Is Dune a Super-Hero Film?


Yesterday I responded to a lame Tweet from Variety that mentioned Timothée Chalamet and his reluctance to star in so-called "super-hero" films. I was being a little tongue-in-cheek when I said, "Dune is a super-hero film fyi" in response. I had no idea the fire-storm this would unleash. In a few short hours I was called "uneducated" and worse. Dozens of people felt it was important to remind me of the plot of the series and correct me. It was a weird day on Twitter to say the least.

Personally I do not like categorizing stories into genre boxes, I believe it is a fools errand. A story can be many, many things. And a great story often is much more than a simple label. I grew up devouring science-fiction and learning from the great writers of imaginative fiction. I read Dune when I was ten years old, right after I finished Foundation. And right before my first reading of Lord of the Rings. When I say I devoured books, I mean it. I read everything. And one of the most influential authors I devoured was Harlan Ellison, who was extremely opinionated about genre definitions. And how limiting they can be. He notoriously hated the "sci-fi" designation, for example.

Hero fiction goes all the way back to the beginning, to the saga of Gilgamesh. Hercules. And others. The Hero's Journey. The great arc of storytelling that has been passed down over the centuries. All fiction owes its history to these origins and super-hero fiction is no different. I'm not writing a college course here, but if you are interested there are plenty of superior works on the subject. Point being there is no way to clearly define what a "super-hero" actually is or isn't. It isn't powers, just ask Batman. It isn't science-fiction, or fantasy, or comedy, or any other genre - as works exist in all those genres that could easily be called Super-Hero works. If you doubt me just try defining what a comic book is or isn't and think of Maus, Concrete, Cerberus, Dark Knight, Heavy Metal, Moebius, or a thousand other examples that break easy definition.

Dune is in many ways a great super-hero origin story. But it is so much more. It is a fantastic work of imaginative fiction. It weaves a complex thread that includes many interpretations and welcomes debate. This is its enduring strength and why it has remained so resonant for so long. It is an amazing and incredible story. Defining it is not easy to do. And rather pointless. It is, after all, Dune. A singular work of greatness. And yes part of that greatness is that it has inspired and influenced thousands of creatives in other fields. 

Saying it is a super-hero story is both correct and horribly wrong. It certainly shares much with such stories but the definition limits it. Just as saying it is something else also limits it. People lose their minds over definitions. There are people still arguing about Star Wars, is it science-fiction or science-fantasy? What exactly is it?

Some works exceed definition. That is a sign of greatness. Dune is one of those works. It contains multitudes. And Paul Atreides is in many ways a super-hero. A complicated young man who is discovering his super-powers and grappling with his role in a larger universe. Often a pawn in a larger narrative and ultimately a victim of that same narrative. A warning to us all about white saviors, prophecy, and putting too much power in the hands of one person.

Sounds like a story we all need to pay attention to.