Editor’s Note: Roy Schwartz is the author of the new book “Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero.” Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and at royschwartz.com. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
With movie theaters reopening this summer and superheroes back in full swing, it’s interesting to note that at this moment of cultural reckoning with our past and our present the summer slate of superheroes all share a common theme — they’re about reinvention.
We tend to think of superheroes, a quintessential American invention, as unwavering paragons of virtue. Yes, Marvel’s formula has always been flawed people more burdened than gifted with powers and DC’s more recent films have given us a melancholy Superman and extra-surly Batman, but they’re still the good guys. They always come through.
We understand superheroes to be idealized reflections of our self image, our wish fulfillment. Which is why it’s notable that, as we grapple with social change in the wake of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #StopAntisemitism and other movements, the upcoming crop of superhero movies and TV shows all feature antiheroes seeking change and redemption.
First is “Black Widow” starring Scarlett Johansson, which premiered July 9. Although she’s a member of the Avengers, Marvel’s all-star team, she’s a far cry from a squeaky clean hero. She’s a former villain (in the comics she started out as a bad guy; in the films it’s her back story), a Russian spy and assassin who defected to the U.S. and became a government agent for S.H.I.E.L.D., forever trying to atone for all the “red in her ledger.” Without revealing more than the trailers do, the film is a quest for penance and family reconciliation.
It’s also the first solo film for the character after appearing in seven others, and after being repeatedly pushed back from its original release date in 2020 due to Covid-19. It has a lot to make up for and a lot to prove: that superhero movies are still a viable genre, that they can bring people back to theaters, that female-led action films can be successful, that the character deserved her own film, and that the Widow can earn forgiveness, if not absolution.
The movie comes on the heels of three shows on Disney+ set in the same Marvel Cinematic Universe, all of which likewise feature morally dubious protagonists seeking to break good. In “WandaVision,” Elizabeth Olsen plays the Scarlet Witch, another reformed villain, whose struggle to come to terms with her loss and grief leads to a mental breakdown and the mostly unconscious subjugation of an entire town (an act that, once realized, doesn’t horrify her nearly as much as it should).
In “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” — the latter named after what antiwar Vietnam veterans called themselves to convey that true patriots must speak up against America’s own crimes — is Captain America’s former sidekick Bucky (Sebastian Stan), who was brainwashed into becoming a ruthless assassin and now must contend with his past. Together with the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), a black superhero who inherits the star-spangled shield, they seek to find their place in, live up to and redefine the legacy of Captain America. The show was announced back in April 2019 and the characters were created years before that, prefiguring but perfectly capturing the current zeitgeist.
“Loki,” starring Tom Hiddleston, is about the “Thor” and “Avengers” villain’s reluctant journey of self-discovery. Whether he’ll successfully redefine himself remains to be seen, but the show does its best to convince that the scheming, mass-murdering egomaniac is, deep inside, an endearing, rascally misfit.
Following the simultaneous release of “WW84 (Wonder Woman 1984)” in theaters and on HBO Max last Christmas, DC is hoping to make its triumphant return to movie theaters with “The Suicide Squad” on Aug. 6. (Like CNN, HBO Max is a part of Warner Media.)
A sequel to 2016’s “Suicide Squad” and 2020’s spinoff “Birds of Prey,” the very concept of the Squad is about clemency, both legal and moral: supervillains recruited by the U.S. government as expendable operatives for clandestine operations in exchange for reduced sentences.
Leading the cast is Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, a criminal psychiatrist turned psychotic criminal. Originally the Joker’s girl Friday and love interest, she eventually broke free of the exploitive and abusive relationship to become a villain in her own right, though one with something of a conscience. In the comics she’s evolved even further, into an antihero who frequently fights alongside bona fide heroes like Superman.
She’s had a similar redemption arc as a character. Debuting in 1992’s “Batman: The Animated Series,” she was conceived as a one-off but proved popular enough to become a mainstay, then a breakout star. Imported into the comics canon in 1999, she grew to become DC’s most popular and bankable character after the “big three” Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. She now stars in her own comic book, animated series (voiced by Kaley Cuoco) as well as “The Suicide Squad.”
On Aug. 10, “Stargirl” returns to the CW for its second season. Brec Bassinger plays the patriotic-themed teen hero, a mantle she assumed from the deceased Starman. She’s well-meaning but naïve, impulsive and hardheaded, resulting more than once in unfortunate or even tragic consequences. In her quest to prove herself worthy she enlists a hesitant mentor, the former sidekick S.T.R.I.P.E. (Luke Wilson), who’s haunted by his failure to save his original superhero team. They are each other’s chance at vindication, which they take the first step toward in the first season finale, when they stop a mass brainwashing conspiracy— literally, the stars and stripes vs. disinformation and groupthink.
Also on the CW, “Superman & Lois,” starring Tyler Hoechlin and Bitsie Tulloch and currently in its first season, isn’t so much about redemption from sins past as much as reexamination of identity and the ability to change and grow. The Man of Steel, who traditional wisdom holds is too immutable to offer anything new, is now married to Lois Lane and is the father of two teenage sons, one of whom inherited his superpowers but also suffers from mental illness, a volatile mix.
No other superhero embodies the fantasy of transformation, of shedding shortcomings and fulfilling potential, as Clark Kent does when he turns into Superman. He is the ultimate American icon.
From Superman’s debut in the summer of 1938 as a crusading New Dealer advocating coexistence, social welfare, workers’ rights, immigration reform and interventionism, superheroes have reflected the politics and issues of their times. They’ve changed along with the American mindset — in the ’50s, Superman became a patriarchal conservative, in the ‘60s an identity-fluid oddball, in the ‘70s an omnipotent almost-cynic, in the ‘80s a revitalized neocon, etc. — and so, in the current state of social unrest and reflection, Superman is a little more pensive and less perfect (even the yellow in his “S” is a little stained).
It’s why the 2021 summer offerings are heavy on antiheroes seeking their own reform, and why superheroes continue to resonate: They offer the great promise that we have not just the power to save the world, but the power to save ourselves.