If you have a viewpoint on drugs, or if you have a viewpoint on war, or if you have a viewpoint on the economy, I think you can tell it more effectively in comics than you can in words. I think nobody is doing it. Comics is journalism. But now it’s restricted to soap opera.
—Jack Kirby, addressing a 1970s convention,
recounted in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story
by Sean Howe
Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?
—Steve Rogers, The Avengers
Comic book superheroes have their roots in wish fulfillment. The original superhero, Superman, created by the children of Jewish immigrants during the rise of Hitler, was conceived not long after the Wall Street Crash of 1929.1 Jill Lepore’s recent The Secret History of Wonder Woman is primarily about creator and utopian feminist William Marston’s efforts to prove the superiority of women through comic books. The first issue of Captain America depicted its titular character literally punching Hitler in the face. In 2012, just four years after another stock market crash and one year after Occupy Wall Street, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises both arrived on the silver screen. Perhaps not coincidentally, both blockbusters featured a billionaire hero willing to sacrifice himself to save his community from a weapon of mass destruction. It’s as if after witnessing financial executives receive golden parachutes after destroying the economy (most notably, the nine-figure bonuses handed out to AIG financial services employees in March 2009) there was some national desire to witness a wealthy martyr blow up. How each movie depicted its billionaire character (Iron Man for The Avengers and Batman for The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) tells us something about the overall philosophy behind these cinematic universes; fitting to each respective character, The Avengers embraces the billionaire archetype in order to illustrate its theme of altruistic heroism, while The Dark Knight alludes to these themes superficially, almost as a mask for something darker. Subsequently, Marvel ended one of their biggest blockbusters with its Guardians literally holding hands to defeat a cosmic villian while DC’s Man of Steel had its “big, blue boy scout” snap his enemy’s neck.
First, we might profit to contemplate briefly why there are so many rich superheroes. There is an efficiency to giving a superhero a wealthy secret identity—financial resources, ample free time, paid staff to assist them and dialogue with, etc. Tony Stark, partly inspired by the womanizing tycoon and aviator Howard Hughes, was created as a wealthy industrialist, partly to distinguish him from many of Stan Lee’s teenage protagonists but also likely to provoke Marvel’s young, countercultural fanbase.2 On the other hand, the Bruce Wayne persona bares traces of Walter Gibson’s The Shadow, a playboy-cum-shadowy, caped urban avenger who predates the dark knight.3
With Batman in particular there is a not-so-subtle critique of the upper class in the shallow, womanizing public persona of Bruce Wayne. Who would suspect someone so frivolous to do anything heroic? In Kill Bill Volume 2, Bill has a monologue where he hypothesizes, perhaps wrongly, that “Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.” Bruce Wayne is certainly Batman’s critique of wealthy people. The rich hero is indicative of a strange paradox of the American spirit. We “liberate” campaign financing regulations so that only the richest people can afford to run for office and then subsequently mock John Kerry for windsurfing or Mitt Romney for his six homes. For all our sniggering, it is undeniable that wealth is its own real life super power in our society. In fact, without the $525 million loan Marvel Comics procured from Merrill Lynch to found Marvel Studios, we might not even have our current superhero movie epoch at all.
With Iron Man, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) introduces Tony Stark in a prologue before the title even appears, a brutal vignette where Stark, an arrogant billionaire arms dealer, is attacked and captured by a militant group armed with weapons of Stark’s own manufacturing (literally hoisted by his own petard as in the term’s military origins). It’s practically an EC Comics ironic horror tale in miniature. Iron Man then cuts back to show Stark’s days before captivity and moves past the previously seen attack to track Iron Man’s progress from self-absorbed narcissist to altruistic hero (a struggle that continues through the rest of the MCU’s movies as one of its central arcs).4 Tony Stark’s near-death experience convinces him, to paraphrase Rilke, that he must change his life.
In 2007, disfavor with the Iraq War grew in America as it became increasingly clear it was the quagmire Cheney famously predicted a decade earlier. For sheer wish fulfillment, it’s hard to beat the image of Iron Man nimbly dropping into a terrorist-controlled Middle Eastern village and using advanced technology to swiftly pick off all enemy targets while the native population admiringly bears witness. Yet the image resists pure jingoism as Iron Man is specifically revenging the perished friend who helped escape the cave (it’s Dr. Ho Yinsen’s hometown) and acting, not as an agent of the state, but toward his own personal redemption. Tony Stark is a liminal figure balancing the audience’s varying desires. He is the billionaire who fights other evil billionaires, his dark shadows. He fights the government for his right to bear powerful arms, yet preaches the end of all war.5 He is a man of copious consumption and a pioneer in clean energy. Like the other Avengers, he has worked with the government while also working to hold it accountable. In this respect, he’s like Edward Snowden—there’s even a moment in the documentary Citizen Four where Snowden pulls a privacy blanket over his head and laptop, unintentionally yet effectively making his own DIY Iron Man face display.
