The Politics of Superheroes

Want a map of the debates of the early 21st century? Watch a comic-book movie.


On April 28, 2005, Spider-Man, Captain America, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld flexed their muscles onstage at the Pentagon. The trio was promoting The New Avengers, a comic book being sent to soldiers around the world. The effort was part of America Supports You, a program that in time would be exposed for misspending its money on self-promotion rather than boosting morale, with at least $9.2 million "inappropriately transferred."

The stench of the scandal stuck to several former Pentagon employees, but the superheroes emerged unscathed. In the January issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, Spidey and Barack Obama teamed up to defeat a supervillain's Inauguration Day plot. At the end, the incoming president called the webslinger "partner" and gave him a friendly fist bump, with nary a reference to Peter Parker's previous work with the Bush administration.

Future historians can offer a more complete account of how costumed crusaders came to dominate Hollywood in the early 21st century. But one factor that has to be acknowledged is the superhero film's philosophical flexibility. As comic-book crimefighters found a mass audience at the multiplex, they displayed an almost unerring ability to invoke important issues without clearly coming down on one side or the other. There are many reasons why Peter Parker's alter ego can both strike poses with Rumsfeld and bump fists with Obama. But surely one of them is that Republicans and Democrats alike see their worldviews reflected onscreen when Spider-Man—and Batman, and Iron Man, and others—battle bad guys.

A decade ago, most of those Republicans and Democrats wouldn't have cared. In the 1990s, superhero films weren't just fewer. They were aimed, with only a handful of exceptions, at a cult audience. A movie like Mark Dippé's Spawn (1997) might do fairly well commercially, making nearly $55 million at home and over $87 million around the world, but it was easy for the average American not to notice it. Today, by contrast, it's hard to avoid contact with Batman or Spider-Man, or even with more obscure vigilantes, such as the hero of James McTeigue's V for Vendetta (2006).

In three of the last seven years, the most popular picture in America has centered around a superhero. In the other four years, at least one specimen of the genre made the box office top 10. Several of those movies, notably Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008), have been critical as well as commercial successes, and even widely derided efforts such as Ang Lee's Hulk (2003) and Tim Story's Fantastic Four (2005) attracted some highbrow defenders. The trend is mature enough to have unleashed a new wave of hybrids and parodies, from the relationship comedy My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006) to the Airplane!-style farce Superhero Movie (2008). A popular 40-minute Internet video, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008), manages to combine the conventions of the superhero film, the romantic comedy, the classical tragedy, the musical, and the vlog.

Not all of these movies are ambivalent about their worldviews. V for Vendetta, for example, turned a politically charged comic with a deliberately enigmatic outlook into a straightforwardly sympathetic tale of a rebellion against a right-wing regime. More often, though, the opposite occurs: A film genre that critics frequently deride for seeing the world in black and white is actually ambiguous about war, privacy, empire, and state power. It took this form as Americans, often derided for the exact same reason, grew increasingly ambivalent about the very same subjects.

The boom arguably began with Bryan Singer's X-Men, a surprise hit in the summer of 2000. But it reached its present resonance with the first major superhero film to appear after 9/11, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (2002). This was not, at first glance, a particularly political picture. The movie's most obvious metaphor involves masturbation, not the Middle East. (The adolescent Peter Parker finds his body changing in mysterious ways, including the ability to eject a gooey substance with his hands.) Still, Spider-Man's message, borrowed directly from the original comic and enunciated by Parker's doomed Uncle Ben, had ideological overtones: "With great power comes great responsibility." That was enough for several hawks to declare the webslinger a spiritual cousin. The conservative cultural critic Mark Steyn would eventually argue that Spidey's first film "makes a very good case for the Bush pre-emption doctrine" because "the men who killed his Uncle Ben were small-time crooks Peter could have stopped earlier but chose not to."

Spider-Man was mostly made before 9/11, with the producers withdrawing a trailer right after the attacks because it featured the World Trade Center. If the narrative echoed our wartime debates, that was probably an accident. But when Spider-Man 2 appeared in 2004, its political elements were more deliberate and more conspicuous. They were also more complicated—or, if you prefer, more confused.

This time around, Parker attempts to retire from vigilantism. Crime jumps, the press that had been denouncing Spider-Man as a criminal starts wailing that he's nowhere to be found, and every hawk in the audience nods his head with recognition: Why, Spider-Man is just like America! Writing in The Spectator, Steyn called the movie an "antidote to the stunted paranoia of Fahrenheit 9/11," noting that "Peter recognizes that the bad stuff doesn't go away just because you refuse to acknowledge it." In National Review, David Frum pronounced the picture "the great pro-Bush movie of the summer."

