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Superhero Conservatism By: David Swindle
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, February 13, 2009


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.

We see 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.

The Dark 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 clown makeup.

Further, 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.

The lengths 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.

Like all 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.

In another 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.

Stan Lee, 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 Hughes.

Right from 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.

Stark 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.

Stark 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.

The 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 limited government.

The film 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.

He's 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.

The 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.

These are 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.

Why does 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.

Superhero 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 crime-fighting.

The classic 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.


David Swindle is Associte Editor of FrontPage Magazine and Assistant Managing Editor of NewsReal. He can be contacted at DavidSwindle@gmail.com.


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