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MOVIE SUPERHEROES & AMERICAN IMPERIALISM
by X Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008 at 4:25 PM



Movie Superheroes & American Imperialism

These superheroes have been harnessed in support of

our dying imperial project, promising a renaissance

through which our superior strength, and unrivaled

human wisdom, are finally and fully unveiled

for the world's adoration and humble acquiescence



After watching three superhero films in a matter of weeks, it occurred to me that these movies may be responding to an underlying need in the American character.

As the empire seems to slip away a little more every day--through wars and their outsized expenses, through the spiraling price of petroleum...

Through piling debt and accompanying sense of diminished horizons, and through the incalculable swath of home foreclosures and financial collapse...

These movies reaffirm some childish wish within us to conquer our fears through the attainment of a supernatural state? Aren't we solacing ourselves with our childhood dream of superheroes rescuing us from a world that has become sadly emptied of the miraculous?

In a sense, superhero movies are about dreaming of our idealized selves. They speak to some undying hope within us that somehow, through some special alchemy, we will transform ourselves and our world, summoning the awe and hero-worship of those around us.
Superheroes & America's 'Manifest Destiny' [Source]
Superhero movies have been fairly consistent presence in theaters over the past twenty years. Ever since the Superman films demonstrated the moneymaking appeal of actualizing comic books, the template has been at the fore of the movie studio agenda.

Lately, though, there seems to have been a genuine "surge" in comic book realizations. From XXX to Sin City to the Fantastic Four, the heroes of juvenile imagination are everywhere.

This summer, we've been bombarded with three significant additions: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk (a mere year after Eric Bana's version), and The Dark Knight.

Are these films trying to tell us something integral to our social mindset, or are they simply cotton candy from tinsel town designed to allay the summer agitations of American youth?

Setting Aside Childish Things

I suppose if I'm writing an article about it, it's a good guess my choice is the former. I've seen all three of the recent films, despite my rather unenthused attitude toward comic book movies; comics were terrific when I was ten, even formative.

But at 40, I've preferred to parrot Saint Paul in suggesting that, "I've set aside childish things." I always felt that the lessons of Superman and Batman and Aquaman were better scripted for adolescents.

As an adult, I've found the stark Zoroastrain delineation of good versus evil a little tiresome, considering it has been mirrored in the drumbeat of our national politicals since Reagan's glorious heyday.

Nor could I suspend disbelief long enough to emotionally engage with grown men dressed in Halloween costumes and issuing high-flown moral admonishments to their gape-mouthed crowds.

Crowds which, like so many of us in real life, are ready to swallow pithy moral mediocrities in order to rationalize their adoration of the latest masked and muscular ubermensch.

Yet after watching three of these films in a matter of weeks, it occurred to me that these movies may be responding to an underlying need in the American character.

As the empire seems to slip away a little more every day--through wars and their outsized expenses, through the spiraling price of petroleum...

Through piling debt and accompanying sense of diminished horizons, and through the incalculable swath of home foreclosures and financial collapse...

These movies reaffirm some childish wish within us to conquer our fears through the attainment of a supernatural state? Aren't we solacing ourselves with our childhood dream of superheroes rescuing us from a world that has become sadly emptied of the miraculous?

In a sense, superhero movies are about dreaming of our idealized selves. They speak to some undying hope within us that somehow, through some special alchemy, we will transform ourselves and our world, summoning the awe and hero-worship of those around us.

I don't think we ever fully relinquish this whimsy, at least not in the relative material comfort of our American backyard. Looking back at various plot sequences in these three films, they lend a strange measure of support to this tenuous notion.

Iron Ideas

Consider Tony Stark, the ingenious weaponsmaker of Stark Industries. His life unfurls in a series of endless successes until he is accidentally captured by a series of radical Arabs or Persians and enslaved in the production of a super-weapon that will help the forces of the East combat the very Western arsenal he has built.

Trapped in this seemingly inescapable plight, he produces the ultimate fighting machine, essentially transforming himself into an impenetrible weapon unlike anything ever seen before.

Its power and dominance is so thorough and encompassing that those who witness it respond with awe and a sense that the world has experienced a dramatic, almost incomprehensible shift.

Stark has simply reordered the world the way it was--with himself alone atop the mountain--with the singular exception that now he has been stripped of his innocence.

