“Dada haath thakte mukh kyano?” is a popular Bengali saying that roughly translates as why waste your words when you can simply beat the other person up. This quasi-rhetorical line of encouragement seems to snugly fit into the designs of the modern global American culture of anti-intellectualism, of not thinking, just doing.
Mythology, science fiction, superhero films, or any kind of didactic narrative in general has always basked in the comfort of a populist skepticism against ambition and intellect. If ever it prescribes intelligence, it does so in too humble, less-than-moderate portions. The perfect example would be Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus. Superhero films, like science fiction, also exemplifies the same anxiety that intellect and ambition disturbs social equilibrium, and therefore must ultimately be evil. The ideological machinery finds it easier to break, demolish, and flatten out, rather than to engage in any discourse with, any radical subversive voice.
Take the two Norse half brothers for example – Thor and Loki. Raised in the same household, they are diametrically opposite. In the Beginning of Thor (2011), Thor is vain, burly, strong, brutish, indulging in revelry, but also virtuous, obedient, and familial; and learns the value of humility and duty by the end of the film. Loki, on the other hand, is intelligent to the point of being sly. He is also a little restless, arrogant, jilted, ambitious, and has the gumption to realize his ambitions; hence dangerous, and ultimately evil. By the end of the film, he is cast into the abyss by Thor and by the end of The Avengers (2012), he has ended up in a pile of rubble in Tony Stark’s skyscraper. He has been committed to this ‘rightful place’ by none other than the Incredible Hulk, the suprememost example of mindless brute force.
By almost a rule of thumb, all villains worth their salt are extremely intelligent (read deviously cunning), verbose, ambitious, brave in not-a-foolhardy way, and in the end fallible to self-pride and vanity. In the final confrontation between Hulk and Loki, Loki is exasperated by the lowliness of a ‘dull creature’ like Hulk and chooses to silence and neutralize him with a speech about his superiority. But the regal aristocratic Loki thoroughly underestimates the zealous unthinkingness of a smashing-class-superhero like Hulk, and is repeatedly pummeled into the ground the next second. The scene robs the beauty in evil and makes brute force and dumb goodness pose in the borrowed robes of that beauty.
Superheroes are the perfect emissaries of the superfast advertisement-span American culture, devoid of the virtues of slowness. Advertisements tell us never to stop, never settle, to move on, to imagine life as a constantly mobile, sped up, jittery existence, as if anything else is tantamount to death. The message of superhero films are also dangerously close, and sometimes the same. Superheroes tell us to stop thinking, and just do it (Nike runs by the same motto). Thinking is for villains, the likes of Joker and Loki. Even when they do think, like Tony Stark does in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), it is bound to end up horribly screwed and threaten the existence of the ‘world as we know it’.
I am in no way endorsing the humanity-annihilating or enslaving schemes of Loki or the chaos-fetishism of the Joker; I don’t think that they would be even hypothetically fun. What I am trying to get at is an argument for the importance of thought, and intelligence. At the risk of essentialising, I think what superhero films do is undermine the importance of thought, of intelligence, of dialogue, of discourse and put all weight on blunt action, unilateral goodwill, and forceful enforcement of the state ideological machinery and status quo that would produce more and more zombie-like citizens to fuel the state apparatus. We should be more supportive of intellect. We should have more faith on words, on thought, on conversation. Perhaps we should not just keep moving, but take it slow, think more, do less.
– Souraj Dutta