The Avengers is the culmination of the MCU’s Phase One and the origin story of a team. The main conflict, excepting Earth’s mightiest heroes’ battle with the malevolent Norse god Loki, is between Captain America and Iron Man. As a man out of time, Captain America represents the modernist ideal—he is a romanticized member of the quote-unquote Greatest Generation and a pure role model for what America proclaims to wish it could be. Iron Man is post-modernity—he is cynical and makes pop cultural references.6 He is self-obsessed and self-reflexive and connected to technology—he’s a human selfie. Is there any image more indicative of the post-modern condition than the frequent shot of Tony Stark inside his helmet? A detached head in a void, overwhelmed by digital information.
Captain America helps to challenge and inspire Tony Stark to be a hero. During the climactic battle against the Chitauri invasion, Manhattan buildings fall and civilians flee in imagery that evokes the tragedy of 9/11. The shadowy world government orders a nuclear strike against the city, and Iron Man nearly sacrifices himself flying the nuclear warhead through a wormhole, effectively ending the battle. In the process, he catches a glimpse of an external threat far graver than he has ever imagined and momentarily dies before being resuscitated by his teammates. Here, this, perhaps unintentionally, echoes the so-called “death of irony” that followed the WTC attacks. The vision of the Chitauri warships shakes Tony Stark to his core. In the following movie, Iron Man 3, he evinces symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and awakens with a renewed drive toward protecting those he loves. More importantly, our wealthy hero transcends his narcissistic ego and is now willing to sacrifice himself for the good of others. Symbolically, one of the last shots of the movie is the transformation of Stark Tower through defacement into the Avengers Tower. Previously a monument to Stark’s vanity, it is now a communal space.
The Legal Vigilante can break the rules, suspend constitutional guarantees, engage in illegal searches, torture, stalk, and even execute a suspect—all in the name of the greater good.
—J. Hoberman, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties
Superheroes are often described as our modern American mythology. We tell ourselves stories about Chitauri invasions in order to live. Perhaps comic books lend themselves to morality tales because the semiotics are so clear—as Roland Barthes once noted about professional wrestling, “Each sign… is endowed with an absolute clarity.” In the world of comic books, it is often quite easy to tell who is the hero and who is the villain, free of plot or dialogue, and that is no small comfort. Another contributor to their durability is that the central characters have essential core qualities while also remaining mutable and open to interpretation. During the peak of the 1950s, Batman’s makeshift family and domesticity could be emphasized; during the peak crime and urban decay of the 80s, his brutality and obsessive vengeance.
There is something stunted and childish about the morality of Batman. Literally it seems his childhood trauma left him with a naive conception of how to eradicate crime—through the terrorizing and brutalizing of the lower class and the mentally ill. In some of his more simple depictions, Batman becomes the personification of the Broken Windows policing policy. Not stop and frisk, but gas, stun, beat, and batarang. The simplification of Batman is most clear while playing the Arkham series of video games; there is very little crime-solving and Bruce Wayne is mostly absent. It is only hours and hours of mindless brutality. In the seminal and highly-influential graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller recast Batman along the lines of what film critic J. Hoberman identified as The Legal Vigilante.7 In Miller’s work, Batman is a dark man with a twisted psyche and his work balanced a thin line between catharsis and parody. Miller successfully depicted these extremes through narrative length and the character’s internal narration—neither luxury afforded in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. In Nolan’s films, Batman is presented as a fairly rational, driven super cop, and yet his actions remain crazy. He is no longer an irrational man doing irrational things—he is a rational man normalizing irrational things.
And so the Nolan-verse Batman is stuck in the 1980s zeitgeist—a time when urban areas were crumbling and crime rates were high, before the economic boom of the 90s and subsequent steady decline in the murder rate. There is seemingly no gentrification in this Batman trilogy (no Soho, no Williamsburg, certainly no “Batgirl of Burnside“). The government and cops are stuck in the 70s-style corruption of Serpico, The Godfather, and Watergate or they are otherwise helplessly incompetent. You’re more likely to see Batman beating up cops than directing them to help bystanders as Captain America does in The Avengers.
