There’s a lot to love about Superman: The Movie, Richard Donner’s still seminal big screen adaptation of the Man of Steel from 1978. Christopher Reeve, who at that point mostly known as a New York theatre actor, was plucked from obscurity to play the hero, who as soon as he reveals himself as Superman saves both Lois Lane from a crashing helicopter, and a little girl’s cat who’s stuck in a tree. In the end Superman saves the world, takes Lex Luthor to jail and says, “Don’t thank me, Warden. We’re all part of the same team.” That’s modesty. But 40 years later, it’s not enough for heroes to just save the world and fly away, they have to beat each other to bloody pulps now.
Of course, we’re referring two big superhero movies this year: one is Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was released several weeks ago, and the other is Captain America: Civil War, which comes out this coming Friday. Now these are mega-spectacles with huge ongoing financial implications for the studios that funded them, Warner Bros. and Disney respectively, but there’s some serious real-world thematic inspiration at the heart of them too. So let’s treat them like real world problems.
First, let’s consider the conflict at the heart of Batman V Superman, where Batman, an old and jaded vigilante sees the arrival of the all-powerful Superman as a potential threat to mankind. “[I]f we believe there’s even a one percent chance that he is our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty… and we have to destroy him,” Batman tells his trusted butler Alfred. Of course, we’ve heard that before. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, then Vice-President Dick Cheney said that if there’s “a one percent chance” that a threat was real then “we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.” Perhaps Bruce Wayne and Cheney pledged at the same fraternity….
Cheney’s “One Per Cent Doctrine” has been roundly, and rightly, criticized, but in the superhuman context, Batman’s argument has validity. Even the comic books acknowledge Batman’s pragmatism when it comes to his best friend in super-saving, with Superman giving the Dark Knight possession of a Kryptonite ring taken from Lex Luthor “just in case.” As for the movies, it’s worth noting that Superman’s first day on the job in Man of Steel involves an alien invasion that kills thousands, so in that context keeping a bit of Kryptonite in your backpocket hardly seems indefensible.
As many critics have latched on to though, the gritty cynicism of Batman V. Superman doesn’t allow for half-measures like Batman seeking out Superman for a sit down to talk about his intentions. Batman automatically assumes the worst of Superman, and immediately schemes a way to not just create a fail safe, or the threat of a fail safe, but to outright kill Superman. The movie is Cheney’s Doctrine taken to supernatural levels where not only are stakes the global, but the heart of the argument is that there’s no such thing as nuance, and there’s no chance that anything you’re doing in defense of king and country can be morally bad, even when you’d read the situation completely wrong.
Of course on the DC Comics side of these superhero movies, we’ve come to expect the worst, but the comparatively sunny world of the Marvel Universe, which is owned by Disney, is about to get very muddy itself in Civil War, which sees the mighty Avengers split down the middle for ethical reasons.
In the movie, the argument between Captain America and Iron Man begins with new rules that will force the Avengers and other superhumans to act only when sanctioned by the government, a reaction to a series of disasters that have unfolded in previous Marvel movies. Iron Man favours the Sokovia Accords, named after the small country devastated in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and believes that the Avengers need oversight; Captain America, already jaded by the moral complexities of the 21st century when compared to the more straightforward World War II era, believes that the Avengers should remain self-governed and independent.
It’s a departure from the comic book version of the story, which not coincidentally is getting a sequel this summer, where the government passes a law that demands all superhumans register their secret identities and become a defacto national police force. The comic phrases the fight as a personal liberties matter, the movie turns it into matter of personal responsibility; we license people to drive, practice medicine, practice law, fly a plane, and [in some places] fire a gun, wouldn’t it make sense to get some level of control over people with super-strength, or can fire energy from their hands, or can build impressively advanced robotic suits?
Authority is a tricky thing though, it can betray your trust just as easily as it can be worthy of it. You might recall that in the previous Captain America movie, The Winter Soldier, it was revealed that the organization S.H.I.E.L.D., itself a worldwide police and security agency, was full of HYDRA agents, an evil group with roots back to the Nazis and World War II (as told in the first Captain America). Should it be surprising then that Captain America would have rational and logical misgivings about too much power concentrated in one place?
On top of it all, Tony Stark is one to talk about power run amok since nearly every Iron Man movie is about him fighting some villain he had a hand in creating. And in Age of Ultron, it was his robotic prodigy that became a mad villain destroying entire cities. Perhaps the citizens of the Marvel Universe don’t need superhero control, they need Iron Man control. Thinking about it rationally, any intention to side with Stark probably has more to do with the charisma of Iron Man and his portrayer Robert Downey Jr. than it does anything logical. Stark is a menace to society that made a bank selling weapons, got “religion” only when he himself was taken hostage, and then spent three movies fighting guys pissed off about the things he did to them when he was an obnoxious jerk. Would it be inappropriate to read a Trump metaphor into that?
The indulgence of inserting real world problems into fantasy realms is that it lets us explore our issues with a certain degree of freedom that we don’t have when actual people and actual consequences are attached to them. For example, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek is a walk through the turbulent 60s in rubber masks and laser pistols, and the battle between the mechanized orcs and the idyllic Shire folk in The Lord of the Rings was a reflection of J.R.R. Tolkien’s experiences in World War One. Actor F. Murray Abraham once said that there’s a certain freedom for him and his profession when he’s wearing a mask, and these sorts of fantasy stories serve as one big mask.
Now that seems like a lot of heady stuff for movies based on so-called “funny books,” but comics have long toyed with hot-button issues. Iron Man famously dealt with alcoholism in a storyline called “Demon in a Bottle”, both Spider-Man’s friend Harry and Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy had drug addictions, and Captain America recently dealt with a group of “Minute Men” militia-types killing migrants at the Mexican border. While it’s true that fantasy allows us escapism, it also allows us to escape divisive dialogue and partisan rancour to look at issues anew. Forget liberal and conservative, let’s think about #TeamCap and #TeamStark.