On March 6
audiences will experience Watchmen, the most political comic book movie yet
made. The film, based off of the acclaimed graphic novel, considers superheroes
in the "real world," and imagines a 1980s Cold War world in which the presence
of superheroes has given the United States
an edge over the Soviet Union.
The film is
not the first to consider the superhero in a political context. As the genre
developed especially since when Watchmen
was first published in the mid '80s stories and characters have gone well
beyond simple escapism. And as superhero films started being adapted more
regularly some ten years ago – now that cinematic special effects had caught up
with the imagination of comic artists – these more intellectual and political
themes began popping up in superhero adaptations.
certain ideas in particular in last year's three best superhero films: The
Dark Knight, Iron Man, and The Incredible Hulk. And just what is the
political vision that appears? One that's fundamentally conservative, albeit in
very different fashions.
Knight, director Christopher Nolan's sequel to 2005's Batman Begins, set the
conflict between Batman (Christian Bale) and the criminally insane Joker (Heath
Ledger) in decidedly contemporary terms. The Joker is more than just the silly
prankster or bank robber as many viewers know him best. The Joker is a
terrorist. He plants bombs all over Gotham city,
assassinates public officials, and sends out frightening videos of himself in
which he rants and threatens. He's like a more manic Osama bin Laden, except with
it's his objective to bring people down to his level. One of his plots involves
two ferries armed with bombs. One is filled with prisoners, the other with
civilians. He instructs the passengers that each boat has the other boat's detonator
and that that they each have until midnight
to blow up the other boat or else he will set off both bombs. Like all
terrorists he's trying to recruit more people to his murderous vision.
that Batman goes to stop the Joker's terrorism are as unsettling as they are
familiar. He develops a surveillance tool based off of Gotham
city's citizens' cell phones that allows him to see and hear everything.
Further, at one point in the film the police capture the Joker and Batman's
interrogation methods fall well outside the limits of the law.
great art the film asks the question instead of preaching simple answers. Are
such measures of enhanced interrogations and increased surveillance acceptable
to deal with terrorist threats like the Joker? The film leaves that to the
viewer to decide but it certainly doesn't say no. And what of the motives of
the people (Batman in the film, conservatives in real life) who advocate for
these terror-fighting tools? The film depicts them as they are, individuals
more concerned with protecting their communities than their reputations.
of 2008's most popular superhero films, Iron Man, we see clear political
themes emerge in the character of its protagonist Tony Stark (Robert Downey,
Jr.) One of the bonus features provides an extensive look into the origins of the
character and the last four years of his comics history.
Iron Man's co-creator described in one of the featurettes on the Iron Man DVD
how he intentionally made a conservative character:
Well it was a funny thing.
I think I gave myself a dare. It was the height of the Cold War. The readers –
the young readers – if there was one thing they hated it was war, it was the
military, or, as Eisenhower called it, the military-industrial complex. So I
got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons
manufacturer. He was providing weapons for the army. He was rich. He was an
industrialist. But he was good-looking guy and he was courageous… I thought it
would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like – that none
of our readers would like – and shove him down their throats and make them like
him… I kind of had Howard Hughes in mind – without being crazy, he was Howard
the beginning of the film Stark is depicted as a man of the Right. As the CEO
of Stark Industries he's a capitalist. Not only is he a business genius but an
inventor as well, continually developing new inventions and technologies.
He's also a
patriot, having come to the realization that the American Idea allows for the
freedom that has given him such a wonderful life. And so he applies his genius
to develop weapons which he then sells to the military.
certainly isn't a social conservative, though. A bit of a womanizer, he makes a
habit of seducing the attractive, leftist journalists who start out insulting
him in their interviews.
In the film
Stark's origin story is updated from taking place in Vietnam
in 1963 to Afghanistan
in modern times. While in the deserts demonstrating his newest missile for the
military he's kidnapped by a terrorist group who then try and force him to build
weapons for them. Instead, Stark secretly builds his first Iron Man suit which
he uses to escape.
returns traumatized from his experiences. His first reaction is one of pacifism
– to announce that his company will no longer make weapons. It's an
understandable response for someone who's just been on the receiving end of the
products he's made a fortune selling. Once he gets his head on straight,
though, he comes to different conclusions. It's not the weapons which are to
blame, but the malevolent people using them. So, he develops better weapons – in
the form of a more advanced version of the Iron Man suit – to defeat them.
