Anarchy and vampires.
In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, good guys die by disintegration. They flake apart; their death leaves confetti everywhere. This residue—sparkly, expensive-looking, soon gone—resembles the way the film exists in the memory.
As for the bad guys: They die, as in all Marvel movies, by extreme, cartoonish violence, of the sort one is supposed to find cutely amoral. In this case, it’s a glowing flying space arrow (don’t ask) that a character controls by whistling (don’t ask) and that carves beautiful arabesques on the screen as it disposes many dozens of henchmen. The crowd around me laughed, just as they laughed last year, when Ryan Reynolds’s Deadpool killed eleven goons while dodging twelve bullets, or nine years ago, when Robert Downey’s Iron Man flattened those hostage-takers with the shoulder-mounted rockets. Superhero films resemble slasher movies, these days, in the cleverness and dexterity of their kills. In Guardians 2—as in the first film, which featured a space-jailbreak that presumably left hundreds dead—the audience is expected to go along with this violence, and largely does, because of the excellence of the heroes’ repartee. They’re bounty hunters and killers, but they’re cute, and one of them is a tree.
The amoral turn in superhero cinema—you can trace it to Iron Man, with Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1990) as a fascinating precursor—is really a turning back. Historians generally attribute the distinction of “first superhero” to Superman, but this requires willful blindness to the great silent crime serials of Louis Feuillade—the Fantomas series (1913–14), Les Vampires (1916)—or their imitators: 1926’s The Bat, based on Mary Roberts Rinehart’s play; Fritz Lang’s Spies (1919). Les Vampires in particular, with its elaborately costumed, endlessly clever, undeniably sexy conspirators, in turn drew on the activities of the Bonnot Gang, an anarchist sect known for expropriating (though they never got around to redistributing) the goods of wealthy Parisians. Just as the first detective was a thief—Eugene Vidocq, a nineteenth-century thief-turned-fence-turned-informer, invented criminology and opened the first private detective agency—the first superheroes were supervillains.
The Bonnot Gang’s politics don’t impress. Like other adherents of illegalism—a fin-de-siècle variation (or corruption) of anarchism that mixed it with the egoist philosophies of Max Stirner and Nietzsche to produce something closer to sociopathy than libertarian socialism—they seem to have consulted their own convenience rather than any theory of social improvement. (A left outlaw might, in a pinch, kill a rich man for his money, as the Bonnots did in January 1912, but they’d leave his maid alone—as the Bonnots didn’t.) But their use of technology not yet available to the Paris police (the “horseless carriage” and the “repeating rifle”!) left an impression on the cultural imagination.
In Feuillade’s films, labyrinthine, overlapping, often self-contradictory conspiracies unfold in a kind of dreamy silence that contrasts favorably with the noisiness and intentionally chaotic editing of contemporary superhero films. You’ll watch the screen for minutes at a time, almost oppressed by the banality and stillness of the unfolding scene—people milling around, a man at his desk—until, at the edge of the camera, you notice someone in a circus costume and mask. It unrolls in the mind like a hallucination, or a hallucinogen. The lack of internal consistency feels like part of the whole surreal package, in contrast to a film like Dark Knight Rises, which draws your attention to its intricate, ostentatiously clever plottedness while offering villains whose Fiendish Master Plans make precisely as little sense, when fully laid out, as Fantomas’s.
The comic-book hero developed from these costumed criminal escape artists as surely as from the ancient epic hero, the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Nietzschean ubermensch, or any of the other influences cited by scholars of comic-book history. Bob Kane admitted to borrowing Batman’s costume from The Bat, or rather The Bat Whispers, its 1930 sound sequel (apparently titled on the same principle as “Garbo Talks!”). The argument that credits the birth of the superhero to clean-cut Superman begins to look like a very comic-book sort of evasion in itself: The bad guy resettles in a new place, under a new name, denying his evil past. Then we remember that the early Superman was a bit of an ambiguous figure in his own right, tossing bad guys from windows and demolishing slums with his mighty bare knuckles.
As in most superhero films, the main threat in Guardians 2 is presented as unchecked power. A character named Ego, played by Kurt Russell, turns out to be the father of our point-of-view character, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). He is also a planet, and a sort of demigod. He was at one point a bit of consciousness in space who, by trying really hard for a long time, learned to bend matter to his will. (Success is built on failure, haters.) He then built himself a rather saccharine-looking planet, as well as a series of bodies through which he fathered children on different planets, including Peter. Of course Dad has a malicious plan, which is to overwrite the existing universe with a prettier one that he made up.
