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Why do superhero movies work? || Acharya Prashant, with Delhi University (2023)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
11 min
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Questioner (Q): Good evening, sir. My question is related to superhero films. As you have said cinema is a powerful medium for social change apart from being extremely entertaining. In recent years we have seen how superhero movies have dominated the market in Hollywood and how the collection of such films has generally crossed a billion dollars which is more than the GDP of ten per cent of the nations in the world. So, these movies are basically based on visual effects and star power.

They are very successful. And people usually fantasize about superheroes very much. So, I want to ask that why these films are so successful and why people fantasize about superheroes so much. And is it because of the reflection of our inner inferiorities?

Acharya Prashant (AP): See, when you normalize mediocrity then one will be compelled to look for excellence at unexpected places. In the name of democracy and liberal values, we have normalized mediocrity. So, if you call, for example, a fat person ‘a fat person’; fat, by definition, is someone who is overweight and whose figure has abnormally high proportions. But if you call a fat person ‘a fat person’, that is called body shaming. So, what has happened is that everything that is mediocre has been attempted to look respectable in some way or the other.

Even if someone speaks in a most unconscious and drunken state, we still say, “Let him have freedom of speech.” Don't we say that? We do not say that freedom of speech must be contingent on the quality of speech. Do we say that? No, we don't say that. We say, “Everybody will have a minute to speak.” So, if there is a Buddha, he will get one minute to speak and if there is a drunkard, he too will get one minute to speak. The Buddha will have one vote, and the lousiest person on the planet too will have one vote.

So, mediocrity has been institutionalized. For example, you go to court. I’m not denouncing that; I’m just stating the fact. I’m trying to explain the phenomena that you have inquired into Superman-superhero movies. Right? I’m trying to go into that. So, you go to a court of law, it does not matter who you are, it does not matter what your intentions really are, the court will only look at gross actions. And then, proudly, it will be declared that the law is the same for everybody. We'll say that we do not differentiate, and nobody will have privileges. That does not mean that I am advocating privileges for a particular class, I'm just stating the fact.

You look at culture, you look at movies. What kind of a movie am I likely to make as a film producer? I want profits, don't I? Even if I don't want normal profits, I want at least sufficient profits to keep me afloat. I don't want to make losses, correct? I want to make the next movie as well, so I don't want losses. Now if I want my movie to work, I'll have to make a movie that appeals to the masses. So, I'll have to make the most mediocre kind of movie. And that movie will appeal to the masses and will make money; correct?

Look at books, look at literature. Great books cannot sell a great deal. You look at the current best sellers; none of them is worth any other place than the dustbin. Instead, you find them all stacked in the best sellers list. But the authors know the secret. They know that the readers are all crap, so they love to read crap. So, all kinds of shitty books will be bestsellers. Are you getting this?

So, what you find is a completely overwhelming presence, total domination of mediocrity in this world. Even where there is excellence, that excellence has been handed over to mediocrity, so that excellence can serve mediocrity. For example, the mobile phone. The mobile phone is such a sophisticated piece of equipment. But look at who it is being served by the mobile phone. The mobile phone is in the service of the worst kind of scoundrel. And look at the kind of things they are doing with the mobile phone. So, ultimately, when if there is excellence, that excellence has been made subservient to mediocrity. That's the world, the environment we are living in.

So, what happens then, as a result? All of us within have a point, a corner that loves excellence. Irrespective of how mediocre you are, irrespective of how deeply you outwardly hate excellence, there is a point within you that loves excellence. And it is that point within us that is at the centre of all spirituality. You may be down in the dumps, you may be someone who has made the gutter his home, but still, a point in you loves the stars, the sky. And you cannot kill that point till the day you are alive. Something in you will continue to be in love with the Beyond, you cannot kill that thing.

So, look at our situation. All around us, mediocrity prevails, all-pervasive mediocrity we have, whichever area of human activity we look at. And even if there is excellence, we said that excellence is in the service of mediocrity, right? So, what happens to my love then? Mediocrity might be useful, but mediocrity cannot be loved. I love that superhero. It is that Superman, that Friedrich Nietzsche talked of as the end goal of all evolution. He said, “We live, so that ultimately one day the Superman can emerge.” That's how deeply we love the Superman. We exist for the sake of the Superman. Not a Superman like Spider-Man or Batman or a Steel Man or whatever; no, not that kind of Superman. That Superman is somebody of the Beyond, somebody who has conquered the normal human fallibilities. Somebody who has conquered himself is the Superman. And Nietzsche said it's that Superman that entire existence is living for; so that one day he might be born.

