American superheroes are big business. Emerging in comic books on the eve of World War II, and enjoying a Golden Age during the USA’s post-war boom, superheroes are the cultural product of US military supremacy, little muscular emblems of the American state. And now they’re back. Since 2001, about 80 live-action superhero films have been produced by American studios, almost twice as many as in the preceding 15 years. The superhero makes sense in times of crisis. Reducing the vast complex of nationhood into the body of an individual means periods of geopolitical turmoil can be repackaged as moments of psychological stress. In the mirror of the superhero, America is reassured of its good qualities. Physical strength is good, as is the ability to make wisecracks under pressure. Masculinity is good, and women are okay as long as they can do very high kicks while making wisecracks. Once America is on the scene, order can be restored.
Contemporary superhero narratives are packed with predictable post-9/11 anxieties. The two highest-grossing films of this decade so far, Marvel’s ensemble movie The Avengers—a band of superheroes including Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America—and Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, pitch loosely similar stories: a troubled billionaire genius with a superhero alter ego engages in a thwarted search for clean renewable energy. The concept obviously struck a chord—together, the films grossed well over two and a half billion dollars worldwide in 2012. Both The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises pull on the thread of contemporary politics to make their narratives move, albeit in different directions. Most obviously, The Avengers sets its arena of catastrophic destruction in downtown New York, complete with slow-mo shots of smoking debris and wailing civilians. None of the film’s protagonists or villains actually seem to live in New York, and most of the film’s dramatic action takes place elsewhere, but for the final act, symbolism wins out: New York it is. The Dark Knight Rises, on the other hand, dramatizes the contradictions of capitalism through the strivings of its protagonist and his vast empire of inherited wealth. Because he is a superhero, Batman overcomes both grievous injuries and the threat of mass resistance to inequality, but it’s tough going. If The Avengers is 9/11 with aliens, The Dark Knight Rises is the psychological victory of the 1 percent. This is part of what’s so compelling about the genre. We’re in a world adjacent to our own, with cultural crises reminiscent of our own, but these problems are ultimately solved by men in costumes: Bruce Wayne’s Batman, Tony Stark’s Iron Man, Steve Rogers’s star-spangled Captain America.In the mirror of the superhero, America is reassured of its good qualities.
So why the obsession with “clean energy”? Throughout both films, the phrase is uttered with all the subtlety of a stern look into the camera. “Clean energy” motivates billionaires, destroys governments, threatens big industry, and always seems to bear some relation to mass destruction. In The Avengers, the energy is derived from an all-powerful magic brick, whereas in the Nolan film the energy comes from an all-powerful science machine. Both the brick and the machine, which we’re told repeatedly and at length could be used for good, are instead weaponized for nefarious purposes. Of course, the concept of weaponizable energy is not strictly the preserve of action movies: the year before both these films were released, the International Atomic Energy Agency released a major report condemning Iranian nuclear research. Dazzling scientific advance has long been felt as a threat as well as a promise.
But the ideological subtexts of the superhero genre run a little deeper than that.
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Batman is a product of capitalism’s inequities. Bruce Wayne himself has no actual superpowers; instead, he is a majority shareholder of Wayne Enterprises, a shadowy conglomerate with an arms division. He lives in an inherited mansion and equips himself with advanced weapons technology to fight crime. Because he is a vigilante, the police aggravate him from time to time. In The Dark Knight Rises they even briefly try to arrest him, but he is too white and wealthy for this storyline to gain much purchase. At the point of arrest, Batman simply flies away from the police in a hugely conspicuous multi-million-dollar flying car that police helicopters never bother to trace. On a literal level, this sequence doesn’t make a lick of sense, but then it doesn’t have to. Figuratively, Bruce Wayne is escaping from the police in the deus ex machina of his own extraordinary personal wealth. The metaphor appeals.
