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.
The Amazing Spider-Man is the second cinematic telling of the Peter Parker story. Like Sam Raimi’s earlier Spider-Man franchise, Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and, as Spider-Man, fights villains who threaten order in his city. In the 2012 iteration, Dr. Curt Connors, Parker’s mentor, is developing an experimental healing serum for shady Oscorp industries. Dr. Connors is pressured by his corporate overlord Dr. Ratha to rush the creation to the human testing stage, for the sake of the company’s bottom-line. When Connors refuses, Ratha fires him and says that he will test the serum on wounded veterans at the VA hospital under the guise of a flu shot. In desperation, Connors tests the serum on himself, regrowing his missing arm but turning into the reptilian monster Lizard. As Connors/Lizard races to stop Ratha’s evil experiment, Spider-Man intercepts him on the Williamsburg Bridge, and the two fight.
Though the film introduces Ratha as a figure of menace, he is just a catalyst for the conflict between Parker and his erstwhile mentor. The remainder of the film focuses on the conflict between Spider-Man and Lizard, and Dr. Ratha is not heard from or alluded to again. For all we know, he could have carried out his Nazi-esque human experimentation while the city’s resources were focused on the swinging acrobat and dinosaur wreaking havoc in the streets. By punishing Connors and forgetting about Ratha, though, the film frames the crimes of Connors as deserving of punishment—and erases the greater, more institutionalized crimes of Ratha and Oscorp.
It may seem an odd narrative choice for The Amazing Spider-Man to show a corporate criminal being saved by the hero. This is the essence of American justice in the 21st Century: a system that shields the powerful while punishing those who try to stop their predations. In his evil-minded drive to advance his company’s profits, Ratha reflects the dominant ethos of corporate capitalism and its destructive externalities rather than an aberration. Unfettered corporate criminals have destroyed trillions of dollars during the 2008 financial crisis, laundered billions for drug lords and terrorists, and perpetrated almost every form of fraud imaginable. Not only has our elite Bankster class enjoyed continued freedom, but the institutions have expanded and been handed trillions in bailouts. Rapacious corporate capitalism threatens life on the planet itself, in the form of worsening anthropogenic climate change
Because Connors refuses to acquiesce to the atrocities of Oscorp, the film marks him as the aberration: he literally becomes a monster for his decision to fight back. Connors, with his direct-action resistance, is like so many whistleblowers and environmental activists who have been punished while the war criminals and environmental destroyers they expose are rewarded. This two-tiered system of justice, where acts of conscience are punished inordinately harshly while huge, systemic corruption is rewarded is why Chelsea Manning will be in prison for the next 30 years while Dick Cheney will spend the next 30 years fly-fishing, maintained by a steady stream of fresh human hearts. When The Amazing Spider-Man allows Dr. Ratha to slip away without sanction, he disappears just as quietly as the latest real-life instance of corporate abuse disappears from the news cycle, supplanted by vacuous, “red vs. blue” partisan sniping and vapid celebrity gossip.
Chronicle sought to inject new life in the superhero origin-story premise by using the found-footage format. Like in Spider-Man, the villain in Chronicle is someone who develops powers at the same time as the hero, then becomes their enemy. Similarly, like in Spider-Man, the hero is complemented by a deuteragonist who becomes a villain when they try to stop a more violent individual, who then escapes justice.
In Chronicle, the hero is a high school student named Matt, who, along with his cousin Andrew and popular jock Steve, gain powers from an extraterrestrial object the three discover in the woods. Andrew, the character who becomes the villain, decides to videotape his life, and it’s his camera that gives the audience its perspective. Andrew’s mother suffers from cancer and his alcoholic father is verbally and physically abusive, in contrast to Matt’s idyllic home life.
Andrew evinces a willingness to use his powers in a way that Matt disapproves of, initially exacting revenge on a rude motorist and later against the school bully. At the same time as his powers are growing stronger, Andrew’s home life is deteriorating. His mother’s cancer takes a turn for the worst, and he turns to crime to afford her medication. Andrew is harmed during the course of a robbery, and Andrew’s father comes to the hospital, distraught over his wife’s death and intending to harm his unconscious son. As he’s about to strike him, Andrew awakens and flies off with his father, prompting a psychic twinge in Matt. Matt flies off stop Andrew, killing him in the ensuing fight. Presumably, Andrew’s father escapes relatively unhurt.
