It’s hard to imagine, but superheroes weren’t popular 15 years ago. The social baggage surrounding comic books and the “geeks” who read them was still largely stigmatized, even though many of the story lines were politically oriented. Ever since the 1940’s, comic books have steadily crafted an internal mythology, built on certain principles of American exceptionalism, ideological principles of morality and our place within the larger cosmos. The first movie to truly spark the shift toward the superhero inundated pop culture we currently inhabit was Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, released in 2002 not long after the Twin Towers fell and the US occupation of Afghanistan. It seems to me far from coincidental that the cinematic depiction of superheroes and the resurgence of comic book figures were virtually contemporaneous with the attacks on 9/11 and America’s subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. In the wake of police brutality and public demonstrations of institutionalized racism, Netflix has recently released Marvel’s newest television series Daredevil. The role and representation of superheroes from 2002 onwards has shifted along with our political and economic considerations as a nation, and Marvel’s Daredevil is evidence of a very different kind of superhero than the ones we greeted at the beginning of the century.
Captain America debuted in 1941 as a super-soldier against the Axis powers of World War II and a symbol of American nationalism. During the period of devastating conflict, “the mythical figure of Captain America may not be solely responsible for changing public opinion in favor of American military involvement in Europe, but it surely aided the shift. Superheroes like Captain American helped many understand the context and the events unfolding across the world and in the process helped in underscoring the sense of nationhood and identity” (Bryant 2010, 3, quoting from Dittmer 2007). Bryant goes on to note that historically, superheroes have historically been deployed during periods of national crisis in the United States to galvanize a sense of patriotism and unity. Throughout the 1900’s and early 2000’s, politics has increasingly figured into American comic books, with some real life politicians included as titular characters to the story lines. Comic books may have served as propaganda in the past, but writers, directors, artists and producers also use the medium to criticize, rather than bolster the American government. These political possibilities, often couched in meta-narratives about the tropes of comic books, can be seen in the reemergence of superheroes on the big screens.
The attack on the Twin Towers led to an uncertain, morally vexed time, when American citizens were full of suspicion, fear and an overwhelming sense of existential insecurity. Perhaps to appease our fears and reify our nationalist principles, we called upon the superheroes of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Bill Finger. The Marvel and DC caped crusaders were full of multifarious meanings, but were also a celebrated American art form that glorified the prerogative of men and women to take it upon themselves to enact justice and protect unsuspecting citizens from evil or threat. These “heroes” knew in their hearts the distinction between right and wrong and were willing to fight for their moral philosophies; they provided safety to their towns. These mythic figures were perfectly suited to post-9/11 American ideologies, a sense of injury, grievance and duty. Peter Parker’s very home was destroyed by the attacks during 9/11 and shots of Spiderman swinging between the Twin Towers had to be cut from the final movie. Released only a year after the attacks, the death of Peter’s stand in father figure, Uncle Ben, struck a chord in our own national grieving process. The politics of Peter’s heroics outside the law are not, however, unmuddied. “With great power comes great responsibility” (2002) is a defining line from the first movie, yet there also seems to be the assumption that if you possess a certain amount of power—whether gifted or claimed—and moral certitude about justice and ethics, you have a duty to punish those who flout the boundaries between “right” and “wrong.”
As the Iraq War continued to grind on, and international opinion condemned the invasion and the motivations of the American military, superheroes only became more salient symbols for the American struggle. Like Spiderman and Batman, the US was maligned abroad for its activity in the Middle East. Though they attempted to frame their motivations in an idealized, ethical framework, the war against terror disrupted the geopolitical climate and American approval of the mission. The complexity of American identity at the time is echoed in the words of Harvey Dent: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” (Nolan 2008). The American public clamored for the idealized, uncomplicated heroes and the movie industry was happy to provide a slew of films ripped straight from the pages of comics that had been collecting dust in the back of an old record shop just months ago. While some films reaffirmed justifications for America’s military actions, others were more concerned with offering social commentary and exploring the interstices of justice.
Undoubtedly, our most iconic American superhero is Superman. Though an alien from the planet of Krypton, Clark Kent’s adolescence in Smallville on a rural farm made him marketable as a symbol of salt-of-the-earth, good country people. Smallville was released in 2001, and we get to watch as Kent grows into the ultimate superhero we all know he will become. The name Superman itself hearkens back to the term Übermensch, popularized by Friedrich Nietzsche ‘s Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883). The Übermensch has been variously translated as the “Overman” or “Superman.” Eva Cybulska writes, “Hollingdale (in Nietzsche) saw in Übermensch a man who had organised the chaos within; Kaufmann (Nietzsche) a symbol of a man that created his own values, and Carl Jung (Zarathustra’s Seminars) a new ‘God’. For Heidegger it represented humanity that surpassed itself” (2012), going on to note that the Übermensch, as a new form of human being, perhaps even post-human, could generate and operate within their own value system.