In an era of racialized police brutality, incipient climate crisis, unprecedented wealth inequality, and mass surveillance, what does “evil” look like? Who, or what, are the “good guys” fighting? Because Batman’s superpower is private property, his real nemesis is the destabilization of the private property system. The Dark Knight Rises does not approach this with a light touch. The film’s villain, Bane, is a sort of quasi-anarchist authoritarian who says things about “returning this city to the people” while also detonating a series of explosives and threatening to annihilate the population with nuclear arms. It’s not exactly hearts and minds stuff, but the population of Gotham really goes for it. A mere montage later, the masses are dragging a wealthy woman from her apartment while she cries and clutches one last beloved fur coat. All that apparently stands between the great American city and Communist overthrow is the threat of total nuclear disaster. If you’re with Nolan on this so far, you’re going to enjoy the ending.
In 1949, James Baldwin wrote that “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.” What you cannot make true with reason, you make true with tears. The Dark Knight Rises poses some questions about wealth, but the only answers it ultimately provides are sentimental ones. Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman serves the role of the regretful leftist: at first the revolution seemed like fun, but then it made her cry. In the house of an ousted rich family, she gazes at a shattered photograph and murmurs: “This was someone’s home.” Her friend gamely replies, “Now it’s everyone’s home,” which to me does actually seem like an improvement. But there’s no arguing with sentiment. The cinematic logic, a logic sub- merged below the level of equity or argument, is telling us to agree with Catwoman: listen to the music cues, watch the lingering shot of the photograph. “Someone’s home” is supposed to tug on heartstrings that “everyone’s home” cannot find.In an era of racialized police brutality, incipient climate crisis, unprecedented wealth inequality, and mass surveillance, what does “evil” look like?
This sentimental identification with the rich is fortified by the film’s romantic images of the poor, who are usually daydreaming about superheroes. Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, is given a fantasy life in which he himself appears as a minor character, concerned only with his wealthy employer’s happiness. Orphaned children in a boys’ home draw chalk images of the bat symbol on furniture. The fealty of the city’s underclasses is not coincidental: Bruce Wayne writes Alfred’s paycheck, and he also funds the boys’ home from the profits of Wayne Enterprises. In Gotham, the poor are not kept poor by the machinations of capitalism; rather, they are lifted by the rising tide of huge corporate profits. The richer the corporation, the better fed the orphans. But The Dark Knight Rises cannot stop at making the poor materially dependent on the whims of the wealthy; the poor must also be spiritually dependent, psychologically dependent, so uninterested in themselves that they don’t even appear in their own daydreams.
The film depends on a stripping away of “civilization” for its narrative to work. Property is scrapped, as are the courts. Significantly, the police and the carceral system go too. Bane calls Gotham’s penitentiary “a symbol of oppression,” and promptly frees its prisoners to roam the streets. We know he must be wrong to do this, because he is the film’s bad guy, doing bad things. Why are all these people in prison? As far as the film is concerned, it doesn’t matter, but since this is still America, we can assume most of them are not actually violent criminals. In 2012, less than half of the US prison population were serving time for violent crimes. Regardless, Gotham’s prisoners all cheer for the film’s psycho- path villain, and rush to join his heavily armed gang of henchmen upon their release. This is Hollywood’s way of reminding us that people in prison are ethically tainted and want to commit mass murder, even if they’re only in there because they used to sell drugs.
In 2011, the year before The Dark Knight Rises was released, Slavoj Žižek addressed the crowds at Occupy Wall Street. He said: “Look at the movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world—an asteroid destroying all of life, and so on—but we cannot imagine the end of capitalism.” For Batman, the two catastrophes are one. The end of capitalism is also the end of civil society, the end of community, the death of the hero, and eventual nuclear annihilation. Capitalism is imagined as a ritual of endless purification: it soothes the poor, it subjugates the sinful, and if left untouched by revolution, it will produce “clean energy” too.
