Death of the superhero?
Reading the future is hard. It takes sharp eyes. It takes lively imaginations. It takes smart models. (There is a “good head on your shoulders” joke to be made here, but I’m going to restrain myself.)
Most of all, reading the future takes the ability to see the things coming when they are a mere smear on the radar screen, a trace of green. Is that Southwest flight 1440 taking a film crew to Sante Fe? Or is it an artifact of an aging navigational system. Only the very gifted can say.
On Thursday (Aug. 15), Chris Ryan and Sean Fennessey convened on the blog called The Watch to discuss a new show called The Boys (around the 12:00 mark). This show is interesting because it posits a world in which superheroes now work for the corporation. They have been corrupted. They are cynical. These superheroes are all working for the man.
At roughly the 14:15 mark, Fennessey says the advent of The Boys is telling.
“This is how you know we are in stage 3 of superheroes as an important cultural force.”
Fennessey believes this is indeed the final stage of the superhero moment. The first was defined by Spider-Man. The second was defined (and dominated) by Marvel. And this third as defined by the likes of Dead Pool, Suicide Squad and now The Boys. Here at stage 3 the genre gets darker, nastier, more worldly. Idealism is swapped out for story lines and characters that are more complicated and less predictable.
Hey, presto. Someone makes a prediction. Fennessey takes a stand. We have a prediction. Superheroes are in their last moment. And a great chunk of popular culture hangs in the balance.
Thank you, Mr. Fennessey. This is a real public service. There are lots of people who claim to see the future coming. Almost no one is prepared to stake a claim, to go on the record, to risk being wrong.
In fact most of us in the forecasting biz are disingenuous. We don’t often make predictions. And when we do, we erase them, the better to create the impression that we are faultless, immaculate, batting at least 900%. When it comes to predicting the future, people like to backdate their checks and otherwise fudge the record.
This is cowardly, but it is also disappointing. Because predictions are useful even when they are wrong. They tell us about possible futures (“adjacent futures” as Stuart Kauffman calls them). Now we are prepared. Now some of us can look at that smear on the radar and go, “You know, I think that could be that thing Fennessey was talking about.”
It’s useful to look for alternate explanations. As part of our “Superhero watch,” I propose two. I am not saying Fennessey is wrong. I am saying let’s get our best ideas on the table, the better to see the future coming.
1) What Fennessey sees in the advent of stage 3 is perhaps not the Icarian fall of superheroes. It may be a simple case of genre going post genre. And let’s face it, it had to. Superheroes were increasingly, to use a second term from Stuart Kauffman, “overformed.” They had quit growing. Increasingly they were a forced march, an exercise in the indubitable. We could see outcomes a long way off. Change or die, it applies even to superheroes.
2) What Fennessey sees as the advent of stage 3 is part of a larger development identified by Hargurchet Bhabra, the Canadian novelist and culture guru. Bhabra observed the improvements taking place in popular culture and said, in effect, “As long as popular culture was the captive of commercial forces, it was going to disappoint from any genuinely creative or intellectual point of view. But now that is now also the possession of large and active audiences, it is getting steadily better. And that means, at some point, popular culture becomes culture plain and simple.” By this reckoning, the superhero arc is following the trajectory of everything in (popular) culture. It started small. It’s getting better. This means letting in the dark, amongst other things.
I don’t intend to make a prediction about Fennessey’s prediction. It was a moment of illumination for me. I am trying to map and track everything in contemporary culture so anytime I can get a head’s up from an expert, my job is easier and I am grateful.
- One more methodological point for the trend watching reader, what are the best metrics for tracking the genre and constructing our “superhero watch?” I would be grateful for any and all suggestions: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Speaking of the “adjacent possible,” see what Rick Liebling is doing with the idea here. Very interesting.
- Check out the rate for Wired subscriptions. 10 bucks! I was looking at the Kauffman article on Wired and up came the inevitable “subscribe now” invitation. “Great,” I thought, “someone else wants $100 for a subscription.” This has got to be the best bargain in publishing.