This month in Blasphemous Geometries: the life-span of the Bush administration has seen an astonishing proliferation of super hero cinema.
Jonathan McCalmont compares the rhetoric of American foreign and domestic policy with the thematic underpinnings of the super hero movie genre, and explains why he’ll be as glad to see the back of costumed crusaders as he will the back of Bush.
With the Bush era rumbling to a long overdue end, some critics have turned their gin-shortened attentions to the question of which cultural artefact best incapsulates W’s period in office. One popular yardsticks are the ways in which the Presidency has been depicted through film and TV. The Clinton era, for example, has come to be seen as a period of intensely human and libidinous cinematic Presidents such as those of Ivan Reitman’s Dave (1993) and Rob Reiner’s The American President (1995). In fact, were it not for films such as Independence Day (1996) and Air Force One (1997) asserting the President’s penchant for arse-kicking you could be forgiven for forgetting that while Clinton claimed to feel people’s pain, he was no slouch when it came to meting it out in the form of air strikes and deciding, for the first time, that the spread of WMDs was a military matter.
However, while the Bush era has been quick to provide us with Presidents who are either mentally unstable religious zealots (Battlestar Galactica) or bloodless pragmatists more eager to seek revenge than examine the facts (The Sum of all Fears ), the enduring cinematic icon of the Bush era is undeniably the super hero.
All top ten biggest opening days in cinematic history occurred during the Bush era and five of those films (including the top two) were about super heroes. Even if you look past the biggest box office successes, it is startling to note just how many super hero films have been made during the last decade. Spider-Man got a trilogy, as did the X-men and Blade. Batman got two, as did The Hulk and then there are the truck-loads of franchises that never got past volume one such as Superman, Hellblazer, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Iron Man and Ghost Rider. This is, of course, without mentioning televised cartoon series such as Teen Titans and Justice League or the non comics-based TV series Heroes and Mutant X. Aside from the billions devoted to making them (and then ensuring that each release is seen not as a product launch but as a cultural event), these films have also captured something about the timbre American public discourse.
In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), we were told that “with great power comes great responsibility”, a moral dictum that can be interpreted as much as a call to action as it can a request for introspective re-appraisal. The similarities between a powerful individual who lost a relative through inaction and an over-militarised lone Super Power that was victim to a terrorist atrocity ensured which interpretation would come to sculpt the political landscape. What is interesting about most of the super heroes depicted by Hollywood is that while many of them are motivated by moral zeal, none of them choose to direct their energies through community organisations or politics.
Admittedly, Bruce Wayne volunteering at a homeless shelter would have made for a less spectacular film… but the sheer number and prominence of these individualistic ubermenschen serves only to perpetuate the idea that the state is weak, corrupt and incompetent, and that collective action is powerless when compared to an individual willing to roll up their sleeves and ‘kick some ass’ – indeed, for further proof of this political tendency, look to the expanding number of specialist ‘Tsars’ on both sides of the Atlantic.
This idea is most explicitly expressed in Nolan’s Dark Knight (2008). The film takes its name from the idea that society is too sick to heal itself and that the only people who stand a chance at fixing America’s problems are unique individuals dubbed ‘knights’. Needless to say, Gotham’s political class is presented as so corrupt that the city needs a ‘dark knight’, particularly after the failure of Harvey Dent, a politician so skilled and morally focused that he makes JFK and Barack Obama look like Richard Nixon. Dent is not just a skilled politician; he is a Christ-like exception to a society that can only be effectively policed by billionaire philanthropist thugs.
However, it is not my intention to devote this column entirely to the violent and reactionary nature of super hero films; I take these observations to be so obvious that they scarcely need mentioning. Instead, I mean to focus upon two lesser but nonetheless important aspects of American political discourse over the last ten years – and I say ten rather than eight because I think that America has been under the same conservative cloud for the last thirty years, regardless of who was in the White House. The first similarity between super hero films and American politics is the use of the fig leaf.
Aside from cashing in on the large fan-bases and good will associated with decades-old intellectual properties, super hero films are first and foremost about spectacle. They are effects-laden multiplex fodder, seeking to entertain rather than instruct, to provoke adrenaline-soaked hind-brain stimulation rather than rational thought. However, always mindful of non-niche audiences, Hollywood tends to shy away from films that are purely spectacular (with one notable exception being Michael Bay’s utterly incoherent but sensorially relentless Transformers ), and so they generally feel compelled to pad the rest of their films out with more traditional dramatic elements such as characterisation, plot and (occasionally) theme.