And they were right, sort of, except that the story also included the tale of Doctor Octopus, a scientist whose well-intentioned mucking about nearly destroys New York. He can't face the fact that he has miscalculated, so he plunges back into the same destructive project. If you come to the cinema searching for symbols, it's hard to escape the idea that Doc Ock's dangerous fusion generator represents empire and the mechanical arms that come to control him are a stand-in for the military-industrial complex. Hard to escape it, that is, unless the movie's other allegories have transfixed you. (Steyn, for example, merely notes that Spidey's antagonist is "a peace-loving man of science." Viewers not obsessed with politics were probably still fixated on the semen symbolism: This time around, when Parker starts to feel impotent, he loses the ability to shoot webs.)

Spider-Man 3 (2007), also directed by Raimi, introduces two more villains to the series. One is Venom, an alien that initially appears as a crude black liquid. The other is a figure called the Sandman. Of all the characters the writers could recycle from the comics, they picked the embodiments of oil and sand.

For a while, the oil infects Parker, who consequently becomes arrogant, homicidal, and driven by revenge—a motive, his Aunt May sagely informs us, that can "turn us into something that we're not." To save himself, he has to shake the addiction and forgive his enemies. A more leftist fable can hardly be imagined, except that Spidey then goes to war against an oil-and-sand alliance, pausing briefly before an enormous American flag before swinging in to save the day. And then, just when you're hoping the politics would resolve themselves one way or the other, everything collapses in a heap of Christ imagery. Our metaphors have gotten muddled again.

Of all the superhero movies released since 9/11, Jon Favreau's Iron Man (2008) engages American foreign policy most directly. In its very first scene, soldiers ferry Tony Stark, an engineering genius and wealthy munitions manufacturer, through Afghanistan. Terrorists attack the convoy and kidnap Stark. The last thing he sees before he passes out is one of the weapons used in the assault. It has a Stark Industries logo on it.

After escaping, Stark announces that he cannot abide the thought that his output is being used against U.S. soldiers, and he pledges to shut down weapons production. As the company's stock plunges, Stark starts work on a secret new project built around a compact and powerful reactor. You might initially suspect he's working on a way to, say, bring cheap energy to the world. Nope: He's building an Iron Man costume, which he promptly uses on a secret rescue mission in Afghanistan. Eventually we learn that his father's old business partner, Obadiah Stane, has been selling Stark's weapons to the enemy, allowing Iron Man to take out the traitor and return to his previous partnership with the American government.

In Human Events, the conservative writer Martin Sieff certified the story as "a celebration of what's great about American capitalism" and suggested that the flick has "done more in two weeks for America's image around the world than seven and a half years of plodding, hapless bureaucratic bungling by the Bush administration." New York, on the other hand, presented the movie as "an action magnet for liberals," with critic David Edelstein describing a plot in which "the military-industrial complex ravages the Third World." The most perceptive comment on the picture's politics came from Sonny Bunch in The Weekly Standard, who called Favreau's feature "the film equivalent of a Rorschach test. If you go into Iron Man seeking right-wing imagery, you'll find it: Tony Stark is a patriot, pro-military, and likes unilateral intervention. If you go into Iron Man looking for left-wing imagery, you'll find that, too: The true villain here is Stane, representing an out-of-control military-industrial complex."

If anything, Bunch understates what an inkblot this picture is. When Tony Stark is captured by terrorists using his own weapons, it's a concise artistic depiction of blowback, the idea that American power exercised abroad boomerangs back against Americans. Even the Iron Man outfit, a smart weapon that allows Stark to target the enemy while leaving innocent bystanders standing, grows dangerous when it inspires Obadiah Stane to build a similar suit of his own. (Both Iron Man and Spider-Man 3 climax with the heroes battling villains who are, in effect, evil versions of themselves.) On the other hand, fixing the system seems to be a simple matter of eliminating one well-placed crook. Without Stane in the picture, the film gives us no reason to suspect that our power will ever backfire or that our weapons will end up in the wrong people's hands. It's an outlook that lends itself to either a liberal Obama fantasy, in which reform is a simple matter of changing the people in charge, or an equally dubious conservative narrative in which it is only treason on the home front that thwarts our victory abroad.

And if that's hard to parse, look at what Bruce Wayne's been up to.