Why shouldn’t Andrew’s father have been harmed, though? He was about to brutalize an unconscious teen, on whom he had a long history of inflicting abuse. For the abused to resist and fight back against their abuser would seem like a just form of resistance. While it may seem odd for Chronicle to show that justice is a hero protecting an abuser from retribution, the film reflects the dynamic at work in society when the marginalized try to resist their oppression.
This power relationship is evident on the personal level when an abused person expects to rely on laws that were never intended to protect them. This is what happened to Marissa Alexander when she invoked the “stand your ground” defense against her abusive husband. CeCe MacDonald, a black transwoman, was sent to prison on manslaughter charges after defending herself from attempted murder at the hands of Neo-Nazis. The dynamic is embedded in the very framework of rape culture, and the huge numbers of women who will suffer sexual violence and are blamed for their victimhood.
The framework of an abusive, patriarchal relationship mirrors the larger discourses of colonialism. The autocratic paternalism of an abusive father is present in the discourse of colonialism, which infantilizes the colonized. The notion that force is the only language worth communicating with is the same, spoken by violent dads and Generals alike. Even the re-writing and whitewashing of history to better reflect on the colonizer mirrors the mental abuse known as gaslighting. Since both frameworks are so similar, the micro- and macro-levels of abuse intersect most horrifically in populations who have been colonized. When Matt kills his cousin Andrew, saves an abuser, and the film sends a message about the acceptable limits of resistance. It’s not only a personal form of resistance Matt is policing, though—he’s policing forms of resistance that have ramifications on a larger scale.
During Chronicle’s epilogue, Matt records a video for his dead cousin from a snow-covered mountaintop. Facing the camera, Matt says that he finally made it to Tibet, a peaceful place that Andrew had always dreamt of visiting. As the homeland of the Dalai Lama, of course Tibet is the film’s physical and philosophical endpoint. The Dalai Lama is the most popular religious figure amongst American liberals because he engenders a spirituality that seems transgressive while accommodating power. Most Americans are probably only familiar with the Dalai Lama’s teaching of “think different,” from its time as Apple’s corporate motto. However, the monk formerly known as Tenzin Gyatso shares the conception of justice that American elites advocate, and is at work in these films.
Some were surprised when, in 2011, the monk suggested that the killing of Osama bin Laden was justified. Many Westerners believe him to be a strict man of peace, so it was surprising to hear him say that “if something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures.” It made more sense when, in 1999, the Dalai Lama vocally supported Augusto Pinochet in the former dictator’s struggle to avoid extradition to Spain to face charges of crimes against humanity. Pinochet, the fascist who came to power on September 11th, 1973, killed more than 3,000 people and tortured countless times more during his reign of terror. The difference between the two 9/11s, though, is that while bin Laden was hunted and assassinated by the world’s most powerful empire, Pinochet remained part of the global ruling class. As reward for turning Chile into “one of the most privatized economies in the world,” Pinochet enjoyed the friendship of elites like Margaret Thatcher, Henry Kissinger, and the Dalai Lama. The latter looked out for his elite friend, telling his American followers that justice is punishment meted out from the top-down, while the crimes of elites are best ignored. When dealing with the FBI’s Most Wanted, “you have to take counter-measures,” but if it’s a fascist murderer beloved by Washington, then “it’s better to forgive.”
The fact that these three superhero movies contain top-down conceptions of law and order doesn’t mean that this is all the culture industry creates. The film industry, with its larger budgets and longer production periods, necessarily responds more slowly to popular trends than the music or fashion industries. Both halves of American music’s premiere power couple, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, released music videos with revolutionary imagery after the resonance of the message Occupy made insurrection very fashionable.
In the video for Beyoncé’s “Superpower,” the superstar initially wears a midriff-baring niqab/balaclava headpiece as she and rioters storm through a parking structure and what look like the ruins of a shopping mall. Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” directed by Romain Gavras (son of legendary left-wing filmmaker Costa-Gavras), opens with a Molotov cocktail thrown at a line of riot police in a vaguely Eastern European city. Like actually pornography, the “No Church” video is a highly-produced simulation of the real thing, an intricately staged, slow-motion replica of images first seen on the streets of Greece and Egypt. “No Church” was Jay-Z and Kanye West’s second video, after “Run This Town,” to feature revolutionary imagery.