The ability of the Übermensch to synthesize and concentrate contradictions makes him (or her) a potent symbol to refocus nationalist identity. The unique moral valences of the Übermensch also parallels the international versus national laws that dictate military action. The United States has historically attempted to maintain autonomy in the face of international legislation, failing to sign certain laws out of a sense of dogged political independence. Throughout the Iraq War, America was a country viciously divided, with radical schisms across and within party lines. As a symbol of unification, Superman as the Übermensch could foster a sense of pride and belonging to both the Americans opposed to our presence in the Middle East and those who felt it was our moral obligation to intervene abroad. In such a way, Superman and other superheroes function to maintain the kind of “imagined political community” Benedict Anderson theorized.
Yet as Marvel and DC began to rebuild their cultural cache, the politics behind vigilante justice and the manifestation of “evil” diversified and complicated. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy took a much grittier take on crime, the battles that are fought in a corrupt urban landscape. The films are suffused with a sense of almost intoxicating fear, a fear many experienced due to the war and the collapse of the economy. Our distrust of the government began to leak into a more perduring sense of unease with the efficacy and morality of our public institutions. Indeed, as Spross and Beauchamp illuminate, “Neither as Batman nor himself does Bruce Wayne argue that Gotham’s social structure as it stands is morally defensible. Rather, he suggests that the city is worth reforming rather than destroying” (2012). While Ra’s al Ghul wanted to “cleanse” Gotham by razing it to the ground, Joker and Bane were antagonists with far more radicalized, and terrifying agendas. Their threat was one of chaos, the possibility of anarchy. When you lose faith in a government established by popular election, the possibility of a centralized, or even decentralized governance starts to deteriorate. Similarly, though Thor as a Norse God does literally embody the Übermensch, his foe is the God of Chaos, Loki. While these villains are all personified as deranged, maniacal killers, the fear they engender is far more amorphous—the deterioration of society.
By the mid-2000s, comic book movies had moved beyond the simplicity of Golden Age heroics and began to level criticism against our nation. By Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009), gone was the veneer of moral absolution that has so often accompanied vigilante justice. Internal cynicism bred an entirely new version of the superhero, one disaffected by structural violence and political malaise. Doctor Manhattan leaves Earth entirely, unable to foresee a future in which human kind can rescue itself from itself. The Comedian is a vicious rapist and Rorschach abides by his own moral code. “Who watches the Watchmen?” we are asked—who can we truly trust, when the justice system is broken and the informal justice system is only policed by subjective interpretations of ethics. Are there certain crimes that justify collateral damage? Which matters more: the intent or the outcome of the vigilanteeism?
After 2005, comic book movies dealt with national issues of justice rather than crusades abroad. As Linda Hutcheon claims, “’[s]election favors memes that exploit their cultural environment to their own advantage,’” (2006, 167) and superhero movies have capitalized on America’s continual state of war. Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta (2005) depicted a dystopian London ruled by a Fascist government suppressing and jailing political opposition or free speech. Though set in the United Kingdom, the film paralleled contemporary fears of wiretapping and government observation occurring within the United States. Even today the superhero movies are still tapping into an ideological zeitgeist, speaking to and feeding the imaginative needs of an America that has felt even more internally uncertain due to the economic recession, gun violence and the collapsing debt ceiling.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) employed this domestic unease and animosity by producing a film that explored the limitations of the social contract, taking the chaotic violence of the Joker to its extreme under the supervision of Bane, who encouraged the poor and the economically underserved to rise against the rich and wealthy who wallowed in their privilege. Nolan even used recordings from the Occupy movement to heighten the connection with the contemporary economic climate. This gritty cynicism of comic book movies led reviewers of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) to be pleasantly surprised by the nostalgic aspects of the movie, as if yearning for the historical period when Americans were full of unabashed and justified patriotism and didn’t need to feel apologetic and embittered by their country. Entertainment Weekly noted, “[Captain America] is so straight he’s like a Boy Scout on steroids. Then again, that’s the appeal of a movie that takes you back in time when America didn’t have to be remotely ironic about believing in itself” (Gleiberman 2011).
