Superhero movies have been one of the most successful mediators of post-9/11 American political culture. A national identity so rooted in a superheroic sense of confidence and invulnerability was left battered and confused – what could better reflect this than the sight of a broken Captain America weeping among the rubble of the smouldering Twin Towers ? But now that Donald Trump , a candidate more Lex Luthor than Superman, is the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, the genre faces the prospect of being left redundant by the binary political reality.
American politics is teetering on the edge of a precipice with a descent into vigilantism and violence in full swing. Video of Trump calling for his supporters to take matters into their own hands plays uneasily next to images of mostly minority protesters being shoved, spat at and pushed to the floor in a country proud to boast of its tolerance, democracy and freedom.
A pro-Trump group calling itself “ the Lion Guard ” has proclaimed that it will be monitoring the online activity of anyone who plans to protest at Trump rallies with the aim of “shutting them down”. The group’s slogan – “Better to be a lion for a day, than a lamb for eternity” – is taken from one of Mussolini’s most famous quotes , and its official logo , the face of a lion surrounded by a circle of stars in appropriately patriotic colours, resembles the hyper-patriotic artistic style of a comic book. It should come as no surprise that the current wave of Marvel and DC cinematic blockbusters meditate on the themes of a crisis of faith in democracy, civil insurrection and vigilante violence.
Superheroes are supposed to save the day: they have always been a metaphor for American strength. After 9/11 they faced the prospect of being retired, unable to tackle the real horrors that the country was witnessing. How could they still be relevant to a country in constant fear of attack? How could they cope with the nuance of international affairs while attempting to soothe the wounded psyche of a deeply scarred nation?
It was the release of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy that enabled the superheroes to rise to a reconfigured position in popular culture. Suddenly they represented the more complex and terrifying evil that America was facing. A whole slew of successful cinematic interpretations followed.Iron Man brooded upon the past crimes of the American war machine. Captain America showed the previously simplistic, all-American hero questioning his role within a governmental agency whose tactics were indistinguishable from the authoritarian, Nazi-inspired enemy he had spent his life fighting. Kenneth Branagh directed Thor , in which the distinctly Shakespearean but appropriately contemporary themes of arrogance, imperialism and warmongering were the central thread.
Each time Trump urges supporters to ‘knock the crap’ out of a protester, he is triggering an urge to resort to violence
These films all led into The Avengers , which fused together a team of heroes who represented the various political factions and psychological identities that Americans have been struggling to reconcile in the days since the attacks. Those figures who seemed so anachronistic immediately after 9/11 were resurrected with unprecedented levels of critical analysis, becoming an all-pervasive cultural phenomenon, and presenting some of the most interesting commentary on how America was processing its trauma.
Having firmly established the narrative thread of obsessively reliving that tragedy, superhero movies have become a box-office staple, relying on the fond memories of parents and the enthusiasm of children for all things spandex-clad. The fresh vision of heroism was dark and complex, hinting at the American political milieu. But 15 years later the audience is tiring of 9/11 allusions.
The further removed we are from the event the more muted its appeal has become. The spirit of unity that existed at the time has disintegrated as the nation becomes increasingly polarised under the pressure of the dichotomous political party machines. The culmination of this is the rise of a presidential candidate whose stock philosophy tends towards vigilantism, laying the groundwork for the superhero movie to turn away from external enemies and instead focus inwards.
Batman v Superman , released last Friday, and Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War , out next month, are comic storylines from the mid-80s and early 2000s respectively. The theme of vicious civil destruction chimes with the wider US public in 2016 because of its turn away from the civility and compromise the country has been forced to accept for the past decade.
Both films deal with the notion of superheroes operating outside the law to “fix” society. Both are centred on the clash between trusting the mechanisms of democracy and fighting against it to preserve a different – anti-establishment – version of freedom. Both are steeped in the uniquely American pop-culture belief that vigilantism is sometimes better than the law. That such behaviour is mirrored in the presidential primaries is what ensures the prescience of both movies.
On one side we have the establishment candidate who stands for the preservation of the status quo fighting off a curmudgeonly socialist who, despite his political differences with his opponent, refuses to attack anything more than her policy preferences. On the other we have chaos. A field of politicians ineptly stumbling in the dark as they watch the ascendance of a reality TV star who deals daily in the rhetoric of vigilantism as a fix for everything from “annoying, stupid” protests at his rallies to foreign policy conundrums. It is perhaps unfair to lay the blame at the door of the American people. Most do not support Trump’s candidacy, and those who do have been swept up in a culture that celebrates swift action at the expense of democratic institutions. A culture embodied in the superheroic ideal.
Each time Trump urges his supporters to “ knock the crap ” out of a protester, he is triggering the urge within everybody who is disenfranchised to resort to violence, the urge that is so satisfyingly played out in every superhero movie. Violence is OK when the good guys are doing it; vigilantism is OK when it’s Batman. At the heart of this latest batch of films is the question of what is an acceptable response to the breakdown of trust in democratic institutions and processes.
Batman argues that it’s to take matters into your own hands. Superman, the consummate symbol of traditional American values, places his faith in those values even if those in charge of the system are corrupt. Iron Man and Captain America’s opposition presents a slightly more complex set of conundrums, which echo painfully for those who have no faith in the system even when they have no desire for violence.
Vigilantism and authoritarianism are one and the same: they represent the erosion of faith in democracy to deliver justice and equality to citizens. The American public is caught in the same dilemma as the comic-book icons: neither side of the political debate thinks they are culpable or wrong.
In the movies, the characters’ status as superheroes allows them to act as judge, jury and executioner for their ideologies and preferences. For the American people there is no such simplicity. There is division, violence, the lure of authoritarianism and vigilantism – and the prospect of a truly terrifying, non-Hollywood ending.