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The Subversive Ability of Popular Culture: Superhero Movies Post 9/11

SUPERHEROES is a fortnightly column from Mike McKenny. Over the weeks and months to come Mike will take an in-depth look in to the world of the Superhero film, and its place within the cinema and wider popular culture of the 21st Century. 

Despite losing some significance over the last couple of years in light of the global credit crisis and the current problems of national identity posed by the capitulation of that dominant western dogma of capitalism, it would still be a fair statement that the most defining contribution to the current socio-political climate is the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre on the 11th September 2001 (9/11). Considering this event occurred at approximately the same time of the exponential growth of the on-screen superhero, this week’s article is going to have a look at how the dominant line of thought in the prevailing decade since the event has been reflected in the superhero film. The superhero film, as claimed in the last article two weeks ago is amongst the most popular forms of mainstream cinema in the last decade, with mainstream cinema itself being one of the most prominent forms of popular culture. Rebecca Housel, in her essay ‘Myth, Morality and the Women of the X-Men’ from the book Superheroes and Philosophy noticed the effect that this event has had on the superhero genre: “Since the tragedy of September 11th  2001, the popularity of films featuring heroes in many forms has soared. Naturally, comic-book superheroes perfectly fit the need, and comic-book based films have set new box-office records”. These box-office records, which will be examined a little later, are very significant according to prominent writer on genre cinema Steve Neale, who explains: “profitability is an index of popularity, popularity an index of significance, and significance a matter of socio-cultural values and dilemmas”.

In light of this poignant and succinct point about the popular within society, before examining why these films have flourished in such a climate, I would just like to set up the whole discussion within the confines of popular film and popular culture in general. These films and the characters that inhabit them are not only popular, they are internationally renowned super brands; loved by many around the world, on either side of the political spectrum, throughout many demographics and permeating various social settings. Is there a certain amount of snobbery surrounding such popular cinema? I would have to say that although there isn’t as much snobbery as some may believe, it still exists. In light of this, an essay I read this week seemed particularly apt, and felt therefore I must appropriate its overarching message – regarding the importance of taking popular film seriously – onto this specific example. It is an essay written by Andy Willis called ‘Cultural Studies and Popular Film’ in the edited book Approaches to Popular Film, which I picked up after browsing the film section at Bradford Central Library (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, use your local library).

The essay gives a brief introduction to the rise of cultural studies throughout the seventies and its significance to popular culture:

“it enabled one to present an analysis of popular films which neither celebrated nor condemned them, but examined how they were produced in relation to the struggles between dominant and subordinate groups”.

Willis compares cultural studies to ‘screen theory’, the dominant approach to film studies of that era. He explains that:

“the main feature which came to distinguish cultural studies from screen theory in the 1970s was that while the latter tended to see popular film as a form of ideological domination, cultural studies tended to see the ‘popular’ as a site of struggle between groups, rather than the property or expression of any specific group’s interests. For this reason, cultural studies did not rely upon a simple opposition between a conservative popular culture and a radical avant-garde, but tended to be far more historical in its focus. It was concerned with the ways in which cultural forms developed through a process of conflict and struggle between social groups”.

The premise laid out here, that popular film is a significant measurement of society comes up again and again in my experience. Most notably every time a big spectacle film comes along with some horribly regressive ideological statements, which I object to and am consequently told: “oh it’s ONLY entertainment”, as if entertainment and intelligence are somehow mutually exclusive.  For a perfect example of this, see this website’s own review of Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the ensuing debate. With that rant over, I will refocus. It is not only the first of Willis’ points that I would like to pick up on, that popular films are culturally significant and worthy of analysis, but also to the second point that he raises, this negotiation of popular expression, or ‘process of conflict and struggle between social groups’. This is something often overlooked and is the root of genre’s subversive nature. The beauty of well thought out genre cinema is that it is spectacular, easily digestible due to formula and (if successful) exhilaratingly entertaining. Yet, within these formulaic parables, any tiny alteration can subvert expectations or dominant modes of thought. In order for this contradiction to succeed though, this subversive narrative must exist within the mainstream norms. In Willis’ words:

“This situation means that no text is ever purely radical or conservative. Whatever its political ideology, it is always produced within conditions of power, and as such it must address alternative interests and aspirations if it is to present its own position as a solution to them”.

