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.