But what Russell’s character proposes to do is, in fact, what every minimally savvy viewer knows Marvel itself will do at some point: Rip up its universe and start over again. What Russell’s character wants to do to this film’s universe is the fundamental act of Hollywood moviemaking in the twenty-first century. In twenty years, we’ve cleaned Batman’s slate twice and Spider-Man’s three times. With Hugh Jackman’s Logan dead, we can expect something similar for the X-Men. And that’s just superhero movies. The “shared universe” depends on the ability to do a “reboot” whenever the cast ages out or the “property” requires a few years’ rest to rebuild audience interest. Guardians 2 is, on this reading, a sigh of despair at its own disposability. Someday someone will want to use these characters again, but without using these actors, or being bound by these films’ events. At that moment, Ego wins.
I liked Guardians 2, I should say. I liked the first one, just as I liked Civil War and Doctor Strange and Iron Man 3; just as (in spite of myself) I liked X-Men: Apocalypse and Dark Knight Rises; just as I liked the Reeve Superman and Keaton Batman series as a child; just as I will probably like Wonder Woman and, God help me, Justice League. I can see as well as anyone the moral and artistic limits of these films—limits set both by the universes they inherit from the comics and by the political economy of big-budget filmmaking, which requires that these films look good to people who won’t or can’t listen to the dialogue. (A comic, costing less to make, can take more risks, and some do.) Any argument I make in their favor would merely rationalize an existing preference that goes too far back into childhood for me to explain it.
The violence, and the Bonnot-like egoism of some of the heroes, bother me, as they have many. But then, I’ll take the cynicism of Guardians 2, or even Deadpool, over the most nauseating moment in 1978’s Superman—the moment that, even more than Lois Lane’s impromptu poetry recital (“Can you read my mind? / Do you know what it is you do to me?”), has killed this childhood favorite of mine forever. It’s when Christopher Reeve’s lovable, nonthreatening hero drops bad guy Lex Luthor and his wacky sidekick Otis, sans trial, at a prison, then tells the warden, “We’re all part of the same team!” Has Superman ever met a warden? The best wardens are well-intentioned people in a corrupt system; the worst are petty dictators overseeing a regime of repression and mass rape. And forget wardens—doesn’t he know that prosecutors routinely suppress exculpatory evidence? Don’t unarmed black men get killed by police in Metropolis?
Perhaps considerations such as these have driven the genre in its current, more ambiguous direction. We have given up on the pop grandeur of the Reeve Superman, and that is, politically, probably a slight improvement: Between a charismatic figure who tells us cops are the real heroes and the personified nu-metal song that is Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, I guess I prefer the one nobody likes. At least he won’t, to coin a phrase, seduce the innocent.
Still, I think back to the utter weirdness of those Feuillade movies and I wonder whether superhero films took the wrong road toward cultural dominance. As different as the DC and Marvel films are (Marvel is funny, DC is steroidal) they tend to set up fairly obvious moral dilemmas, creating an appearance of complexity. If Christopher Nolan’s Batman films started this trend, with their ostentatious focus on the idea of the ennobling lie—Batman intends himself as such a lie, and, when popular DA Harvey Dent succumbs to homicidal madness, claims responsibility for Dent’s crimes—the Marvel universe has taken it up. Should the technical brilliance of Iron Man or the near-invulnerability of Captain America belong to mere profit-seeking corporations, to governments, to individuals, to a warrior elite, or to something else? Like first-year papers, the films raise these questions long enough to get an A. Then we settle back for the explosions.
But a magically empowered person dressed like a circus performer is, before anything else, strange; his or her mere presence among the trappings of adult life is already surreal. In Jacques Rivette’s great Feuillade homage, Celine and Julie Go Boating (1975), the titular main characters don costumes reminiscent of Les Vampires’s sexy villainess Irma Vep and go roller-skating through Paris. It doesn’t advance a plot, and it won’t launch a franchise. For sheer wonder, though, it goes further than Marvel’s living planet, or its well-guarded galaxy.
Phil Christman teaches composition at the University of Michigan and is the host of the podcast I Needed a Pretext to Read Books.