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In the 21st century, what is more quintessentially American than illegal foreign war? It is the specter that haunts the contemporary superhero, the strategy he must either deploy or deplore. In the 2008 film Iron Man, Tony Stark is taken captive by terrorists in Afghanistan. Stark, hero of the multi-billion-dollar Iron Man franchise, is a weapons manufacturer visiting Afghanistan to sell arms. Shameless profiteering from illegal war is only one of our protagonist’s many character deficits, but it’s a structurally significant one. Kept alive in captivity only by a makeshift electromagnet in his chest, Stark is ordered to reconstruct one of his own missile designs, using stolen blueprints. It is during this period that he designs and builds the early prototype of his Iron Man super suit, ultimately blasting his way to safety. It is in this first American triumph over the resistant outposts of empire that the man becomes the hero.
But the Iron Man films are slippery. The terrorists who capture Stark in the first movie turn out to be on the payroll of his own weapons company, Stark Industries. The “clean energy” that powers the dramatic action of The Avengers is weaponized not by the film’s antagonists, but by a secret US government program. Iron Man never really battles terrorists; instead he battles the peripheral phenomena of the War on Terror. The recurrent villain of the Iron Man films is not Islamic fundamentalism, but American fundamentalism: an out-of-control arms trade, aggressive defense policy, and mass public paranoia. These are films concerned with the moral horror of American militarism; concerned, at least, that it might keep their white male protagonist awake at night.
Iron Man’s enemy is more often than not an arms dealer. In the first film, Stark Industries is intentionally prolonging conflict in the Middle East in order to boost their profit margins. Companies that sell weapons may want people to have a reason to keep buying them—and in case we missed it the first time, this same teachable moment is played out again in both sequels. For bonus points, Stark Industries parodies real-life arms giant Lockheed Martin, from its stolen logo to its name-checking of real weapons systems like the F-22 Raptor fighter jet. Shadowy arms corporations are not necessarily a soft target, but they don’t start wars on their own.These are films concerned with the moral horror of American militarism; concerned, at least, that it might keep their white male protagonist awake at night.
The political class is mostly absent from Iron Man’s equations, and if the War on Terror is a bad idea, the US military is certainly not to blame. Tony Stark’s best friend and sidekick, Rhodey, serves in the military as the morally upstanding Colonel James Rhodes. In Iron Man 3, Rhodey even gets to rescue a pitiful, frightened United States president from the all-powerful biotech weapons company that has taken him hostage. In Iron Man’s world, then, elected politicians are literally the trembling victims of corporate capitalism: the military-industrial complex is all industry, almost no military, and not particularly complex. We discover Stark Industries is evil precisely because it is selling weapons to the “other side.” “Our side,” our politicians, our military, are simply the unwitting collaborators in a game too smart for them to understand. But however grotesquely powerful it might be, Lockheed Martin did not illegally invade Afghanistan in 2001. And Tony Stark was only there to sell weapons because there was someone there to buy them.
It’s no coincidence that opposition to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 coalesced around the slogan “No blood for oil”; in an age of depleting fossil fuels, energy politics are also military politics. The Avengers’ clean energy plot dips its head into this undercurrent. On the pretext of developing new energy technology, a US government agency instead uses the tech to manufacture “weapons of mass destruction.” Inevitably, this secret arms program attracts some aggressive military intervention. The WMDs reference invokes the rhetoric of Iraq, but the plot refracts it: America gets a little enthusiastic about weapons production and suddenly finds itself subjugated by foreign imperialism. As a narrative device, it also serves to reiterate in broader terms the subterranean relationship between energy and war. America’s endless quest for new energy sources ultimately results in planetary catastrophe.
Iron Man is forged in Afghanistan rather than America, because there is no America without Afghanistan. America’s fields of foreign domination, its imperial skirmishes in the Middle East, define the boundaries and exercise of US power. As the embodiment of that power, Tony Stark’s journey into the terror cave is a journey into himself: an encounter with the suppressed trauma that structures the good life back home. The terrorists hold Stark’s head underwater during their interrogation. Waterboarding as rebirth. It is only fitting that he should emerge a hero.
