The Modern Superhero: Symbolism vs Realism

Sam Wilson grapples with the idea of becoming Captain America. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios and The Walt Disney Company.

Superhero stories try to remain relevant through a myriad of methods. Sometimes, they blend genres, like when Captain America became a werewolf (Captain America #402, Captain America: Sam Wilson #3). Other times, they take inspiration from real-life scenarios, or at least potential ones, like when the Justice League’s methods were challenged by the U.S. government (Justice League Unlimited, Season 2). More often than not, the latter is fumbled and hamfisted. It’s seemingly easier to poke fun at one form of fiction through another and still tell an entertaining superhero story than to tell a poignant story with characters who inevitably exist as revenue engines. The outcome is symbolism replacing realism, making the idea more important than the reality.

For example, Marvel’s streaming television show The Falcon and the Winter Soldier recently ended its season on Disney+. It revolved around the titular characters stopping the Flag Smashers, a “woke” terrorist organization with inconsistent motivations, only to then lecture the world about “labels” and say the terrorists were right all along. On top of this, Sam Wilson’s (Anthony Mackie) journey to becoming Captain America is seemingly rooted in the idea of racial inadequacy, which is explored entirely through Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly). After Sam inevitably decides to become Captain America, both characters sweep the conflict under the rug and hug it out. To me, the story aims for “realism,” but instead relies on “symbolism” and melodrama.

Merriam-Webster defines “symbolism” as “artistic imitation or invention that is a method of revealing or suggesting immaterial, ideal, or otherwise intangible truth or states.” It similarly defines “realism” as “the theory or practice of fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization.” Superhero stories tend to masquerade symbolism as realism, at times to a pretentious fault. The symbolism of a Black Captain America was more important than the realities of what that could mean. Does it even have to mean something? We’re left to assume that it should. In context, it just feels like an old character got promoted after doing a bunch of shady shit.

The Ancestral Plane from 2018’s “Black Panther.” Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios and The Walt Disney Company.

Ironically, Marvel better balanced the two in another property: 2018’s Black Panther. Here, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is confronted with the sins of his father, which spawned his radical cousin, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, née N’Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan). The film visualizes the ancestral connections, or lack thereof, between the children of the African diaspora, which is clear symbolism. However, its portrayal of Killmonger as an outsider serves as both symbolism and realism, as the central conflict examines the complicated relationship between Africans and African Americans in an honest manner.

This is where The Falcon and the Winter Soldier falters, in part because it juggles too many ideas rather than using them to drive the same story. Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) and her Flag Smashers have nothing to do with Bradley and his story, yet the latter is the more relevant and interesting plot. If the two had been blended—like Karli being the grandchild of either a soldier Bradley saved or someone he let go before being imprisoned—it might have been easier to justify Sam’s eventual decision. There would have probably left more screen time for him to truly grapple with it, too, despite it being a foregone conclusion. In the end, we were left with the symbols of the woke terrorists and the Black Captain America with sprinklings of realism, making it both emotionally resonant and perplexing.

Now, I don’t hate the show at all: I’ve been waiting for it since 2016. I don’t hate symbolism, either, nor do I think it’s inferior to realism. There’s great story potential in a Black American superhero fighting a left-wing extremist group. It can have both good symbolism and realism, like in Black Panther, without feeling cheap. My problem is with the two being conflated and marketed as equivalent when they’re not, or worse: when they’re done poorly and praised solely for their inclusion. This is the territory I fear as we approach an age of greater representation in superhero media. Will it be superficial or truthful? I hope, for all of our sakes, it is the latter.

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