With The Dark Knight, the modern world is evoked by grafting the politics of the War on Terror onto Batman’s battle with the Joker, the movie’s symbol of anarchic nihilism and a figure meant to stand in for Salafist jihadists and the architects of 9/11 (a shot of Batman standing in Ground Zero-like rubble explicitly stresses the parallel). As many have pointed out, Batman’s actions in the movie are a grocery list of George W. Bush-era policies: extraordinary rendition, enhanced interrogation, warrantless surveillance, indiscriminate data-collection, mass incarceration, etc. Harvey Dent compares Batman to the ancient Roman custom of appointing a dictator during threat of war, but it also resembles the Bush-Cheney legal interpretation of the Unitary Executive Theory.8 Yet the film’s justification of these tactics and their efficacy are muddled and unresolved as it seems the filmmakers’ grew increasingly enchanted by the Joker, his adolescent nihilism, and Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning, thrilling performance.9 In an essay about the film, Jonathan Lethem wrote that the War on Terror elements were “whirled into a cognitively dissonant milkshake of rage, fear, and, finally absolving confusion.” Even Nolan himself said later about The Dark Knight Rises, “We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks.” It might appear that, not unlike the Joker, when it comes to theme and current events topics, Christopher Nolan is like a dog chasing cars—he wouldn’t know what to do if he caught one.
The Dark Knight Rises is even more confused. In a struggle to bring together elements from at least three disparate narratives from the comics (The Dark Knight Returns, Knightfall, and No Man’s Land), it fails to do justice to even one of them (much like the similarly-maligned Iron Man 2 and its Avengers world building). There was excitement about the film shooting around Wall Street at the time of Occupy and the trailer’s emphasis on populist dissatisfaction with the 1%, but the film reveals these elements to be a smokescreen for a villainous revenge plot. With their mysterious dogma, vaguely Middle Eastern origins, barbaric trials, and wish to abolish and rebuild Western culture in their image, the film’s villain Bane and his League of Shadows more closely resemble Islamic extremists.10 Whereas Iron Man manages to balance varying desires at once, these elements in the Batman movies are deployed ineptly and shallowly. In a time of increasing awareness of climate change, Iron Man uses his money and intelligence to develop clean energy while the Wayne Corporation’s clean energy program is perverted to become a nuclear bomb (a retrograde story device—like Ghostbusters‘ vilification of the EPA).
Batman’s character strays from his comic book counterpart. His retirement, in particular, seems very unlike the driven caped crusader of the source material, and he continues to be easily deceived and manipulated by the villains’ plots (conduct most unbecoming the World’s Greatest Detective). It’s actually Batman’s actions (his vigilantism, the principals of escalation, and the tacit slaying of Ra’s al Ghul in the first movie (“I don’t have to save you”) that makes the city a target for the League of Shadows in the first place. In many ways, Nolan’s Batman resembles the “difficult men” of prestige cable dramas—those skilled, white middle-aged men with dark demons and secrets of the past fifteen years—and yet those dramas generally arc along a final humbling or punishment for their protagonist’s misbehavior. The Dark Knight Rises feigns toward that arc. By the end of the movie, Batman appears to have died saving the city from Talia Ghul’s nuclear device, a fitting and cathartic end for the character much like Iron Man learning how to be a true hero toward the end of The Avengers. However, it turns out this was a ruse by Batman, and the result is dramatically unsatisfying. Bruce Wayne lives on, the man who formerly spent his nights “beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands,” as Lucius Fox puts it, and now lives as a wealthy plutocrat on permanent vacation, with a girlfriend nearly ten years his junior.
