Bryan Rommel-Ruiz’s book American History Goes to the Movies discusses how two superhero films, Batman Begins and Iron Man, directly confront the meaning of the September 11th attacks in ways that the films that actually depict the attacks cannot. The truth of his article has been confirmed by the comic book films that have come out since the publication of his book, and they have gone even farther in exploring the moral questions that explicit 9/11 movies like United 93 and Zero Dark Thirty and have not. Rommel-Ruiz’s discussion of Iron Man and Batman Begins is right on the money, and it deserves a friendly extension.
Perhaps the two most anticipated superhero movies of all time were Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. Both culminated a long series of superhero movies and held important plot points in common that go a long way toward explaining how American thinking on the War on Terror has evolved since Iron Man and Batman Begins. Both films involve the same central plot device: a source of energy that can be used either to produce endless green energy, or can be weaponized and used as a weapon of mass destruction. In both films, the principle hero (Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne) is the genius behind the technology, and both films end with him nearly sacrificing himself to prevent it destroying their city. Both situations confront America with a familiar scenario: a good thing in danger of being used for evil ends. According to Rommel-Ruiz, “Iron Man addresses the role the United States played in creating the conditions that led to the emergence of militant Islamism in recent history.” These more recent films speak to the delicate binaries of modern society: nuclear weapons and nuclear power as well as the fruits and evils of globalization.
In Captain America: The First Avenger, a forerunner to The Avengers, the hero, literally a World War 2 super soldier, tears his way through scores of hokey retro-Nazis to finally confront his nemesis, The Red Skull, who holds The Tesseract, the device that will later become the volatile energy source in The Avengers. Mad with power, he monologues (as villains are wont to do) “You could have the power of the Gods! Yet you were afraid and instead you fight a battle of nations. I have seen the future Captain. There are no flags!” Red Skull’s speech calls to mind the seduction of globalization, a world in which national and community loyalties are tossed aside with powerful individuals holding the technological keys to power. Captain America growls with a Greatest Generation quip “not my future.” The scene is poignant because what we, the audience, know is that The Red Skull is more or less correct. The main foreign policy threats we face today are not countries but radical insurgent groups, and the main social and economic issues surround multinational corporations, also “flagless” entities.
In Captain America, we are encouraged to see how both of these features of a globalized world are connected in the white light of the Tesseract. Captain America is at once a campy relic of a simpler generation–the man literally wears the American flag–but also a source of hope, that no matter how much the world changes, he will always be there to symbolize our first principles and call us back to them. In The Avengers, Cap is pulled through time into the present day, where he is seriously disillusioned. Loki, the film’s main villain, taunts our heroes with the knowledge that America’s track record since World War 2 is stained red, and he rails against American exceptionalism: “Your ledger is dripping red. You lie and kill in the service of liars and killers. You pretend to be separate, to have your own code, something that makes up for the horrors. But they are part of you and they will never go away.”
Living in the present day, Captain America is aware that he did not get “his future,” and whether or not he can find anything inspiring enough to defend in the modern world is one of the film’s central thematic questions. Of course he does, and we can hope along with him that the modern, globalized world is not so far gone as to be beyond saving. In the end, however, saving the city comes at a cost, and is not an entirely preventative measure. A good deal of Manhattan gets leveled in the climactic battle scene. In a post-9/11 world, we cannot imagine threats that do not take some toll. Whereas superhero stories of the past largely told the tale of the hero preventing any bloodshed, today that seems fanciful. The psychological issue that needs confronting is how to carry on and regroup after the unthinkable has happened. Tony Stark speaks to this as he confronts Loki “If we can’t save this world, then you can be damn sure we’ll avenge it.”
In a time of bewilderment as to America’s proper role in the world, the aims of our enemies, and even the nature of evil itself, superheroes give us the symbolic materials to begin to understand what our attitude and aims should be in a global world. Beyond offering psychological therapy, these superhero films prompt new questions: will history repeat itself? Are our ideals outdated? In the interest of doing good, will we instead do irreparable harm? Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spider-Man) lived by the code, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Today’s superhero films, because they attend to the Janus-faced forces of technology and global power, are helping us to discern what that responsibility is and how best to wield power in the service of good.