Our superhero movies have surpassed the nationalistic overtones that ushered in the resurgence of comic book culture. Instead, they’ve come to reflect the liminal boundaries between right and wrong, exploring the forms of violence that shape or unmake a society. Villains are as embittered by structural violence as the heroes, and many commit acts of terror for perfectly understandable grievances. Some of the antagonists even want to reshape better versions of American society, adopting the role of benevolent dictator. Many villains in some of the more poorly written and produced comic book movies remain facile, overly simplified representations of evil, but more and more we are forced to confront the consequences of American diplomacy abroad. Although Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin in Iron Man 3 (2013) would seem yet another stereotypical representation of radicalism, he is merely a pawn in a larger corporate scheme, a convenient cover that suited a decade’s worth of fear of foreign extremism. Throughout the Iron Man series, Tony Stark thumbs his nose at the American government, unwilling to trust the military with his weapons. The Winter Soldier (2014) pits Captain America against an American government that has been steadily manufacturing fear in order to govern and subtly force American citizens to abdicate personal liberties. Our heroes are more vulnerable too. Tony Stark grapples with PTSD after nearly dying from the Chitauri attack that leveled New York in The Avengers.
Thus enters Netflix’s first season of Daredevil (2015). While the show isn’t necessarily Marvel’s best work, it is representative of changes in the ways comic books have been used over the years. The destruction incurred during the final battle scene in The Avengers is actually attended to, coupled with familiar concerns about poverty and corruption within the criminal justice system. As Scott Eric Kaufman writes, “In fact, all of the shows Marvel will be producing with Netflix take place in this same small slice of the Marvel cinematic universe — and all of them address the human cost of having your city host a Hollywood action sequence. This is something Hollywood itself has never done, and television only rarely” (2015), demonstrating a paradigm shift in reckoning with the aftereffects of vigilante justice. Kaufman sees Matt Murdock’s actions within the neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen as a “cop out,” because he functions within the Marvel universe, rather than New York City as it exists today. But I think that this attitude fails to grasp how fantasy and science fiction can provide commentary on our current society even if they diverge from our own world. If you treat the Chitauri attack as purely metaphorical of the larger disasters that have befallen our country, it could be understood as the larger collapse of our previously established geopolitical position and our confidence in the government working on behalf of the people. We have to deal with the ramifications of war.
Hell’s Kitchen is rife with dirty cops and dirty judges and dirty journalists and Matt Murdock, lawyer by day and the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen by night, straddles the paradoxes most heroes seem to be implicitly grappling with. Do you work from within a broken system to perfect it, hoping that the initial progressive ideologies come into fruition, or do you divest yourself of the responsibility of working within a corrupt system and instead fashion a new network of justice, hoping to galvanize change from the outside? These are also questions of transitional justice—how do you begin to rebuild a state in the wake of war? International development workers and legal scholars debate what processes must be endemic to peace building in order to successfully rebuild the state. These processes must include trust in legal institutions, a governmental responsibility to the people they serve, local belief and commitment to the state, and a sense of nationalism. Questions of accountability come into play, especially when you consider countries with long-standing traditions of informal justice systems. The heroes of Marvel and DC are reactive agents within this period of transitional justice, forced to contend with the fact that state building and peace building often occur contemporaneously, considering that the causes of conflict may indeed impact the efficacy of governance.
There are moments in Daredevil that fall upon the typical comic book tropes, but these are also themes that suffuse the genre—the effacement of identity in the pursuit of justice, the role a symbol can play in a community’s prosperity and safety, the tangled morality of a vigilante. To a certain extent, these stereotypes are unavoidable, and may indicate that they are perplexing questions we are still no closer to resolving. Murdock’s sense of moral purpose is partially guided by his Catholicism, but Alyssa Rosenberg criticizes, “We’re supposed to be fine with watching Matt brutally lay out all sorts of human traffickers and corrupt cops because he knows for sure that they’re bad men, and so we don’t have to worry that he is delivering his violent version of justice to someone who doesn’t deserve it, and because he takes so much punishment himself,” going on to say, “But if the killings of black men, teenagers and boys that have gripped this country in recent years have taught us anything, it should be that such fantasies of certainty are dangerous delusions” (2015).
But I don’t know if we are supposed to believe that Murdock’s actions are undeniably justified. During discussions with his Priest, Murdock asks why God would put the Devil inside him. He believes that he has the capacity for evil and could easily become the thing he fights, as Clare Temple points out. I was also surprised by the obvious toll fighting has on him. In almost all of the Marvel and DC movies before now, we’ve taken for granted the physical stamina that must to go into prolonged fights, yet our heroes, perhaps due to their superhuman capabilities, never even seem to get winded. Even when Bruce Wayne’s back is broken by Bane, we know that he will recover—superheroes always recuperate. But every fight in Daredevil shows the physical labor that goes into being a vigilante. As James Whitbrook writes for io9, “When Matt Murdock goes down, he doesn’t easily get back up again. Matt is a character who openly wears the strain of combat and taking a beating […] Daredevil reminds you early on that this character isn’t like any movie superhero you’ve seen” (2015). This vulnerability humanizes those everyday battles for justice, but also reveal the fatigue of prolonged fighting.
