Superheroes: Ritual or Ideology?

Chris Evans as Captain America, running.

Rick Wysocki

June 9, 2022

I read something fascinating in Rick Altman’s book that I discussed in another recent post. He talked about two ways that critics tend to look at films. These are as ritual or as ideology. He wrote:

Whereas ritual critics interpret narrative situations and structural relations as offering imaginative solutions to society’s real problems, ideological critics see the same situations and structures as luring audiences into accepting deceptive non-solutions, while all the time serving governmental or industry purposes (Altman 27).

In other words, we might think of movies as:

I don’t mean to mock the latter position. I’m fairly receptive to it. But in the interest of making some of these ideas as understandable as possible, that’s generally what is meant by the term “ideology,” even if folks who use the term have more complicated ways of explaining it.

Altman makes another interesting comment, though: Both ritual-critics and ideology-critics tend to focus on largely the same movies. Typically, these are Hollywood movies. Altman suggests that the reason Hollywood movies are so successful is that they encourage both types of interpretations. The same can be said of superhero movies today.

I searched a bit and tried to find an example of a ritual explanation. Julian Leu… kind of fit the bill. Close enough, anyway. He wrote:

Our fondness for stories cannot be denied. And with a superhero setting, it is easy to engineer a clear story structure that allows for a facile understanding of the matters at hand and facilitates the supply of fast-paced entertainment. In such a context, the bad guys are clearly defined, and so are the good guys. The latter are expected to do battle against the former and win – whether they do it in the name of justice, for a loved one or for personal fame and honour, there will be plenty of fights, explosions, betrayals and special effects along the way. With a simple story which appeals to a wide audience, one that usually ends on a positive note and charges the viewers with positive energy and some degree of self-confidence, it’s easy to understand the success of such films. They’re essentially tales about people who can do things that we mere mortals never will, stories of right versus wrong, of triumph (and occasionally tragedy). A critical eye might frown at the too similar plot lines, lackluster writing and childish motivations of the characters, but the appeal to a low common denominator is undoubtedly high.

In other words, superhero films give us rituals for viewing social problems and how they might be solved through acts of heroism. Good will always triumph over evil.

A ritualist reading might go further, that everyday individuals like us can take action on those problems. The recent Spider-Man installments are a good example, which take great pains to point out that Peter Parker is just a normal high-school kid. Still, he sees injustice and does something.

Tom Holland as Peter Parker in science class. He is wearing protective glasses.

You, too, can prevent birds / your girlfriend’s dad from attacking society, or whatever.

Leu’s explanation still has elements of an ideological reading. Honestly, it was hard to find one that didn’t without just looking at Reddit comments or fandom pages. Purely ritualistic readings are less in fashion these days, and critique is more valued. Discussing this would take a separate blog post and, to be honest, I’m not particularly interested in writing it. Nonetheless, consider Leu’s commentary above in contrast to Alejando Iñárittu’s scathing critique of superhero movies’ ideological bent:

I think there’s nothing wrong with being fixated on superheroes when you are 7 years old, but I think there’s a disease in not growing up. The corporation and the hedge funds have a hold on Hollywood and they all want to make money on anything that signifies cinema [….] Basically, the room to exhibit good nice films is over. These are taking the place of all those things [….] I sometimes enjoy them because they are basic and simple and go well with popcorn. The problem is that sometimes they purport to be profound, based on some Greek mythological kind of thing. And they are honestly very right wing. I always see them as killing people because they do not believe in what you believe, or they are not being who you want them to be. I hate that, and don’t respond to those characters. They have been poison, this cultural genocide, because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and shit that doesn’t mean nothing about the experience of being human.

There’s things that are easy to criticize here. For one, it comes across as pretty elitist, and it seems to imagine a fantasy world where Hollywood that existed before big business.

Still, there does seem to be something disturbing about literal superhumans who, film after film, bend reality to their will. Often, these films frame violence as a sort of noble and just power. From an ideological reading, superheroes demonstrate relate to Karl Rove’s often-forgotten and incredibly unsettling justification for the Iraq war:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

So which stance is correct? From my perspective, neither. No one but the bleakest of the bleak critic would bother watching films if there were no joy to be had from them, and part of that enjoyment stems from seeing how our reality can be depicted in art. Even if we disagree with that depiction.

At the same time, it’s undeniable that movies are market-driven–not least so because they’re so expensive to make. And you would be hard-pressed to argue that films don’t assume stances on social issues that might in some cases be referred to as propagandistic. And these same films can still be good.

It’s more interesting to shuffle between the two perspectives. I might not be the audience for every superhero movie, and I have my own critiques of the worldviews that they represent. At the same time, I found it interesting and enjoyable that the recent Dr. Strange movie assumed many genre features of horror, and many of the horror features seemed informed by a need to process some of our recent difficulties as a national and a global society. You know the ones.

Works Cited