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The figure of the superhero retrieves hegemonic masculinity from its excesses and redeems it with the promise of geopolitical triumph. This form of superpowered manliness is brutally physical, and its symbolic representative is mass. Cultish obsessions spring up around the bodies of the lead actors in superhero films: online messageboards dissect their probable weight gain, likely lifting routines, the ever-present possibility of steroid abuse. Marvel Studios pushes gruelling training programs not only on its stars, but on actors with peripheral roles too. The physicality of the superhero world becomes a structuring principal of the genre. Between takes, exhausted lead actors lift weights on set.
In one sense, Captain America is the most traditionally masculine of these contemporary superheroes. For one thing, he has superpowers. Ordinary kid Steve Rogers is injected with a magical super-serum in the 1940s, fights Nazis in World War II as Captain America, gets frozen in ice for a bit, and wakes up at the end of the 2011 film Captain America: The First Avenger with his perfect body intact. He runs very quickly and punches things very hard. But Cap has none of Iron Man’s moral ambivalence: he’s not played as the lesser of two evils, or the reluctant bad guy come good. He is an ethically perfect Christ figure who unironically wears a star emblazoned over his chest. Perhaps as a result of this unabashed virtue, Captain America films perform more modestly at the box office than the Batman and Iron Man franchises, though the latest effort still took in over seven hundred million dollars worldwide.
Physical dominance onscreen may symbolize hypermasculinity, but it also has a certain troubling aesthetic value. Captain America’s huge, glistening body is not only powerful, but beautiful, and beauty threatens to emasculate the superhero. In his new cinematic incarnation, Steve Rogers lacks even the rugged qualities of a Bruce Wayne or a Tony Stark: he is blond and blue-eyed, meticulously clean-shaven, with the elegant posture of a dancer. In the first installment of the franchise, he spends some time as an actor in wartime propaganda films, promoting the purchase of US war bonds. This is all, we are quickly made to understand, terribly degrading. At a USO performance overseas, a disgruntled heckler calls Captain America “Tinkerbell.” His disapproving mentor Colonel Phillips calls him “a chorus girl.” The message is clear: any man who would rent his body out for the aesthetic pleasure of others is no better than a woman. As a meta-commentary on the superhero film genre, it reveals some latent anxiety. Behind the muscular masculinity of these box office superstars lurks an element of the beauty queen: and to become a real hero, Rogers has to kill his inner chorus girl first.
The scene of Captain America’s transformation from zero to hero dramatizes this same contradiction. He enters the scene as the film’s subject, our point of identification with the narrative, a scrawny asthmatic with a conscience. Locked into a gleaming capsule and pumped full of a special serum, he emerges an improbably gigantic athlete, drenched in sweat and gasping for breath. We the audience view him from below, as if the camera operator is lying helplessly prostrate at his feet. Onscreen, a team of scientists watch him from the floor and, in the overhead gallery, representatives of the government and military gaze down at their new experiment. In this moment, Rogers is no longer a person, but a body; no longer a subject, but an object. He is a projection of national ideology: not merely white and male, but whiteness and maleness itself. Eyelids fluttering half-closed, he looks at nothing. He is something to be looked at. A symbol of American-ness.
But masculinity demands agency. Heroes like Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark assert their gender identity by having onscreen sex with attractive heterosexual women. In these films, female characters first confirm male virility, and then later provide a moral purpose, some emotional traction, a “heart.” The same cannot be said for the Captain America films, because Steve Rogers is, like a teen movie sweetheart, too cautious and pretty for his own good. The female characters in the Captain America franchise become flustered at the sight of his naked torso, and even lose their restraint and spring kisses on his gorgeous, unsuspecting face. In this sense too, Rogers is feminized: he is a sexual object as well as a national one. He is a multi-million-dollar icon of masculinity, but he is also a sad virgin who can’t talk to girls.In these films, female characters first confirm male virility, and then later provide a moral purpose, some emotional traction, a “heart.”
