Update: This piece, originally titled “Holy unwashed masses, Batman!”: The anti-populist, elitist message of “justice” in 3 superhero films from 2012, was included in the March-April 2014 issue of Against the Current #169, a socialist, feminist, and anti-racist organization.
“I had hoped that the…moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter From A Birmingham Jail”
“Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice.” –President James Marshall, Air Force One
Ever since Captain America punched-out Hitler during WWII, superhero texts promise the fantasy of invincibility and moral certitude. This promise has been particularly appealing given the last several decades of American global dominance, during which time, our empire’s actions as unchallenged global master have produced tremendous violence abroad and inequality at home. Consequently, our pop culture works to palliate the feeling that “we might not be the good guys.” Ideological messages are best received when they don’t seem to exist at all, and superhero films, with their fantastic subject matter and aimed primarily at young audiences, are particularly effective at concealing their ideology. You’re not being asked to believe anything “political,” you’re just asked to believe a man can fly.
Superhero movies represent a particular kind of American wish-fulfillment, unleashing our id and assuaging our fears. Some reviewers and film theorists made the connection that much of Spider-Man’s (Sam Raimi, 2002) enthusiastic reception had to do with its telling a New York superhero story the summer after 9/11. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) was widely read as an allegory for the Bush administration—an ethically just hero who extraordinarily renders, beats up prisoners, and warrantlessly surveils in order to protect his city from the ticking time bomb scenario that is endlessly invoked in real life to justify all manner of horrors. Both Raimi’s Spider-Man franchise and Nolan’s Dark Knight series deal with contemporary anxieties and reified Manichaean ideas of Good vs. Evil, but the War on Terror parallels in Dark Knight were obvious to many, while “very few critics picked up on [Spider-Man’s] symbolic resonance.”
The different ways audiences received both film’s messages illustrates how much more effectively ideology is communicated when it’s invisible. Similarly, three superhero films were released in 2012 with anti-populist messages; one was overt, two communicated that message insidiously. Of The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, 2012), The Amazing Spider-Man (Mark Webb, 2012), and Chronicle (Josh Trank, 2012), only the former was singled out for what was called its anti-Occupy message. In the third act of Rises, the villain Bane unleashes popular outrage against the status quo using the language of economic justice. Over the course of a brief montage, things go very French-Revolution very quickly in Gotham City. Nolan implied that the existing order is maintained—tenuously—for the good of society, and it’s elite plutocrats like Bruce Wayne who do the onerous task of upholding the status quo. If the authorities loosen their grip, it’s only a matter of time before the commoners break out the guillotines. The message was so widely received that Nolan assured viewers that the film “wasn’t political”; as though such a thing could ever be possible.
No one asked similar questions of Mark Webb or Josh Trank. Their films eschewed overt, politically resonant imagery like the roving underclass mobs of Rises. Where Nolan’s hero was a billionaire ninja, Webb and Trank’s heroes were teenage everymen. The villains in Spider-Man and Chronicle, though, are both motivated by a desire to stop greater criminality. The law being enforced out by the heroes of Spider-Man and Chronicle is the sort of justice that protects the powerful against accountability from the masses they exploit. In 2012, the same year these three films came out, voters handed a second electoral mandate to a popular Democratic president whose first term articulated a clear vision of elite impunity. In his first term, Obama made good on the Democratic embrace of elite lawlessness from the 2008 campaign trail, rendering bipartisan the idea that law is something applied to commoners, not oligarchs. Where Dark Knight Rises evoked the dangers of too little authority in a blunt, obvious way, Spider-Man and Chronicle evinced these ideas much more effectively, masking the ideological underpinnings under their gee-whiz spectacle. With the deceptive oratorical finesse of Obama himself, these films offer audiences an elite, authoritarian conception of order where justice exists to protect the powerful from the exploited. Continue reading