The events of 9/11 dictated the shape of global politics for the decade to come, setting in motion the social circumstances for the ludicrously named ‘war on terror’ to somehow root itself into the popular consciousness. This ‘war on terror’ required that the Western world – and the US in particular – completely redefine – or more accurately reinforce – notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The Bush administration was doing everything within its power to create the picture of grand, unexplainable evils in the world (hence the term ‘axis of evil’, a more ludicrous term than ‘war on terror’). What better to support this movement than the superhero myth: a narrative structure that in the majority of its existence tells simple stories about the triumph of good over evil; of heroes over villains.

Despite this seeming to make sense, and despite that being the mainstream narrative’s answer, why then has this not quite been the case? In fact, the situation has been much closer to what Willis described above; these films are neither rejections of this dominant value system, nor are they propagators of it. Before looking at some specific examples that prove that the most ambiguous films, that subvert from within this dominant framework, are not only the most critically acclaimed, but also the most popular/profitable (and as we discovered from Neale above, therefore the most culturally significant), I would like to bring up something that brought this to my attention.

Rüdiger Heinze’s essay, ‘Trauma, Morality and Conformity: American (Super)Heroes After 9/11’, which I found after a simply Google search, postulates that rather than these films taking on the forced dominant narrative (axis of evil, war on terror, etc) that the films have risen to prominence because of the heroes’ symmetry with America as a nation. Specifically, he writes that the most successful superhero films like the Spider-Man films (Sam Raimi, 2002, 2004, 2007) and Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005) feature heroes that constantly return to their trauma (the death of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben and the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents respectively), which he argues resonates with a public that returns to the previously unthinkable social/national trauma of 9/11.  He also stresses the levels of humanity and fallibility that these most popular heroes possess, further humanising them and likening them to the mass audience.

“In order to resolve this dilemma, some of the most successful recent comic and film representations of superheroes render them more human and bring them closer to our actual, natural world (e.g. Spiderman, Batman, Daredevil, Wolverine), while others reinforce the status of their heroes as unequivocally super and superhuman (Superman, The Fantastic Four, Elektra)… the first kind are portrayed as superhuman heroes who happen to also possess extraordinary powers.”

This idea coincides with the notion – that I will go into more detail about below – of the difference between the ‘super’ superheroes as conservative/least successful and the ‘human’ superheroes as the subversive/more successful. Further, by stressing the proportionally larger popularity of the human characters, in answer to what I said above regarding the popular assertion that these blockbusters are ONLY entertainment; that they are simply escapism, Heinze raises the point that: “contrary to the idea that these artistic reactions to 9/11 epitomize the need of “the ‘average’ American” to “escape from the very real horrors of international unrest and terrorism”… in fact are symptomatic responses to collective trauma and thus very much rooted in the real rather than an escape from it”.

Having considered Heinze’s position I shall just take a few examples that help to illustrate his point. He uses, as examples of the films that embody the fallible, more human hero, the Spider-Man films and the Batman films (he only uses Batman Begins, as The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) hadn’t been released at the time, but is more than applicable). On the other hand he singles out Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006) as the antithesis: “In contrast, the recent Superman Returns is blissfully devoid of any moral complexity and aesthetically complex representations of traumatic experiences and their effects upon individuals”. He also mentions Fantastic Four (Tim Story, 2005). In addition to Heinze’s point about these characters not returning to the trauma, I would say that these two films are also the most simplistic and conservative representations of the ‘good’ vs ‘evil’ narrative that was being promoted by the Bush administration and the right wing press. For example, in X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000), produced before 9/11, Magneto is given a sympathetic origin as an oppressed Jew to explain his evil nature. Completely opposed to this is that Fantastic Four gives no real reason for Dr Doom’s evil nature, which mirrors the portrayal of terrorists in the mainstream media as having no motivation other than just being evil. The same, though not quite as crudely, can be said for Lex Luthor in Superman Returns. In contrast to these, the Spider-Man films have sympathetic villains (apart from venom in the third, conveniently the far less acclaimed instalment), as does, Heinze argues, Batman Begins.

