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The Post 911 Politics of Cinematic Superheroes

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By Gregory Bray, Ph.D

Look!  Up in the Sky!  It’s a Bird!  It’s a Plane!  It’s Political Allegory! I sometimes picture the opening of the George Reeves the Adventures of Superman with this phrase; after all, this is where Superman went from protecting Truth and Justice to Truth, Justice, and the American Way, cementing his presence as a guardian of American values.

True, he had previously been used (along with Batman, Captain America, and others) as a symbol of American Freedom during World War II—going so far as to urge young people to buy war bonds and help donate tires.  But during the Cold War era, this was Superman as the quintessential pushback against Communist Soviet Russia.  George Reeves, standing on the moon, cape and American flag blowing across his broad (albeit padded) shoulders, providing us all with escapist comfort and the purity of our American lifestyles.  The world is safe—they may have Sputnik, we have a man of steel.

Post 911 Doctrines and Contemporary Cultural Influence

Contemporary comics, and their live action (and animated) counterparts also exist in this cultural landscape—the reimagining or revamping of comic characters tend to coincide with the actual world in which they are drawn.  Look no further than Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) or Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) as a visceral reaction to the New York that Bernie Goetz lived in.

Is there any doubt that Nolan’s Batman is a post 9-11 Batman? Or that the recent Iron Man films are also not, in part, drawn from our post-terrorist attack society?  From Bruce Wayne’s origins in understanding the Dickensian notion of survival crimes to his infiltration (first accidentally) of a worldwide terrorist regime, right down to his handling of the Joker—reimagined as a domestic terrorist.

Whose Side is Batman On?

Wayne is a 21st Century capitalist and defender of what Zizek calls ‘liberal values.’   Indeed, Batman goes so far as to fight AGAINST the Gotham occupy movement (true, Occupy Wall Street happened while the film was in production, but the seeds of class warfare had been present for any number of years beforehand). In his article, The politics of Batman, published online via New Statesmen, cultural critic and philosopher Slavoj Zizek observed that:

The Dark Knight Rises shows that Hollywood blockbusters are precise indicators of the ideological predicaments of our societies… (the) objection is that the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement in reality was not violent – its goal was definitely not a new Reign of Terror. In so far as Bane’s revolt is supposed to extrapolate the immanent tendency of OWS, the film absurdly misrepresents its aims and strategies.”

One of my objections to The Dark Knight Rises was that its comment on contemporary social struggles was entirely wrong-headed. In a sense, it made the argument that OWS was a smokescreen to allow the Taliban into the city, which in turn allowed the lower classes (the villains) to revolt against the upper classes (the heroes).

It is not an accident that Batman fights side-by-side with the police against Bane and the lower classes, who have just pushed the rich out of their apartments.  This is Nolan’s reinforcement of America’s view of socialism.  A violent mechanism that deceives the Dickensian society.

To support this claim, witness the scene between Selina Kyle and her friend now occupying a forcibly evicted wealthy tenant, in which Selina laments that they’re in someone else’s apartment.  “It’s everybody’s now,” her friend reassures her.  Much of the film operates as an Ayn Rand super-hero fantasy—a sheer black and white world devoid of nuance but containing political text fiercely aligned with the patriot act and libertarian fantasy of political reality.

This year Iron Man entered the foray in his third cinematic outing.  Early on in the film, we learn about Tony Stark’s nefarious past—and how it resulted in a scientist/capitalist competitor who gained grounds through his use of biological warfare technology that Stark had previously sneered at.

In this case, we see capitalism manipulating the media and the world population by inventing the image of the terrorist—indeed, Osama Bin Laden is directly addressed in the film’s text as a ‘face of terrorism,’ which has been produced by corporate interest as a means of obscuring the truth—terrorism, in the Iron Man Trilogy, is a money-making game.

The “Good Capitalist”

The irony in the Dark Knight Trilogy and in the Iron Man Trilogy is that the protagonist in both is a capitalist—both have made their money through military weaponry and by utilizing the stock market. Yes, we’re told early on in Batman Begins that Thomas Wayne would object to Wayne Enterprises being involved in military weapons creation—moments before we meet the Kevlar suit and the Tumbler, which Batman will put to good use as the Zizekian “good capitalist.”

Stark is the innocent capitalist, who is surprised when Stain reveals to him that they have been dealing their weaponry to both sides.  While both characters put their wealth and their weapons to good use, there is a clear distinction in their handling of the political landscape—one privileges libertarianism, one privileges liberalism.

The Mandarin

In fact, the handling of The Mandarin character in Iron Man 3 has drawn a great deal of ire from pockets of the fan community, as it is a not only a departure from the comics, but a criticism of America’s actual war on terror.  We have met the puppets, the film purports, but only Iron Man and the (ironically played) Iron Patriot know the Truth.

Which Superman Will We Get?

This brings us to Man of Steel, which will open in a matter of days.  This character belongs in the post 9-11 world as Iron Man and The Dark Knight (it is also being produced by Chris Nolan), and yet the protagonist is a true outsider. Not involved in the corporate capitalism machinery, not involved in the political spheres, but certainly raised in the very heart of Americana—though how that is represented in the 21st Century remains to be seen.

What will Superman, the icon of American values realized in our visual popular culture bring to the foray?  Will Zod be his Osama?  His Mandarin?  His Joker?  Will the post-Patriot Act paranoia present itself in the political world of story?  We will find out in a matter of days if the American Way retains any of its Cold War subtext, or if Metropolis, like Gotham, is wrapped in a world of uncertain class warfare, while justifying its police state policies.


Gregory Bray, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in Digital Media Production at the State University of New York New Paltz. He is an award winning documentary filmmaker, published scholar, media educator, and holds his Ph.D. from the European Graduate School, Saas-Fee Switzerland. He is married to artist Nadine May Lewis, and they reside with their children Eamon and Nora in Ulster County, NY.



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