In the film
we see a particularly entertaining depiction of a conservative truth: the need
to have superior firepower drives technological innovation. How many
present-day technologies that make our lives better and easier have their
origins in military development? It's no coincidence that the same innovative
energy source that powers Stark's suit also keeps his heart running.
Incredible Hulk is perhaps the least obvious in its political comment. It
doesn't have such clear political references as the war on terror nods of The
Dark Knight or the openly conservative protagonist of Iron
Man. However in the film's plot we do see
a central conflict of man versus government and an interesting argument for
starts out with scientist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) living a life on the lam.
An experiment gone wrong has given him the ability to transform into the Hulk,
an invincible behemoth of limitless power driven by rage. Banner's
transformations are triggered by stress and usually result in millions of
dollars of damage to public property so he's hiding out in Brazil
while he struggles to find a cure.
pursued by General Ross (William Hurt,) a good-intentioned man, who wants to utilize
Banner's technology that created the Hulk to develop superhuman soldiers. He's
aided by Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth,) a darker man and career soldier past his
prime who lusts after the power Banner has discovered to give him the glory he
has yet to find. And in the film's third act we see what happens when Blonsky
gets what he wanted. He transforms into the Abomination and goes on a rampage
with only the Hulk capable of stopping him.
challenge that motivates Banner throughout the film is keeping this amazing
power he's discovered away from the government. And why does he does this?
Because of a conservative understanding of human nature. Why limit the power of
government? Because government is made up of people and people have a capacity
to abuse the power they have. This truth is demonstrated when the power Banner
has discovered falls into the hands of a man like Blonsky.
three examples of conservatism manifest in superhero fiction but they're not
the only ones. On first glance Superman, the most famous protagonist of the
genre, appears like more of a leftist than a conservative. After all, he makes
it a mission to fly all around the world doing good and fixing problem. He
doesn't seem to accept the imperfectability of the world. Or has he? Looking a
bit closer one realizes that Superman isn't using his powers to create a
perfect world but to merely maintain the imperfect one we have. This is
especially demonstrated in 2006's Superman Returns, in which the villain, Lex
Luthor (Kevin Spacey,) plots to engineer a new world by spontaneously creating
a new continent in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. Like other radicals of
history he's indifferent to the fact that billions of people will die in
pursuit of his new world. It's up to Superman (Brandon Routh) to stop him and conserve the world we already have.
the superhero genre bend to right? Quite simply, because the conventions upon
which it has been built force such a trajectory. Almost all superhero stories
involve a clash between good and evil or order and chaos. The superhero genre
acknowledges evil's existence and the need for it to be opposed, usually with
force. Further the stories of the genre often struggle with the question of
what to do with power.
fiction is also built on innovation and individualism – concepts intimately
bound with capitalism. Frequently the protagonists of the genre are people who
develop their suits or powers through their own creativity. Often it only makes
sense to make them billionaire industrialists like Stark or Bruce Wayne who can
conceivably afford to create the advanced technology needed for their
superheroes of last year's blockbuster film adaptations were generally not
conceived with political intentions in mind. (Lee, in his creation of Iron Man,
seemed more interested in being original than political.) These themes just
gradually drifted toward the characters over time as they were developed by
various writers and artists. That was not the case with Watchmen, though. When writer Alan Moore conceived his story he
intentionally wrote his superhero characters as representative of different
political ideologies in conflict. One was something of a leftist utopian, out
to save the world no matter the cost. Another was heavily inspired by G. Gordon
Liddy. And the book's most unforgettable character was an uncompromising,
Objectivism-inspired Libertarian. Look forward to these characters and the
further political themes of Watchmen to be discussed in a piece shortly
before the film's release in March.