The mass teenager-ization of male culture


National Post, 22 November 2018

Stan Lee produced material 60 years ago aimed at children and teens, and lived long enough to see adult males become consumed by it

Fools rush in where only fanatics do not fear to tread. So herewith a disclaimer: Superhero comic books have no place in my adult life, and had a minimal place in my boyhood. I know that there are many grown men for whom comic-book superheroes are a very big deal — which is my point in venturing into a subject about which I do not pretend any expertise.

The recent death of Stan Lee at 95, the creative genius at Marvel Comics, occasioned much commentary, much of it the usual extravagant nonsense produced whenever a celebrity, no matter how minor, dies. But there were also others who offered more substantive reflections, even of a theological nature.

Any literature — even comic books — that has enduring value must touch on some enduring themes. When the Spider-Man movie came out and popularized “with great power comes great responsibility,” it became tiresome to note that the Gospel of Luke had gotten there some time ago: “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more,” (12:48).

But comic books — again like all literature — are meant to make eternal verities accessible in the vernacular of the day. And for those who might never get around to the scriptures, a comic book might help.

Stan Lee’s characters were many: Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Daredevil. I spent so little time with comic books as a boy that it was only when the movies got made recently that I came to know some of Lee’s characters.

I did watch the Black Panther movie, seduced by the propaganda that a black super hero was a moment of cultural significance. Lee did make his trademark cameo in the film, but I hope that is all he contributed. The first black superhero film was set a) in a crime-ridden urban American neighbourhood, and b) in the African jungle. A cultural breakthrough got stymied by the oldest of stereotypes.

Yet it is noteworthy that as an adult I was watching a movie about a super hero that I did not even read about when I was a boy. That was a great cultural shift of Lee’s very long life. He produced 60 years ago material aimed at children and teenagers, and lived long enough to see mass male culture become teenager-ized, so that his Marvel Comics characters made more money as senior citizens than they did in their infancy.

The teenager-ization of mass culture is nowhere more evident than the parade of super-hero movies made for audiences who do not aspire to be stretched even to the extent of Mister Fantastic’s elongated arm. But it is not only at the movies that men behave like teenagers.

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