We all love that Superman but we do not know who is it that we really love. So, instead of that real Superman, we create, draw, and imagine caricatures of Superman in the form of superhero movies. And then, we fall in love with those movies and those movies become blockbusters. Do you see what is really happening in a psychological way? You are tired of seeing dwarfs and pygmies all around you; you want to see a real human being.

And our education, our upbringing, our culture is such that it has become very difficult to have real human beings, tall in the inner sense. Our world is such that we are mass-producing pygmies, dwarfs, little ones, bonsais. The entire thing that we have, the upbringing that we have at home, and the education, and the influences of the media, and the job and the institutions that we must subscribe to — all these things together constitute a giant factory and that giant factory is producing dwarfs.

But within you is somebody who loves tall men, but tall men are nowhere to be found. By ‘tall men’ I do not mean six feet five, I'm talking in allegories; right? You understand symbolism? You love to see real men. But our system does not produce real men and women; it produces junk, despicable junk, not fit to be called human beings. So, as a result, then you try to find solace in superhero movies.

You see, finally, here we have someone who has conquered some human limitations. For example, Spider-Man can quickly climb up the walls. Now, what is he actually representing in a psychic sense? He is representing victory over a human limitation. It’s just that even if you get the power to climb up the walls rapidly that will not satisfy your love.

You know, what is it that you really are longing for? You're longing for someone who has conquered himself; not the walls, not the aliens from some other planet. Each of us is longing for someone who has had the guts to conquer himself, who has gone beyond himself. He is the real Superman, he is the one we all await.

The irony is ‘the one we all await’ is within us. So, you don't really have to look hither, thither, outward, somewhere. The movie theatre is the last place where you will get the Superman. The Superman is here, within. And it doesn't matter if you are physically a woman, still, the Superman is within you. You could call him a superwoman, it doesn't matter. And the purpose of human life is to give birth to this Superman, this Superwoman inside us.

Watching a Batman movie will not suffice, not at all. Because you’ll go and watch that movie, and then you will come back to your mediocre life. So, how will it help? Being the Superman is not entertainment, it is sacrifice, it is penance, it is austerity, it is Tapasya in the real sense. Are you getting it? Are you with me, or have I left you behind somewhere?

Q: No, sir. I'm getting it.

AP: So, the Superhuman, the superhero is not really merely a fantasy. In some sense, the Superman within us is more real than anything else we know of. Because it is the Superman, we all live for, so, what can be more real than that? In that sense, the Superman is the ultimate purpose of all spirituality. If you continue to remain an ordinary man or woman, then you are not religious. The purpose of religion is to take you beyond your ordinary mortality and turn you into a super being. By ‘super’, it is meant transcendence, going beyond the normal human limitations. And if you cannot go beyond your normal human limitations, life is just suffering. Who wants to live a mediocre life of suffering?

So, it is not a privilege, not just a fantastic ambition to be a Superman; it is your fundamental obligation towards your own life. You will have to be a Superman if you do not want to die suffering.

But we are very funny people. Instead of paying the real price to discover and unleash the Superhuman within us, we pay for a movie ticket. And needless to say, that will not help. You may feel temporarily inspired. You see, “That fellow is fighting so many baddies, especially from some other universe. They have come to colonize Earth and they want to destroy our lives. And this fellow gets up as the saviour of mankind and saves all of us.” All that is temporary entertainment. It's not the outsiders that you need to fight, it is not the alien invaders that you need to fight. The real Superman fights the Evil within.

And that's why I said: the Superman really is the highest potentiality resting within each of us. Next time you find a new superhero release, you must remind yourself. You must remind yourself of what it really stands for. And tell yourself, “Alright! Thank you, Mr Producer, Mr Actor; you have reminded me of the purpose of my life.”

Q: Thank you, Acharya Ji.

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