The success of the original “Iron Man” in 2008 heralded the coming of the new filmic “Marvel” universe and a resurgent slew of superhero movies, but one of the things that made it so compelling was the modern tonal realism of its opening: before any robots or monsters take the stage, we are introduced to our protagonist traveling with very-recognizable American soldiers in a very-recognizable Middle East before being captured and filmed as a hostage by masked and turbaned terrorists.
No longer were superheroes insulated from the current world of political conflict, or magically sublimated into a world similar to ours where the forces that would do us harm are always giant crocodiles or thickly-accented next-wave Nazis. The idea of a mythical hero-character who could engage with the complex actual threats of today transcended the inherent escapism and silliness of superheroes long enough for a wide audience to be intrigued.
By this month’s release of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” that connection to actual threats of today has been lost, supplanted along the way by Norse villain-gods, alien armies, and – yes – Nazis, once more. What has not been left behind, however, is a concern with the ideological and political paradigms that young, liberal, contemporary audiences grapple with. The first plot shakings in the new Captain America pit an indignant Captain arguing against Nick Fury’s deployment of all-seeing, pre-emptive security-military giant flying warships. What? Guns aren’t always good?
If this were the 1980s, Captain America would never argue against giant military gunboats, and by the end of the movie all the bleeding-heart due-process liberals and punk libertarians would see the errors of their ways as the massive turrets blew poverty-stricken inner-city gangbangers and Spanish-speaking drug lords into smithereens while Guns’N’Roses played and Fury made some cigar-chomping joke about whether his megaphone declaration to prepare to eat lead constituted “reading them their rights.” The traditional action hero is one who pisses on the red-tape of soft-on-crime free-speech hippies and gets off on having the biggest gun. Obviously, today’s superhero movie rolls a different way.
But part of what makes superheroes super is their ability to see and overpower everyone, and work outside the confines of any legislatures or rules. It was in 1987 that Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Watchmen” shone a satirical, nuanced light on how the things we love about superheroes – their complete disregard for others’ personal rights and any limits on power – are actually things we hate and fear from real governments and enforcers. In order to maintain their coolness viscerally (shooting and punching people with abandon) but also ideologically (standing against intrusive surveillance and simplistic villainization of the different), the new generation of superheroes need to have their cake and eat it too.
The best of the Nolan “Batman” movies, 2008’s “The Dark Knight” (which also carried a sense of real-world-danger before “Dark Knight Rises” went full extravaganza and lost the series’ tension and soul) pulled a similar trick. Though much of Batman’s power comes from his intrusive technology and rogue, unsanctioned policework, libertarian conscience Lucius Fox convinces Batman to destroy his powerful wiretap-and-surveillance system: a heroic action that comes at the film’s climax. The quality of the writing and filmmaking within this particular movie turn the issue into a complicated theme regarding the dialectic between trust and vigilance, but not every yarn will be so lucky. Will these movies only work if their very plot deals with the ramifications of superhero power itself?
One common thread in the modern wave of superhero movies that makes this tension easier to manage – a shortcut, if you will – is the disconnection of the hero from the structures that give him power. Batman’s self-sabotage is one example. In the new “Captain America,” the Captain is forced to flee, a rogue fugitive, from the military organization he works for. This gives his actions from then on a distance from the overreaching-government force philosophy he disdains. In “The Avengers,” the sanctioning body that approved the Avengers’ assemblage (couldn’t resist) give up on the team entirely and callously send a nuclear bomber to destroy all of Manhattan, making the heroes a rogue element at odds with the official government. In “Iron Man 3,” where Tony Stark’s power – like Bruce Wayne’s – comes from his own technology and wealth, his entire home-headquarters-complex is destroyed, sending him on the run alone in a backwater town to fight. These plot points re-cast the heroes as scrappy underdogs, which are easier to root for, but overwhelming enemy power wasn’t enough to create their underdog nature; they needed to be cut off from their far-seeing government power, because we as an audience just don’t approve of that.
At the climax of the new “Captain America,” the Captain’s new partner in crime asks him, “How do we know which ones are the bad guys?” It’s an interesting line, because at that point in the movie, the lines between allies and enemies are not blurred by some cheesy device like mind-control or impostors, but actually by which members of the Captain’s organization agree with him that the overreaching government flying gunships should not be launched.
We’ve always looked to superhero movies for a simplistic dichotomy between Good and Bad, but the new superhero movie’s inability to provide speaks to the nuances in approval and disapproval of power that young, modern, liberal audiences demand. Although how competently or incompetently this is handled depends on the skills of the writers and filmmakers, it’s an exciting proposition that, even among the most traditionally patriotic and gung-ho superheroes of the world, the question is being asked.