The Dark Knight Rises ends with a glass of Fernet-Branca at a ritzy Florence cafe while The Avengers fades out on cheap shawarma and new friends. In terms of the crass commercialist standard, The Avengers ruled 2012, making $1.5 billion worldwide compared to The Dark Knight‘s one billion, with follow-up movies in the MCU continuing to have great success. Meanwhile, the next Nolan/Goyer-produced DC movie, Man of Steel, dropped off significantly, earning $668 million worldwide.11 Man of Steel, in an attempt to map a dark Batman Begins-esque origin story onto the typically sunny Superman, featured a dour, indifferent god Clark Kent who battles in a highly-populated urban area without any care to collateral damage or casualties. Perhaps Man of Steel would have been more successful by sticking with the optimistic populist from the comics, a character created during a Depression, who already has one of the most notoriously evil plutocrats as a villain: Lex Luthor.12
During the same period, Marvel did “truth, justice, and the American way” better with Captain America and had its Avengers pay special attention to civilians in Avengers: Age of Ultron, as if in specific rebuke to Man of Steel‘s carelessness.13 Tony Stark continues to progress with the times, moving away from the shallow arms dealer he was in the late-Bush era to a pragmatic, technocrat in the Obama era (see Iron Man 3‘s army of drones). Stark is now haunted and security-obsessed to the point of neuroses, a figure for our increasingly paranoid times. In 2013, Warner Brothers announced Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel sequel would feature a fight with a “new” Batman, taking special inspiration from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns—a 1980s Batman from a director most famous for Frank Miller adaptations (300) and adapting 1980s properties (Dawn of the Dead and Watchmen). Captain America: Civil War is set to debut a month after Batman v. Superman and features a schism between Captain America and Iron Man over Tony Stark’s support for new legislation crafted to increase government oversight over superhuman activity. As our country prepares to elect its next president, only time will tell whether we as a people prefer the insane rich man battling an illegal alien or the wealthy pragmatist willing to make compromises with the establishment (and that figure’s foe from the left, the righteous man from another time).
Avengers: Age of Ultron Blu-ray, “Audio Commentary with writer/director Joss Whedon,” Disney, 2015
Roland Barthes, Mythologies, 1957
“Christopher Nolan: ‘Dark Knight Rises’ Isn’t Political,” Rolling Stone, 20 July 2012
J. Hoberman, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties, 2003
Sean Howe, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, 2012
“Stan Lee on IRON MAN,” taken from Marvel: Then & Now – A Night with Stan Lee, Joe Quesada, Hosted by Kevin Smith, 2011
Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, 2014
Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence, 2011
Grant Morrison, Supergods, 2011
Marc Tyler Nobleman, Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, 2012
Charlie Savage, Takeover: The Return of the Imperial President, 2007
- In his memoir Supergods, writer Grant Morrison describes Superman as “a bold humanist response to Depression-era fears of runaway scientific advance and soulless industrialism.” ↩
- “Young people throughout the country hated war, hated the military-industrial complex, hated everything (and rightfully so). So I said I’m going to come up with a character who represents everything everybody hates and I’m going to shove it down their throats!” –Stan Lee ↩
- This unoriginality itself betrays Batman’s fundamental origins as a mercenary effort—co-creator Bob Kane’s opportunistic effort to capitalize on the success of Superman on the backs of mostly under-credited contributors Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, among others. ↩
- As a guiding hand for Stark’s introduction, Marvel chose well with director Jon Favreau. In a way, it is a return to the fast-talking player archetype of Favreau’s earlier movie Swingers, this time with Vince Vaughn’s motormouth character Trent recast as a genius yet frivolous arms dealer. ↩
- After the shootings in Misour Square by the private defense firm Blackwater among other similar incidents, it is a testament to Robert Downey Jr.’s charismatic performance that a line like “I’m privatized world peace” can come across like an applause line. ↩
- Compared to this. ↩
- Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson in Death Wish are two prominent examples; coincidentally, Liam Neeson, who portrayed Batman’s estranged mentor in Batman Begins, has spearheaded a recent revival of the genre with his Taken movies. ↩
- As reporter Charlie Savage describes the legal theory in his book Takeover, “Only the commander in chief could decide how the executive branch can go about defending America” and therefore “treaties that restrict what the military and other security forces can do are unconstitutional.” ↩
- The Joker is the highlight of a thoroughly enjoyable movie, but it is troubling that he does more to effectively eradicate Gotham’s organized crime than Batman (by procuring and burning half their finances, murdering top mob lieutenants and corrupt officials, eventually empowering Dent to do the same, etc.). ↩
- Their pilfering of the Wayne Corporation’s arms cache even presages ISIS’s acquisition of US-made weapons in their taking of Mosul in June 2014. ↩
- Compared to Iron Man 3‘s $1.2 billion or Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s $1.4 billion. ↩
- In 2015, Marvel released Ant-Man, a minor comic book character recast as a plucky, anti-corporate thief facing off against an evil industrialist with a very Lex Luthor-esque pate and it made $558 million without the name recognition of Superman. ↩
- During audio commentary for Age of Ultron, director Joss Whedon says, “It was very important to me that… there be real damage and that we say, ‘You don’t just bust up a city and nobody pays for it.'” ↩