Madness and Superheroes

A Foucaultian analysis of the madness of the gritty, realistic superhero movie.

(Enjoy this guest post by Richard Herbert. – Ed.)

We must understand it not as reason diseased, or as reason lost or alienated, but quite simply as reason dazzled.

–Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization

war of the worldsIn 1938, Americans who tuned into Mercury Theater on Air’s Halloween program a bit late listened with rapt-attention and evolving terror as their radio-broadcast ostensibly reported the invasion of Earth by Martians. Of course, had they tuned in a few minutes earlier, they would have heard the program’s disclaimer identifying the work as a radio drama; a drama that used the format of news broadcasting to tell a science-fiction story. The panic that ensued, though probably not as great as the newspapers of the time would have us believe, was an example of a rational response to an imagined situation. After all, Orson Welles and Co. had carefully studied Herbert Morrison’s reporting of the Hindenburg disaster, and the broadcast ran without the commercials listeners would expect from a radio drama—all to increase the production’s sense of realism. Furthermore, this was during America’s peak alien fervor, well before better observation of Mars had discredited the supposed “Martian canals” and failed to reveal any evidence of intelligent life or civilizations on the Red Planet’s surface (Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles was still over a decade away).

Therefore, listeners who thought the broadcast was real, keeping in mind the lengths Welles and his cadre of performers went to in order to present a “real” experience, were not necessarily acting irrationally when they made frightened phone calls to the police, or peered out their windows to catch a glimpse of spaceships in the sky. But these reactions, though rationally justified, were nonetheless within the confines of a very convincing illusion: there were no spaceships, only the suggestion of them.

trainAnother, similar urban legend alleges that during the first screening of L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, a nineteenth century documentary short film of a train pulling into a station, audience members went screaming through the aisles in panic, due to the realism of the film and the unfamiliarity most people of the time had with motion pictures. While, again, accounts have probably been exaggerated (or confused with a later, stereoscopic viewing of the film), they nonetheless highlight the fine line between reality and a convincing illusion.

But how do you describe a physical response to what is clearly imagination, perfectly reasoned as it may be for the person doing it? It is not irrationality, because if you are convinced of an alien invasion or that you are about to be flattened by a train, action is the only rational response. But neither is it exactly reason: a better sense of judgment should keep a person from being fully convinced of a false image in the first place, even intuitively. To find the answer, we might look to Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault’s first major work, wherein he describes the history (or at least his version of it) of the relationship between madness and European society, from the Middle Ages through the end of the Age of Reason. In doing so, he proffers both an extensive examination of how different periods have viewed and reacted to madness, as well as his own, more general definition of what makes someone mad:

All that madness can say of itself is merely reason, though it is itself the negation of reason. In short, a rational hold over madness is always possible and necessary, to the very degree that madness is non-reason. There is only one word which summarizes this experience, Unreason: all that, for reason, is closest and most remote, emptiest and most complete; all that presents itself to reason in familiar structures—authorizing a knowledge, and then a science, which seeks to be positive—and all that is constantly in retreat from reason, in the inaccessible domain of nothingness.

264-the-dark-knight-rises-batmanFoucault believes the mad person is not without reason; in fact, he believes the “language of madness” to be rationality itself—a rationality that has accepted the imagination, or delirium, as truth. So it is interesting to think how he might have scrutinized someone like David S. Goyer, the writer and producer of Man of Steel and The Dark Knight trilogy, who has expressed his desire to create films depicting superheroes in our own world—to create the illusion of gods with mystical powers, or rich men who become godlike idols, fighting for justice in the streets of Chicago or New York.  Is this cinematic chicanery, the attempt to portray a realistic Superman or Batman, so far removed from Orson Welles’ desire to scare his audiences into believing Earth was being invaded by Martians? Perhaps not.

Nearly no one above the age of ten believes that Superman or Batman is real, but surely critics’ comparison of The Dark Knight to Heat will alone illuminate the how far society has come in sublimating supernatural and/or mythical icons into the roles of gritty action heroes. A look at recent or upcoming movies based in the Marvel or DC universes, such as The Wolverine, Man of Steel, Thor: The Dark World, and even Iron Man 3, betrays a similar conceit for any superhero adaptation with literary aspirations: by placing superheroes in a grimier, darker, more realistic world, viewers will be more “immersed,” and therefore more entertained.  This is where Foucault’s distinction between irrationality and unreason becomes most clear. As he states:  “Meaningless disorder as madness is, it reveals, when we examine it, only ordered classifications, rigorous mechanisms in soul and body, language articulated according to a visible logic.”

