The class structure of heroism
Look back a generation to Die hard, which typified, while elevating, the action-comedy of the Eighties. John McClane, played by Mr. Bruce Willis, is a working class man from New York: his wit is coarse, his manners are not quite up to middle class standards, & he gradually turns into a dirty, naked beast that would sooner scream than speak. From law & self-defense down to animal pugnacity, this is a portrayal of American manliness.
The villain, played by the late Alan Rickman, has about him all the trappings of the higher classes–impeccable taste in clothing, which he discusses nonchalantly, a distinguished British accent that adorns a remarkable facility with speeches, & very sophisticated calculations that overcome the technical & legal obstacles to his nefarious purpose, wealth.
In this generation, that conflict has been reversed. Marvel, the dominant force in American cinema, has overseen the transformation of heroes into upper class, immensely wealthy men, opulent beyond vulgarity, & masters of business, technology (Iron man), or science (Dr. Strange). There are some exceptions–young male models are also given some scope (Captain America & Thor, who has a super-scientist girlfriend). There are also cases where people play super-educated characters (Hulk, TV’s startlingly successful Daredevil) or super-tech savvy, who are not wealthy (Ant-man, the new Spider-man). That’s the variety you can expect. What is lost is the example of the tenuous, but necessary independence of moral virtue from intellectual virtue.
The answer to every real question about American society is turning into a fantasy of scientific tyranny, to judge by the way the plot leads to the success of such characters… These latter-day heroes are leading each other & mankind into scientific creations that turn out to be dangerous, but impossible to draw back from. Neither social differences nor their significance matter to plot anymore. There is only so much future in fantasy & most people are apparently excluded from it.
Indeed, villains now tend to come from the lower classes, if not directly from the outskirts or peripheries of the tech-industry world that is portrayed as a shameless oligarchy blind to its own weaknesses. Captain America: Civil war & Avengers: Age of Ultron made this point explicitly. It’s the same in the Thor movies & in Dr. Strange. Of course, all the Iron man movies would be summarized by liberals as the class privilege of white men & it’s not clear there’s much more to the character…
By the way, Marvel is also introducing into American popular spectacles the fabled triad of race (Captain America: Civil War, the upcoming Black panther), class (Ant-man, Daredevil), & gender (Jessica Jones, the Netflix show about a rape survivor in a society that simply cannot see or do anything about a terrible rapist). To look at the popular spectacles that feature some fantasy of heroism, working class Americans have no place on the screen. It’s like Charles Murray’s Fishtown & Belmont are at war on the screen!–all the heroes are in Belmont, of course…