He has become a hard-eyed realist, aware of the planetary pitfalls and misuses of power. And instead of foregoing the business of evangelism, which is what his weapons business was--the evangelism of power--he commits himself to the grand mission of improving the world for all mankind.

Can you not hear the echoes of the Bush Doctrine clanging through Tony Stark's muddled head?

As he reveals his true nature as Iron Man, his ego is infused with an indomitable sense of purpose and pride, the very qualities that produced so much catastrophe by his hand in the first place.

His ideas are immutable, cast in the same molten mould as his body armour. In the face of self-reflection, our hero simply retools his tactics, but never his essential purpose.

Righteous Anger

Despite its professed aridity, impotence is a potent conduit of anger. Like Nietzsche's critique of Christianity as the payback theology of the oppressed, America seems too to suffer from newfound infirmities:

The inability to absolutely vanquish the restive populations of the Middle East, insurgent against our grander designs for their territories and increasingly defiant of our once awe-inspiring arsenal of destruction.

An economy that seems ever ailing, subject to unsteady booms and forbidding busts, and enlongated recessions and temporary recoveries.

Then there is the unmistakable sense of decline, and perhaps a sense, in a racially pejorative and culturally blind phantasm, that the barbarians are indeed massing at the gates.

One of the potential responses to this kind of overwhelming circumstance is gloom; another is denial; and another is rage. Pure, unadulterated spleen, aimed at the myriad objects of our building incomprehension.

The Incredible Hulk, with Edward Norton, also blends the Third World neatly into its narrative, as the Hulk seeks to escape the converging forces of autocracy in his own country.

His government isn't to be trusted, bent as it is on empowering itself through technology, or the forcible perversion of nature, and clamors to capture his accidental strengths and, more centrally, to monitor and track his exact whereabouts.

An inversion of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk offers a more demotic narrative in which the forces of humanity are ranged against the autonomous will of the state.

The Hulk, blind with anger he doesn't quite understand, at least is certain there is something just to rage against.

A Flawed Destiny

The final of the three movies, The Dark Knight, has probably delivered a stronger critique of our contemporary culture than either of the other two by positing Batman as an uncertain moralist combating an almost unmanegeable array of madmen.

A central theme of the film is Bruce Wayne's inner crisis--whether he should forsake his own morality in an effort to quell the destructive mania of the Joker.

Or if he should maintain his own principles, risking the likelihood that his own ethics will dramatically hamstring his efforts to defeat his enemies, who are unencumbered by ethical considerations of any kind.

In the end, the movie seems to sanction Batman's potential decision to 'go off the range' and fight criminality on his own terms, likely employing the very techniques used by the Joker, namely violence and murder.

The film implicitly suggests that Batman, like America, may be incapable of vanquishing its foes without relinquishing some of its own superior morality.

Throughout, the internal logic of Batman and his allies--that if criminal measures aren't considered the Joker will never be stopped--are never really questioned, and the juxtaposition is firmly made that the moralist is at a decided disadvantage against the lunatic by virtue of his morality.

He wants a better world, but in order to achieve it he must first descend to the depths of his foes.

You get the feeling it wouldn't be surprising to see the Joker guaranteed in Guantanamo, being brutally interrogated by Batman himself, while Commissioner Gordon foists a false explanation on the public--for its own good, of course.

A resonant imperial refrain is sounded throughout the three films: that of the father who truly knows best, and must take it upon himself to admonish his family--and the rest of the world.

The catastrophes he produces in his attempt to make things better and eradicate the scourge of evil are always chalked up to the price of progress, much like military crackdowns are the price of neoliberal economics.

Rampant income disparities and bought politicians are the price of free markets. The theme is decidedly imperial in both The Dark Knight and Iron Man.

Our superheroes have been harnessed in support of our dying imperial project, promising a renaissance through which our superior strength, and unrivaled human wisdom, are finally and fully unveiled for the world's adoration and humble acquiescence.

The Incredible Hulk, for its part, colorfully illuminates the cauldron of ire brewing at the core of our republic, and perhaps intelligently aims that animosity at our own corrupt institutions, suggesting a sense of self-awareness perhaps not available in the other films.

The Hulk's eventual conquest of the story's monstrous villain, though, falls far flatter than at least The Dark Knight's ambiguous finish.

Perhaps an incongruity best attributed to the quality of the film-making. Or might it be a latent wish for the charges of Manifest Destiny to renew thier abundant mandate?
Keywords: hollywood, imperialism, superheroes, movie, propaganda

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