Super hero films, due to the juvenile reputation of their source medium, have been particularly prone to this type of over-compensation. As a result, we have Dark Knight, a film which deals with escalating cycles of violence wedged in-between lavishly produced set pieces in which a man dressed as a bat fights people, drives things and jumps off buildings. Had Dark Knight not featured a man dressed in what Harlan Ellison memorably called a ‘rubber pervert suit’ fighting bad guys and blowing things up then it is unlikely that the film would have grossed close to a billion dollars at the box office.
As a result, it seems fair to say that the stuff about cycles of violence provide a fig leaf for what is ultimately a spectacular action film. Other excellent examples of this trend are Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) – a film cloaked by psychoanalytical posturing but ultimately dealing with a large green man killing mutant poodles – and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) – a film which kept up the pretence of being a character piece until eventually giving in and featuring robots hitting each other for what felt like an hour (but was more likely closer to ten minutes).
The fig leaf is, of course, central to American foreign policy. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, high-minded (if rather vague) talk of democracy and freedom has papered over the brutal ousting of one set of corrupt and oppressive regimes in favour of another set of corrupt and oppressive regimes who are marginally better disposed towards America. Further, the talk of freedom and WMD can easily be seen as a fig-leaf for a sinister set of domestic policies, a bout of adventurist empire building or simple wrong-headedness wedded to a lack of interest in the facts.
The second similarity between super heroes and American political discourse is in the adoption by certain powerful individuals and groups of a set of political narratives that were traditionally associated with minorities and the disenfranchised.
This tendency in American right-wing political culture surfaced most visibly surrounding Sarah Palin during the last election campaign. Initially, Palin was shielded from the media on the grounds that it was somehow misogynistic to ask her difficult questions (though many of the people who thought journalists should go easy on Palin were also swift to suggest that it was equally sexist to go easy on Hillary Clinton because she was a woman). The Right’s quest for victim status also surfaced in the talk of liberal media conspiracies and the famous scream of outrage at President-elect Obama’s claim that you could not put lipstick on a pig. Of course, Sarah Palin was a governor, a professional political operative and had the backing of the ruling American political party; as such she was doubtless not the type of person the civil rights movement had in mind when they first started suggesting that many of the ‘honest questions’ and ‘fair judgements’ made by society were in fact nothing more than bigoted attacks.
The first annexation of minority narratives to protect hugely powerful individuals in super hero films was in Bryan Singer’s X-men (2000). Singer’s film shamelessly drew on Holocaust imagery to draw comparisons between Hitler’s treatment of the Jews and a fictional government’s decision to start registering mutants. While the similarities are apposite – in so far as being a Jew and being a mutant are both accidents of birth – the film omits to include the fact that while mutants have all kind of powers and skills that would make them dangerous, the powers and tendencies attributed to Jews by the Nazis and centuries of European scapegoating were entirely fictitious. It is a simple argument by analogy. Singer expanded this argument in the sequel X2 (2003), which featured an anxious mother asking her teenaged son if he had tried not being a mutant, a question clearly designed to illicit comparisons between the plight of Singer’s mutants and that of real-world GLBTs.
The attempt to recast robustly powerful individual and groups as victims continues in Bruce Wayne’s desire for vengeance – played out across Batman Begins (2005) and Dark Knight (2008) – as well as Peter Parker’s attempts to be an ordinary boy in the Spider-Man films, and the internal battles of both Bruce Banner and Tony Stark in the Hulk and Iron Man films. In all cases the super heroes are presented as outsiders, mistreated and victimised by society. At times the plight of the powerful in these films can even take on Randian proportions as with Brad Bird’s The Incredibles (2004), a film in which super-powered individuals are forced by the government to lead the miserable and mediocre lives of normal people.
The reason for the sudden popularity of elite groups claiming victim status might well be found in the fact that, on the 11th September 2001, America actually became a victim, despite its wealth and power. Just as 9/11 has been used to justify American Foreign policy, so has the victim status of super heroes been used to justify the fact that they are far more powerful and far less accountable than your average politician. The reason for this was voiced most eloquently (and topically, given the current goings-on in Gaza) by David Hare in Via Dolorosa (1998), his play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the end of the play Hare points out that regardless of what they do, victims are never guilty. This applies to Israel, America and to super heroes.
With a few notable exceptions, I have enjoyed all of the films mentioned in this column, but it is also clear to me that these films contribute to a political climate in which individualism and unilateral action are presented as morally and pragmatically superior to diplomacy, democratic accountability and collective action. A couple of these kinds of films a year are a welcome addition to our cinematic culture, but when the summer blockbuster season extends from the mid-spring to late-autumn (and it is joined by a second window of releases around Christmas, equally dominated by super hero films) then what was a welcome voice starts to sound like a deafening roar… particularly when you consider how much more goes into marketing super hero films compared to ‘normal’ releases.
As a result, I am tired of the heroics of American Rubber, and I wish that Hollywood would move on.
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.
Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.
[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]