Life is a volatile and turbulent first-person experience—a perpetual shaky cam of linear perspective that, permitting the occasional jump cut after a few too many drinks, happens in real time, all the time. Narrative entertainment—or any entertainment that uses thematic and/or theatrical elements to tell a story—functions differently. Though having long evolved from the cave-paintings of antiquity, wherein stories were told through a sequence of simple pictures, modern forms of entertainment and theater never really lost the core of that ancient form: the static chronology, the implied distance between form and idea, the jumping back and forth through time. Early petroglyphs were not documentation, in the way that early Linear B tablets were, but communication: whether to lament the futility of human existence, indicate the fertility of a particular site, or teach the best ways to kill a boar, “motion pictures” told a story.

But the inclination to thrust larger-than-life, supernatural, or otherwise improbable characters—particularly superheroes, but this could be true for any number of “re-imaginings” popular in Hollywood for the past few decades—into a realistic environment damages the metaphorical value inherent in these stories’ origins. The Batman comics, or cartoon-series, are drawn pictures, representative of actual life only insofar as our imaginations and the intentions of the artists allow. You will never mistake a comic for reality, and how much that world can exist in your mind is entirely dependent on your providing pictures with metaphorical or representative value, all of which happens autonomously in your head—all of which requires you believe things can have metaphorical value in the first place.

In film, though, this is a little different. No one walks out of Man of Steel, or The Dark Knight Rises, believing the events that happened are real. But one might walk out and say, “That was a realistic superhero movie.” Rationally, those words are preposterous, but that is nonetheless what David Goyer and Christopher Nolan want to happen. They do not want you to look at their Gotham and see dark spires a la early German expressionism, nor do they want to embrace the ridiculous camp of the original TV series or the dark, extremely over-the-top satire of the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher films. They want you to see the streets of Detroit, of Chicago, of New York; they want you to see in the Falcone family’s seedy underbellies real-life crime cartels; they want you to believe Batman could actually exist, given the right circumstances.

man_of_steel_flagEven Man of Steel succumbs to this kind of absurd rationalization, what Foucault calls “rigorous mechanisms”: although all of the explanations are dubious at best, ridiculous at worst, there is a constant flow of “scientific,” or at least rational, justifications for Superman’s powers, his homeland, and his costume. To Foucault, madness is not imagination, but the acceptance of imagination as truth: “But while error is merely non-truth, while the dream neither affirms nor judges, madness fills the void of error with images, and links hallucinations by affirmation of the false. In a sense, it is thus plenitude, joining to the figures of night the powers of day, to the forms of fantasy the activity of the waking mind; it links the dark content with the forms of light.”

Therefore, even if one walks out of the theater confident in their grasp of reality, one might see the film-going experience (presuming one was engrossed by it) of watching superheroes portrayed realistically as a kind of temporary madness, shared communally by everyone in the theater. Movies these days might be more comparable to amusement park rides than to stories, but they have the unique ability to  present realistic images—Foucault’s delirious images—using chicanerous production techniques that inundate viewers with a sense of being a part of something real. Man of Steel loves its shaky-cam, and the Dark Knight loves its plausibility. But when, in the history of all things sensible, did someone say, “I want a realistic superhero movie?”

Children often play superhero, standing atop the slide or fort, hands on their hips, pretending to be a caped crusader. The act of pretending is not itself an act of madness, but a kind of wish-fulfillment. Similarly, teenagers and twenty-somethings, however subconsciously, want to see their moral and physical paragons—vulnerable but undefeatable; complex but ethically inexorable—walking their streets, not the streets of some fantasy world. The metaphorical value of the superhero is lost because a metaphor requires an assertion of will on the part of the viewer–a belief that there is value beyond an image. Hollywood is teaching us that you cannot inspire people by metaphor alone anymore–you must convince them, if only for a couple of hours, their heroes are tangible. Not hidden somewhere in our hearts, not a symbol for the hope held in every person, but actually walking the streets; cloaked by moral penumbra; lurking in Detroit, Chicago, New York; keeping people safe in these turbulent times.

The ultimate language of madness is that of reason, but the language of reason enveloped in the prestige of the image, limited to the locus of appearance which the image defines. It forms, outside the totality of images and the universality of discourse, an abusive, singular organization whose insistent quality constitutes madness.

The act of hope is an act of imagination—the ability to perceive a future better than your current circumstances. Hollywood, instead of asking people to question their perceptions and take part in the act of imagination, the act of of hope, now simply says, “Sit back, let us do it for you.” All the metaphorical work has been taken on by the image itself, insisting that we, as the audience, should not question the truth of it, but become subsumed by its truth. One can see the movie theater itself as a modern place of confinement–a madhouse, if you will: you are not to question reality, your circumstances, or imagine something greater than yourself while you are here, because you don’t need to. “Your gods are real. They walk your streets,” the director of L’Hôpital de Cinéma says, stroking your hair, comforting you in your white, palate-less cell.

“Everything is fine.”


Richard Herbert is a freelance marketing writer and film geek in Portland, who spends most of his time drinking coffee and over-analyzing pop culture.