(Above: A blistering critique of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy in Latin America)
Everyone knows that in last year’s Dark Knight, Batman symbolized then-president George W. Bush, and whether director Christopher Nolan was celebrating or castigating Bush’s prosecution of the “War On Terror” depends on how the viewer sees Batman in the film (Or, more likely, how one thought of Bush before even walking into the theater).
Likewise, it’s common knowledge that in last year’s Iron Man, the lead character was portrayed as an avatar of American industrial, military and technology might, and the noble ways it can be used to better the world—without killing.
The X-Men? People think people think they’re stand-ins for oppressed minorities in our culture like gay folks, but everyone knows they really symbolize the alienation felt by comic book fans.
Spider-Man? He symbolized the adolescent coming of age experience, as he gained access to the whole new world that puberty offers. He also demonstrates a fear of women that isn’t pathetic so much as macho. And speaks to the importance of chastity and abstinence in modern society. And was a symbol of the millennial metrosexual. And 9/11.
Scanning Hollywood blockbusters for potential political and cultural subtext, or even just a good opening with which to assign a meaning, has long been a popular pastime for people who get paid to fill column inches—on the limited space provided by pulp, or in the infinite space of the Internet—and it seems to be one they engage in more often and with less consideration these days.
Personally, I love reading such pieces. A great deal of them are quite well written, and can provide enough evidence to support a particular reading. Some of them end up being completely ridiculous, but even those are fun to read in the way ridiculous, unsupportable arguments can be.
Writing for Canadian news magazine Macleans, Mark Steyn says he’s having less and less fun with the practice of comparing Spock to Obama and Bush to Emperor Palpatine.
“Truly this is the Age of the Superhero,” he writes in a recent piece, “And it’s beginning to bother me.”
He begins by brandishing his comic book bonafides—he grew up reading comics, he once met Stan Lee, etc.—and brings up the fact that he too has read meanings that may or may not have actually been there into superhero flicks (Spider-Man, he once thought, seemed to justify the Bush administration’s concept of preemptive warfare, since if Spidey would have stopped that burglar for the smaller, more insignificant crime of robbery, he wouldn’t have later killed our heroes Uncle Ben).
His problem with Hollywood turning into a superhero movie factory isn’t merely one of aesthetics and quality, although he offers some amusing observations on that subject:
The reinventions are invariably the same: out with the breezy guy swinging through the streets of Gotham to a ring-a-ding-ding Neal Hefti theme tune; in with some morose misanthrope hunched on the rooftops brooding and riddled with self-doubt. In the sixties, the TV Batman was camp. Then he got dark in the eighties movie. But then by the nineties sequels the dark Batman had mysteriously camped up again. So now he’s darker than ever. I think the concept of reinvention could do with reinventing.
Rather, the real downside is that such filmmaking has helped Hollywood “off an awkward hook”; studios don’t produce movies about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, the failed “War on Terror” (which is currently being reframed in less cosmic terms by the new administration), and the causes and casualties of these conflicts. Instead, they bounce colorful characters open to interpretations around a big screen, and leave it to viewers to attach the messages they want to read.
Steyn takes issue with “several comrades” of his who saw Dark Knight’s villain The Joker, who just wanted to “watch the world burn,” as “incisive analysis of al-Qaeda”:
But I don’t think so. Terrorists enjoy the body count, yet, unlike the Joker, they do have an end rather than just means. The notion that they merely “want to watch the world burn” is more readily applied to your average Hollywood studio. For almost a decade, the summer blockbusters have avoided saying anything about terrorism, Islam, 9/11, Bali, Beslan, Madrid or London, but they do like to “watch the world burn.” And so they opt for explosions and fireballs and shattering glass and screaming civilians unmoored from any recognizable reality.
I can buy that. Al-Qaeda and similar terrorist groups might not have a rational end that can ever be achieved, but even if its just a fantasy goal it’s a goal, and its far different than The Joker’s, which was apparently trying to drive Batman crazy, or prove everyone can be tempted to be as evil as him, or whatever.
Then there’s this:
Some studio vice-presidents just want to watch the world burn. So we have movies about nothing. You can discern subplot if you wish, but in the end what 99 per cent of moviegoers notice is the stuff that’s not sub-: he’s dressed like a bat!…
You can debate allegory and metaphor, but once upon a time you didn’t have to—even with superheroes. The very first issue of Captain America showed our hero punching Hitler in the kisser right on the front cover—and look at the date: March 1941, months before the U.S. even entered the war.
I don’t see Hollywood studios deciding to stop being coy and equivocal on matters of politics and identity issues any time soon, as making statements tend to alienate advertisers and audiences, but it might be nice to see the folks making movies about superheroes showing more courage now and then.
If superhero films, as a genre in general, do move away from allegory and metaphor, I imagine it will be to abandon even those and retreating into pure action movies with masks and tights, instead of getting more specific.
But that won’t stop critics and commentators from finding symbolism in popular entertainments. Superhero films aren’t the only movies so scrutinized, anything that achieves a certain level of popularity will be looked at closely to see how it might be connecting with the audience (There’s been just as much written about politics and worldviews espoused by The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Juno, each version of King Kong, The Matrix, the resurgent zombie genre, each and each and every movie about vampires as there has been about Spider-Man and Dark Knight). And it will be a phenomenon driven by writers’ desire to write about something popular and fun. If to do so means finding a new angle, or a hook to tie it into the front page news of the day, well, that’s usually accomplished easily enough.
Now if you haven’t already, go read Steyn’s piece. Agree or disagree, it offers an awful lot to think about.