Superheroes v. the State.

Post-9/11 Reactionism and the effect of comics going mainstream.

The trailers released yesterday for the next two major superhero films, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past, both strike a very similar tone — one that has been increasingly prevalent in comic book blockbusters and one that filmmakers apparently hope will encourage cultural reflection and meaningful social discourse. 

Captain America is basically Marvel’s answer to Superman. While there are obviously huge differences in their origins and powers, they both stand as symbols of American idealism and exceptionalism. Whereas Superman is continually updated to be a present-day hero, Cap is inextricably linked to his WWII past and very much remains a product of the 1940s. As such, he retains an interesting perspective that is coloured by the idealistic beliefs of a far more trusting, far more hopeful time. After introducing his origin story, then showing him as an out-of-time but still effective Avenger, they now seem to be giving Cap a moment to catch his breath and absorb what America has become. And from the tone of the trailer, he’s not impressed. Cap is the personification of how America wants to view itself and by reading him we get a sense of what America values. But by watching him return that gaze, as is the case in The Winter Soldier, it reveals just how far society has drifted off course. It may be easy to dismiss the very idea of Captain America as jingoistic and two-dimensional, but he can effectively be used as a prism through which authors, artists, and filmmakers can turn the spotlight back onto society to wake us up and to inspire us to rediscover the better angels of our nature.

Again, here with X-Men we’re shown the consequences of the path taken in the wake of 9/11. The very objective of terrorism is to instil such fear, chaos, and social disorder that the target society will sacrifice its freedoms and way of life for the feeling of being safe. Running in tandem with such circumstance is opportunity — ready to be exploited by industries all too eager to meet the public outcry for increased security and continually provide reminders of why their protection is needed. While Western society is not necessarily on the road to becoming a police states, our fear of the future and of that which is different has tipped the balance between security and freedom towards the former. Days of Future Past is built around the logical, tragic conclusion of this course. What happens when we stop trusting each other? What happens when we see enemies everywhere we go? What happens when we blame a certain group for all the ills of society just because they’re different? What happens when we place so much emphasis on security that we lose the very freedoms we’re looking to protect? Whether it’s an allegory for Nazi Germany, the Red Scare, or Islamic Extremists, the tension between humans and mutants throughout the X-Men series has always acted as a disconcerting mirror, showing us the troubling course we’ve charted. We fear, we hate, we divide, we dehumanize those who are different. We lose ourselves in the process of trying to hold onto ourselves. Xavier talks not just to his past self but also to us with his incredibly powerful line “Please. We need you to hope again.” Hope in the future. Belief in our fellow man. This is the fundamental purpose of superheroes. Yes, superheroes are meant to reflect the current state of society — but they’re also meant to shake us out of that current state, to inspire us to improve our station in life and aspire to ideals greater than ourselves for the betterment of a collective future.

While we even saw similar themes in this summer’s Man of Steel, what will be more interesting will be how the sequel will depict the world’s reaction to such revelations and what consequences follow such traumatic destruction. Will the people of Metropolis fear Superman and mistrust his unchecked power? Will awareness of unknowable threats compel the masses to sacrifice personal freedoms for a greater sense of security? Will corporate leaders like Lex Luthor rush in to profit from the politics of reconstruction, fear, and division? Here’s hoping the destruction of Metropolis serves as the foundation for a discussion of where to go from here.

Man of Steel

And while Man of Steel took us to the brink of such discussion, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy plunged us into its depths. The escalating, terrorizing threat of the Joker, the desperate measures Batman took to find him, and the lie told to preserve the public image of Harvey Dent: our hero sacrificed his ideals in order to protect society. However, the final chapter brilliantly examined how, ultimately, such lies and desperate control actually corrode society, chipping away at the very heart of what they originally set out to protect. Only by turning inward and rediscovering what he was fighting for could Batman reject that path, put his faith in the people of Gotham, and renew his pursuit of justice. Such a revelation, leaves the audience with a sense of hope that its never too late and that we can endeavour build a new, stronger, united society upon the ashes of the terror that once shook us to our core. As Gordon eulogizes Bruce with the words of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.” 

The Dark Knight

While such indictments of society are not new to comics, they’ve usually been isolated to the counter-cultural fringe — the nerds, the hippies, the neglected, the bullied: the comic-book reader. But today, with massive film studios finally having both the means to produce such adaptations and the smarts to recognize the cultural appetite, superheroes have gone mainstream. They now rake in billions of dollars at the box-office and signal billions more in merchandising and corporate profiteering. And along with the masks, capes, and VFX, the challenging, idealistic messages have managed to sneak through. These critiques of our current state, these continual reminders of everything we stand for, they’re now in the multiplexes, car commercials, and McDonald’s happy meals. It’s not just ineffectual teenagers being taught about great power and great responsibility, it’s everyone. Superheroes are here to stay, on the front page, questioning society and asking whether we still possess the ideals we ask them to both stand for and fight to protect. They’re asking us to take a hard, honest look at ourselves. They’re asking us to recognize where we’re falling short of our ideals and to have the courage to reach for them again.

They’re asking us to hope again.

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