Having created some distinctions between what we could term the conservative and the subversive we can use some measurements in order to compare their success. To get a rough, yet even measure of critical response, we could compare scores from the website Rotten Tomatoes. Spider-Man films receiving 89% for the first, 93% for the second, and 63% for the third (something that can be accounted for, amongst other factors, by sequel exhaustion), the Batman films are similarly – if not more – subversive and currently have an 84% for Batman Begins and a whopping 94% for The Dark Knight. Compare these figures then with Superman Returns, with a very mediocre 76% and the Fantastic Four films with a paltry 27% for the first and an only slightly higher 37% for the sequel: Rise of the Silver Surfer (Tim Story, 2007).

The second way to measure the cultural significance of these films, as mentioned a number of times above, would be to look at their box office figures. Is it no surprise then, that according to the statistics on Box Office Mojo’s helpful collection of superhero film takings the second highest (and highest for many years) is Spider-man. It has been explained above that the film has ambiguous villains and a fallible hero, but being released very soon after 9/11, it does benefit from some mild jingoism, i.e. American flags all over and the all American everyman Peter Parker as Spider-Man, the hero of New York (Note that this is only in reference to the film’s reception post 9/11, as it was produced prior to the event, these things can’t have been in there, specifically as a direct reaction to it). This was the top grossing superhero film for some time, that is, until America changed. Years later, with more temporal distance from the ‘trauma’ of 9/11, this jingoism was no longer what was needed. The immediate jingoism – though still prominent in some spaces – has become much less widespread and has in fact turned to a confused cynicism. Hence the massive financial success of the current highest grossing superhero film The Dark Knight, by far the darkest, most ambiguous and furthest from American jingoism of all the mainstream superheroes that have made the jump to the big screen. Note that by saying darkest ‘mainstream’ superhero I am ruling out other significant texts like the divisive Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009), which if I can afford a quick aside to, Jonanthan Crompton, a friend of mine, wrote in his undergrad dissertation on a very similar subject that: “The Watchmen themselves are morally dubious: emotionally troubled, flawed and ideologically suspect. One could read this as a projection of post -Iraq fears, of a weariness of America as the World’s ‘policeman’”.

Just to finish, another contemporary example, one that almost perfectly surmises the earlier postulation that the best way to achieve subversion is to work within the dominant framework/ideology and then deviate from it, would be Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008). To contextualise, compared to others mentioned, this currently sits at a 94% Rotten Tomato rating and is the third highest grossing superhero behind Batman and three Spider-Man films. The villain of the film is set up to be some unspecified Middle Eastern Islamic extremist terrorists. So far this is according to the dominant narrative. Yet, this cell are revealed to be powered by, and in villainous terms completely overshadowed by an even greater evil: the uncontrollable destruction of unfettered capitalist greed and how it leads to soulless profit making (selling weapons to the highest bidder, even if they’re an oppressive, unstable terrorist organisation), not to mention an unquenchable thirst for power (Obidiah Staines’ increasing insanity). How apt, that this corporate figure emerges as the greatest villain, just prior to the financial crash of 2008.

The main inspiration – even prior to reading Heinze’s essay – forcing me to move away from the belief that superhero movies grew to prominence post-9/11 because they are essentially the ultimate tale of good versus evil; that alerted me to the reality of these being much more complex and subversive, was Dan Cole’s (Found on Twitter) staggeringly comprehensive knowledge of comic books. His advice on many facets of Marvel’s change throughout the decade was instrumental in forming that base understanding that in pretty much every crevice of the Marvel Universe were themes of confusion and paranoia; of a nation that has lost its identity in the face of the divisive politics that force one to either conform to or reject the mainstream’s picture of the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘axis of evil’. I regret that I cannot repeat Dan’s comprehensive advice within the body of this text but invite him to add in the comments section some of the insightful information that I was sent, as it really does enrich the whole notion of the emerging post 9/11 superhero myth.

SUPERHEROES continues in two weeks time. 

Mike McKenny is an academic and writer on film. He writes for FilmAndFestivals magazine, and is the editor of Destroy Apathy. He can also be found on Twitter