As a pre-eminent pop culture figure working in a traditionally transgressive genre, Jay-Z embodies the culture industry’s ability to sell explicitly revolutionary imagery. The artist, who has both his own clothing line Rocawear and a multi-million dollar collaboration with Barney’s, released a shirt in early 2012 with the message “Occupy All Streets.” Despite the insurrectionary clothing and music videos, Jay-Z denigrated Occupy as “a picnic” that he claimed he didn’t understand. Both Beyoncé and Jay-Z, who cloak their products in the signifiers of rebellion, are famously close to Barack and Michelle Obama. The British-Iraqi musician Lowkey, in criticizing how the culture industry perpetuates hegemony, points to the friendship of the Knowles-Carters and the Obamas as an illustrative example of whose voices get rewarded with exposure. “We have to ask why the person who’s being pushed as ‘the greatest rapper of all time‘ is being pictured in the White House—whose interests does that serve?” The rapper and activist is uniquely positioned to comment, since his music’s revolutionary message has kept him off MTV, despite impressive sales of his albums.
Unlike the music or fashion industries, superhero films are beholden to more interests, and have to make many times more money to be profitable. That is not to say that large studio movies can’t also traffic in insurrectionary imagery, or that the appropriation of that imagery can’t have transgressive ends. In marketing Warner Brothers’s 2005 adaptation of Alan Moore’s dystopian V For Vendetta, the film’s stars were emphatic that the film could be read as a criticism of totalitarian regimes in Iran and North Korea, rather than the Bush administration. The Guy Fawkes mask popularized by the film has been ubiquitous at sites of citizen unrest, famously providing the face for the hacker activist group Anonymous at the same time as sales of the mask line the coffers of Time Warner.
More recently, the success of the Hunger Games franchise has created a marketing juggernaut centered around a story about a society immiserated by inequality and authoritarian state violence. A four-film series about a violent revolution is being used to sell everything from branded clothing and jewelry to a possible Hunger Games theme park. Still, the possibility that revolutionary imagery even in the service of capital can serve a transgressive end finds some support in the Hunger Games Subway sandwich tie-in. With a series in which starvation is such a central motif, a branded meal invites a reading as sly, subversive commentary on marketing.
The first Hunger Games film was the third-highest grossing film of 2012, after The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. In the 21st Century, few genres of films rake in the money or can boast the kind of studio push as established superhero franchises. In the past decade, these films have acted as assuagers of collective fears and moral reassurance. The messages these films impart are noteworthy, as is the ideology embedded in their generally Manichaean narratives. Who our superheroes fight demonstrate the permissible avenues for force to be directed in the name of American justice. In Spider-Man and Chronicle, superheroes are fighting to entrench the existing power structure at the expense of their victims. Yet it was only The Dark Knight Rises that was singled out as expressly political.
It may speak to how pernicious a message can be when it’s communicated without explicit signifiers. It may also speak to how normalized America’s two-tiered system of justice has become. This perversion of basic “equality under the law” has come from the top-down. At the beginning of his first term, President Obama summoned a rogue’s gallery of Wall Street’s worst to assure them that he was “standing between [them] and the pitchforks.” His administration has followed through on that, defending both elite criminals from the oligarch class and the deep state. The narrative dynamics at work in The Amazing Spider-Man and Chronicle reflect this new American reality, where the law exists to protect the powerful and entrench systems of inequality. In his piece “It’s Called the Ruling Class Because It Rules,” Arthur Silber writes:
The law is not some Platonic Form plucked from the skies by the Pure in Heart. Laws are the particular means by which the state implements and executes its vast powers. When an increasingly authoritarian state passes a certain critical point in its development, the law is no longer the protector of individual rights and individual liberty. The law becomes the weapon of the state itself—to protect, not you, but the state from threats to its own powers. We passed that critical point some decades ago. The law is the means by which the state corrals its subjects, keeps them under control, and forbids them from acting in ways that the overlords might perceive as threatening. In brief, today, in these glorious United States, the law is not your friend.