starting three years earlier, two ingenious comic scribes had turned the industry upside down with their bold, complex revisionist masterworks. Frank Miller and Alan Moore plucked their heroes from out of the sky and brought them down to street level, in the process placing them in a political context that examined their role in shaping rightwing power fantasies.

The revolutionary effect of these books, combined with the success of Burton’s Batman films, might have kicked off a golden age of comic books and comic book movies, but it was not to be. Publishers and artists learned all the wrong lessons from Moore and Miller’s example, focusing primarily on their prurient qualities (graphic violence, sexual explicitness, and a grimy aesthetic), while ignoring their deeper thematic and formalist resonance. In their attempt to appeal to more mature audiences, the industry devolved into puerile adolescence, the effect of which still lingers today.

The movies, meanwhile, went hard in the opposite direction. Batman’s crossover success didn’t translate to other characters and properties and, minus one or two notable exceptions, the adaptations that followed were uniformly awful, so awful that even their core audience of children and teens (never the most discerning of demographics) rejected them. By the time Joel Schumacher drove the Batman franchise into the ground, comic book movies seemed destined to be regulated to the same dung-heap of forgotten schlock as video game movies and softcore porn.

Then, in 2000, things changed. Riding the coattails of The Matrix’s CGI spectacle (as well as the sleeper success of fellow Marvel adaptation, Blade), Bryan Singer’s X-Men kicked open the doors of the mainstream and ushered in the era of box office supremacy that comic book and superhero movies hold to this day.

Bruce Willis in Unbreakable
Bruce Willis in Unbreakable. Photograph: Cine Text/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

If, during those initial years, there was a reluctance on the part of these films to fully embrace their glossy-paged origins, they expressed it by way of ironic signaling – “What would you prefer, yellow spandex?” – rather than serious metatextual consideration. Yet 2000 was also the year of Unbreakable, which is centered entirely around the latter.

Viewed today, Unbreakable displays a remarkable prescience, especially in the way it connects to a growing public appetite for heroic spectacle in the wake of violent national trauma (stemming, in the film as it would shortly in real life, from a horrific act of terrorism). While the superhero boom predates the 9/11 attacks by a little over a year, it shouldn’t strain credulity to suggest a direct link between their preponderance in the years that followed and the state of the national psyche during that same period.

Regardless, the fact remains that as soon as superhero films rose to a new prominence they were already busy dissecting themselves, with a number of high-profile examples following Unbreakable’s lead: Ang Lee’s Hulk psychoanalyzed its atomic gods, while Pixar’s The Incredibles domesticated theirs. Christopher Nolan revived the dormant Batman franchise and used it as a framework on which to hang a number of hefty moral and legal considerations brought to bear by the “war on terror” – domestic surveillance, enhanced interrogation, the symbiotic relationship between martial authority and violent insurgency. Bryan Singer moved on to Superman and considered (poorly) what would happen if a god-like protector wished to abandon his post, while Hancock, Kick-Ass and Super all attempted – to varying degrees of success – to show us how a superhero would fare in the “real” world.

Then there are the films of Zack Snyder, arguably the pre-eminent (though by no means universally acclaimed) auteur of superhero deconstruction. His run of comic book adaptations (300, Watchmen, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Justice League) acknowledge the dreadful existential implications of “metahumans” living in – and tearing their way across – a vulnerable human world, even as they ultimately revel in the wanton carnage on display (it was this cognitive dissonance that made Snyder a good choice to bring Frank Miller’s crypto-fascist vision to the screen, and such a terrible choice to adapt Alan Moore’s scholarly, cosmically minded work).

Meanwhile, Marvel became the biggest player in the game by carefully threading the needle between earnestness and irony. The company’s focus on world building didn’t leave much room for deconstruction at the outset, but the films did eventually get around to it. Like Nolan’s Bat films, Avengers: Age of Ultron highlights the self-perpetuating cycle of destruction superheroes bring upon themselves and the world. Captain America: Civil War picks up on this thread, looking at the collateral damage wrought by its heroes’ good intentions, while weighing their right to use unilateral force.

Hugh Jackman in Logan
Hugh Jackman in Logan. Photograph: Ben Rothstein/AP

All of these films coat themselves in layers of moral ambiguity … right up to their third acts, at which point they drop whatever philosophical and moral quandaries they have introduced (the most egregious example being Batman’s one-time-only use of warrantless wiretapping in The Dark Knight), to focus on the final, very expensive set piece. Good ultimately triumphs (unless it’s the middle entry of a franchise, in which case it might end on a cliffhanger), and any ambiguity is traded in for an easily digestible lesson, usually about sacrifice or humility, or something along those lines.

Critics like to compare superhero films to westerns, mostly as a wishful invocation of momento mori (whereas once westerns were the most popular genre of film, they barely get made today; if we’re lucky perhaps the same fate could soon befall superhero films), but while this comparison doesn’t quite bear itself out – the number of superhero films released during any given year can’t begin to match the number of westerns produced at the height of their popularity – there is another way in which they are similar. What we tend to think of as classic westerns, the John Wayne/John Ford/Howard Hawks movies, were actually deconstructions of the genre as audiences had come to recognize it up to that point. Films such as Stagecoach, High Noon and The Searchers took the white-hatted cowboy hero of our national myth and dusted him up a fair amount. They imbued their characters and stories with a heavy dose of noir-ish cynicism and psychological complexity absent from the original oaters of the silent and early sound era.

That about sums up where comic book movies are at the moment, although it’s hard to imagine any corporate-owned, brand name tentpole closing the door on its hero in the same manner that John Ford closes the door on John Wayne at the end of The Searchers (Logan gave a send-off to its protagonist, but that was only due to Hugh Jackman retiring from the role, and it’s only a matter of time before Disney reintroduces the character with a different actor playing him).

But then, even ignoring the obvious profit motive, why should they? Audiences aren’t demanding any radical revisionism; they’re satisfied with things as they are (the box office numbers bear this out) and are more than happy to watch film-makers take apart their favorite IPs … so long as they put them back together by the time the credits roll. It’s only when film-makers don’t fully oblige them in this that a vocal contingency rises up in protest (see Iron Man 3 and Star Wars: The Last Jedi).

Ultimately, deconstructionist superhero films almost always revert to the same basic message: we all need to believe in heroes, no matter how flawed they may be. However enjoyable their other qualities (and many of them are enjoyable, even excellent), it’s time to close the door on this form of empty intellectual posturing. These films have shown, time and again, that it’s not self-examination they’re interested in, but self-affirmation.

There’s something sadly neurotic about that. Perhaps superhero movies have never gotten over the shame of their yellow spandex-ed origins after all.


Zach Vasquez

The GuardianTramp

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