Other superheroes struggle to control their sadism, but Captain America is a masochist. His love interests tend to be exaggeratedly violent female characters who give him orders at work. In the first film he falls for a special agent who shoots at him repeatedly out of sexual jealousy. In the sequel, he flirts with a colleague who likes to kill men with her thighs. For some reason it never works out. Before he’s transformed by the super serum, he pursues fights with bigger men for no reason. His best friend and sidekick Bucky Barnes remarks at one point: “I think you like getting punched.” He’s not wrong. The climactic scene of the hugely successful sequel film Captain America: The Winter Soldier sees Rogers lying prone and allowing his adversary to beat him, savagely, until he loses consciousness. It’s played as a moment of moral resistance, but maybe it’s also, deep down in our cinematic subconscious, a moment of gratification.
Captain America gives us a version of masculinity that emphasizes chastity, solitude, physical rigor, and individual conscience. He lives alone with his moral purity. He slept through Vietnam and didn’t seem very happy about it when he woke up. He doesn’t need to visit a cave in Afghanistan to become a hero, because if he’d been around, we gather that Afghanistan probably never would have happened. Cap is not a vigilante: he’s a soldier. He works for a government agency and takes orders from its director. He kills dozens of people without regret just because someone else tells him to. But where Batman and Iron Man use their outsider status to redeem and extol the virtues of the liberal state, it is Captain America, the ultimate insider, who defects. In the 2014 film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers attacks his own government, leaks classified communications online, and finally destroys an entire covert state agency. Like a superpowered Edward Snowden, Captain America forsakes the privilege of the insider to become both an official enemy and a popular hero.
The Winter Soldier is a film very explicitly singing from the hymnsheet of contemporary news headlines. It concerns the ability of a secret US government agency to use mass surveillance in the operation of a targeted killer drone program. Captain America voices some initial concern about the program early in the film, but only to identify himself as a tiresome moralist: he takes no action whatsoever on the basis of this concern, and continues to work for the government agency in question, presumably trusting that the drones will only kill bad people. It is when we learn that the technology has fallen into the hands of an evil fascist sect that the plot really gets going, and of course it transpires that Captain America and his personal friends are on the list of “threats” to be “eliminated.” We know America has sailed off-course when it’s trying to murder its own team mascot. But would we root for Cap if the “threats” were just the same 3,000 people who have been killed by drones in Pakistan since 2004? Or does Tony Stark have to be on the list too?
The superhero genre exemplifies the US citizen in a white body, because in these narratives, the exemplary citizen is white. We know that surveillance is out of control in The Winter Soldier because it happens, not to the Muslim-American communities harassed in real life by the NYPD, not to the Black Lives Matter activists targeted right now by Homeland Security, but to white people. Innocent people. People like “us.” In fact, more or less every dystopian element of The Winter Soldier is premised on the special moral status of whiteness. If superheroes are required to save us from a world in which the US government can assassinate its own citizens extra-judicially, where was Captain America when US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a targeted drone strike in 2011? What has the film’s evil fascist sect really done but apply some good old democratic equality to policies already pursued by the US government anyway?
The Winter Soldier is structurally conservative, in the sense that it asks us to imagine an evil greater than the already-existing evil of American self-interest. But Captain America’s response is, at least in part, a radical one. Rather than handing the technology back to the “good guys,” he destroys it. He leaks the classified intel online. He brings down the whole state agency. And then, like a good rugged individualist, he rides off on his motorbike alone.
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These films sell in part because they tell us the stories we want to believe. They tell us that capitalism is the best we can do; that capitalism might not be perfect, but at least our military is doing its best; that maybe the military’s not so great either, but there will always be a savior when we need one. The savior is always Messianic in the end: The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, The Winter Soldier all end with their heroes peacefully accepting death, and improbably escaping it. Every year, for millions of dollars, superheroes die for our sins. And every year they are resurrected. The superhero genre offers a variety of ideological strategies for America, but on certain points it never varies. There is always wisecracking. Spectacular violence, carefully applied, can make the world a safer place. And gigantically muscular white men, if they overcome their personal demons, can redeem us all. We depend on it.
This essay appears in the forthcoming issue of Stonecutter.