It’s a vulnerability you also see in the villain Wilson Fisk, otherwise known as Kingpin. We watch as he emerges from the ether which shrouds his criminal network, falls in love with an art dealer and grieves his friends. His speech affectation is distracting, but he and Murdock are foils of one another, manifestations of what can happen when you grow up in a violent space and are given little room for hope. Daredevil also has some of the most prolonged conversations in languages other than English I’ve seen in most television series. Instead of presuming that foreigners can and should speak English, the American characters speak Japanese, Chinese and Spanish, departing from ethnocentric expectations of language and discourse.
While Daredevil ultimately helps orchestrate the apprehension of Wilson Fisk, it is the formal justice system that puts him behind bars, illustrating the momentary triumph of a justice system functioning the way it was intended to. The day belongs to the lawyers and a little bit of the cynicism is transformed into optimism for change, not by a masked individual, but by advocates who believe that change can be made. Comic book heroes have moved from nationalist icons to cynical misanthropes clinging to a belief in the democratic system. Superhero movies have been an important focal point in our American politics, reflecting our national concerns and grievances. Lately, our heroes have been the ones brave enough to criticize the government when it doesn’t act on behalf of its constituents, but humble enough to recognize that lasting peace cannot occur without being willing to restore justice by both working outside and within the system.
Benedict Anderson (1983), Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso. https://www2.bc.edu/marian-simion/th406/readings/0420anderson.pdf
Black, Shane (2013). Iron Man 3. Paramount Pictures & Marvel Entertainment.
Branagh, Kenneth (2011). Thor. Paramount Pictures & Marvel Entertainment.
Bryant, Aidan (2010). “Effects of Superhero Media on Nationalistic Attitudes.” Thesis. Syracuse University. https://www.academia.edu/465940/Effects_of_Superhero_Media_on_Nationalistic_Attitudes
Cybulska, Eva (2012). “Nietzsche’s Übermensch: A Hero of Our Time?” Philosophy Now. https://philosophynow.org/issues/93/Nietzsches_Ubermensch_A_Hero_of_Our_Time
Gleiberman, Owen (2011). “Captain America: The First Avenger Review.” Entertainment Weekly. http://www.ew.com/article/2012/07/31/captain-america-first-avenger
Goddard, Drew (2015). Dardevil. ABC Studios.
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Hutcheon, Linda (2006). A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge.
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Kauffman, Scott Eric (2015). “Marvel’s gritty ‘Daredevil’: Fighting corruption in an urban war zone with an unlikely power—hope.” Salon. http://www.salon.com/2015/04/14/marvels_gritty_daredevil_fighting_corruption_in_an_urban_war_zone_with_an_unlikely_power_hope/
McTeigue, James (2005). V for Vendetta. Warner Bros.
Nolan, Christopher (2005). Batman Begins. Warner Bros. & DC Comics.
Nolan, Christopher (2008). The Dark Knight. Warner Bros. & DC Comics.
Nolan, Christopher (2012). The Dark Knight Rises. Warner Bros. & DC Comics.
Raimi, Sam (2002). Spiderman. Columbia Pictures.
Rosenberg, Alyssa (2015). “’Daredevil’s’ vigilante justice comes at the wrong time.” The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2015/04/13/daredevils-vigilante-injustices-come-at-the-wrong-time/
Russo, Anthony & Joe Russo (2014). Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Marvel Entertainment.
Spross, Jeff & Zach Beauchamp (2012). “Liberalism’s Dark Night and Christopher Nolan’s Defense of Civil Society.” Think Progress. http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2012/07/26/581591/dark-knight-christopher-nolan/
Snyder, Zack (2009). Watchmen. Warner Brothers, Paramount Pictures & Legendary Pictures.
Whedon, Joss (2012). The Avengers. Paramount Pictures & Marvel Studios.
Whitbrook, James (2015). “The Evolution of Daredevil’s Bloody, Beautiful Fight Scenes.” io9. http://io9.com/the-evolution-of-daredevils-bloody-beautiful-fight-sce-1697998580
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Reblogged this on JuJuJiving and commented:
My post on the political-historical geekout about comic book movies over the past 15 years.