Batman Begins (2005), directed and co-written by the ex-arthouse auteur Christopher Nolan, is an epic of ambiguity. The Spider-Man and Iron Man films sometimes feel like their creators were reaching for resonant images and ideas without pondering just how they fit together. Nolan's pictures, by contrast, never seem to escape their creator's control. They give every impression of making a coherent argument, just not one easily reducible to one side in a rerun of Crossfire.

If you're making a vigilante movie, it's a fair bet that some critic is going to describe it as "fascist." That's harder to do where Batman Begins is concerned, since the villains here are fascists themselves—or, more exactly, they espouse the fascist doctrine that societies must be violently cleansed of decadence. (The actual operation of a totalitarian state is beyond their interests.) Their secret society, the League of Shadows, trains Wayne in the Japanese art of Ninja warfare in a hidden camp located, confusingly, in China.

Like many of the major superheroes, Wayne is an orphan. The film paints his father as a liberal urban leader whose vision for Gotham City bears little resemblance to the crime and disorder that have settled in instead. The senior Wayne's signature accomplishment was an elevated train system—in his words, "a new, cheap public transportation system to unite the city. And at the center, Wayne Tower." As Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, the movie puts him at an exact midpoint between the semi-fascist misanthropy of the League and the liberal optimism of his father. Batman is a product of both and a duplicate of neither; his very existence suggests that two seemingly opposed worldviews might actually have something in common. The idea is symbolically reinforced at the end of the film: To kill the villain, the hero must also destroy the physical embodiment of his father's idealism, the elevated train.

The sequel, last year's The Dark Knight, sets up an even more complex system of opposites that sometimes seem to be doubles and doubles that sometimes seem to be opposites. Along with Wayne's costumed hero, we have copycat Batmen who share neither his skills nor his scruples. Wayne himself wants to retire from vigilantism, and he puts his hopes in Harvey Dent, a crusading straight-arrow district attorney; Dent later loses his mind and becomes Two-Face, a villain with a visage that's half handsome, half deformed. The film's chief antagonist, the Joker, sets out to prove that everyone can be corrupted, driving Dent to madness and provoking Batman to create an elaborate surveillance system covering the entire city—a temporary, necessary evil, the hero insists.

In a film filled with hard moral decisions, the harshest one arrives when the Joker wires two ferries with explosives. One is filled with convicts, the other with ordinary travelers; each is given the power to destroy the other ship; each is told that if they don't detonate the other boat before midnight, the Joker will destroy both vessels. In a film where neither public official nor superhero can completely resist the abuse of power, the people on those ferries, criminals included, find themselves unable to kill even to save their own lives. It's the closest The Dark Knight comes to optimism, and it's the real rebuttal to the Joker's claim that everyone is always corruptible.

That barely begins to scratch the surface of the movie's moral nuances. Nearly every decision in the story is a tragic choice, with unfortunate effects either way. Nonetheless, several critics praised or damned The Dark Knight as a simple brief for Bushism. In a notorious Wall Street Journal essay, the crime novelist Andrew Klavan declared: "Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past." In one bizarre passage, Klavan complains that in other films, "the good guys become indistinguishable from the bad guys, and we end up denigrating the very heroes who defend us"—as though The Dark Knight doesn't beat us over the head with the idea that men attempting to do good are capable of unleashing evil. Klavan's take has caught on among some critics, but you could as easily come away from the movie agreeing with the liberal blogger DymaxionWorldJohn, who argued that "Batman has, in many ways, been a disaster for Gotham, and what Gotham needs isn't a hero in tights but better law enforcement." Or if not better law enforcement, then more chances for people like the civilians on the ferries to let their inner decency overcome their inner decay.

As the Bush years give way to the Obama era, there will be no shortage of superheroes at the cineplex. Both Iron Man 2 and Spider-Man 4 are in the works, and another Batman picture will surely appear as well. There will be more sequels starring the X-Men and the Hulk, and there will be new franchises featuring Captain Marvel and the Sub-Mariner. With Watchmen, Zack Snyder's adaptation of Alan Moore's acclaimed graphic novel, we've already seen one major superhero movie on Obama's watch. The film is overstylized and undersatisfying, but it preserves its source's central theme of the limits and dangers of power. It is also, like the comic that inspired it, open to more than one political reading.

No one knows how the genre will adapt to the changes in Washington. But despite the comic-book Spidey's easy partnership with the president, you shouldn't expect Hollywood's superheroes simply to fall in behind the new guy. It didn't take long for public doubts about Bush to be reflected on screen, and there was a time when the 43rd president was more popular than Obama is now. Superhero stories may have begun as power fantasies, but it is our ambivalence about power that keeps the modern genre thriving.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).