With the massive success of The Avengers and the inevitable upcoming success of The Dark Knight Rises along with the fact that Marvel are showing no signs of slowing down in their making of superhero films I thought it would be a good time to revisit this subject. I originally wrote this up for my university dissertation back in 2006 and thoroughly enjoyed doing so (mainly because I got to watch cool films). This is part one of a series, the second part is an infographic showing that superhero films aren’t about to disappear anytime soon before in the third part I try to explain why that has continued beyond 2006 but I’ll start with a summary of that essay (focussing on 2001 – 2005)…
I am seeking to discover if there is a link between the superhero films that have been released between 2001 and 2005 and the post 9/11 “politics of fear” that are deemed to exist. My starting point for this is the realisation that since 1976, there were an average of five comic book/superhero-inspired films released every five years; whilst in the five year period between 2001 and 2005 there have been 16 films of this kind.
First, ‘film’ is to mean a feature-length motion picture created by the Hollywood film industry for the cinema. The definition of ‘superhero’ I am using is a ‘good’ character adapted from the pages of comics, which generally means “muscular men in brightly coloured tights…fighting for the forces of right and defeating strange villains one after another” (1). The heroes I am interested in are those created by Marvel and DC Comics, considered the most successful through the largest comic book sales.
It is also important to define what I mean by a ‘post-9/11 climate’ and what is so different about the time period since the attacks by terrorists on the World Trade Centre. The time since 9/11 has been characterised by our politicians intending to protect us from “dangers we can’t see or understand” and a “secret organised evil that threatens the world” (2). By use of the ‘politics of fear’ we are placed in a state of war, where the governments and media of Western countries use rhetoric to stir up feelings of patriotism among the people.
The comic book industry recognises the importance of the war influence in calling the years between 1939 and 1948 ‘The Golden Age of Comics’. Perhaps the most famous of all the patriotic heroes is Captain America, a man with patriotism hard-wired into his creation: created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941, Cap’s duty was defined from issue #1, where he could be seen chinning Hitler on the cover.
The superhero and World War 2
The inception of the superhero genre owes much to the Second World War and the popularity of them can be traced through the war years: “In 1939 there were fifty comic titles, by 1941 there were 168 and over eighty percent of these had superhero adventures in them”(1). Comics were very popular amongst the troops during and immediately following the war years: “in 1949, 44% of the soldiers in army training camps read comics regularly”(3).
The 1943 Batman television serials also show how a nation were quick to get hold of the relatively new characters and present them in a different light as American war heroes. The plots of the episodes mainly revolved around defeating German scientists and putting ‘those pesky Japs’ where they belong. This represents a country keen to bring any characters that may be popular amongst the people into the war effort. Some superheroes such as Superman and Captain America lend themselves towards patriotic interpretations but Daredevil – a hero out to avenge the murder of his father? It seemed “everybody got to defeat and humiliate the Nazis and personally bop Adolf Hitler on the nose, such as ‘Daredevil Battles Hitler’ in 1941”(4).
But can these cheap propaganda tools still be relevant, aren’t we too clever for that today? “There was a certain naïveté to the superhero stories published during World War II, and that changed abruptly in the 1950s”(5). Have we now advanced to a point whereby using superheroes as propaganda against an enemy is no longer appropriate?
Politics since 11th September 2001
The events of 9/11 do fall into a very select band of attack: the first time since the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941 that the United States has come ‘under fire’ on home soil. Pearl Harbour saw a shift in American policy and meant they entered the Second World War. The attacks of 9/11 are considered to be “a historic event” (6) and something that “dominates almost everything we watch, read or hear” (7) or even “probably the most important event that took place in our lives… completely reshaped the world in which we live” (8). However you assess its impact, it now meant pre-emptive strikes on perceived threats to America became acceptable.
President Bush himself chose to ignore any possible connection with the policies of the USA in his response to the attacks:
“America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world… this will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil. But good will prevail.”
This triumphant and stark world view where people either fall into the category of good or evil could be read like something straight out of the pages of a superhero story. When the leader of America is ignoring the realities of past US actions and complex world politics and instead painting the problem in mythical terms, surely the times are ripe for superheroes to step forth and fill this need.
As I have already shown, in World War 2 the superhero filled the role of a puppet of propaganda but in this “deeply disillusioned age” where we have “lost faith in ideologies” (2) can the superhero still be used in such a way? I think it is clear that superheroes can’t be literally shown punching out Osama bin Laden, but must be used in more subtle ways, both explicitly (in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, 2002) and implicitly (in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, 2005). It is certainly not too much to believe that in more recent times superheroes are any less informed by what is going on in the world:
“The representation of enemies and villains in comic books is highly dependent on the social and cultural relations of the United States at any one time” (1)
Spiderman and 9/11
The film Spiderman (2002) carries explicit examples of a post-9/11 film. It was filmed in New York and Spiderman is a hero concerned with protecting the people of New York, so it seems they thought it only natural that there would be a reaction to a catastrophic event such as 9/11. The first time that it became clear the film had to change wasn’t in the film but a removal from the teaser trailer and promotional materials, which showed the World Trade Centre.
Spiderman is a character so in tune with his city that it is part of his character, as stated by the writers at Marvel: “Because Spiderman takes place in a real city, it is easier to identify with” (9). This is a selling point that Spiderman’s creator Stan Lee and the whole of the Marvel team promote: Spiderman/Peter Parker is one of us, he has all the same problems as a normal guy and lives a normal life (most of the time) in a normal city. This seems to be what they believe makes Spiderman different, “we’ve always been very current, we’ve always been very topical… so to avoid 9/11 would have been callous” (9). Therefore in reacting to the attacks of 9/11 and removing references to the World Trade Centre, they actively created a post-9/11 film, influenced by these events.
The director also made reference to the everyday person, depicting a group helping out Spiderman by throwing objects at the villain and saying, “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us” (9). This scene was added in by the director after shooting had finished: “this sequence was put in as a small tribute to the people of New York” (9).
Batman Begins: a portrayal of fear and terrorism
Without pushing the metaphors this is an appropriate film to try and investigate the ‘terror’ theme because of its concerns with explicit semantics, as Bruce Wayne recognises when he examines the role of Batman: “A man who is flesh and blood can be destroyed, whereas a symbol can transcend the idea of being one man” (10). The theme of the film is the harnessing of fear and is brought up repeatedly as the mentor character of Henri Ducard makes clear: “to conquer fear you must become fear, you must bask in the fear of other men” (10), this is the teaching he uses on Bruce Wayne, leading to the creation of Batman.
The villains follow through this theme of fear, with Ra’s Al Ghul and the Scarecrow chosen from the rogue’s gallery of the comic books. Both characters are built on the foundations of terror, with the Scarecrow utilising similar ideas to Batman: “this figure whose very ludicrous appearance inspires fear – symbolises fear… the criminal all will learn to fear and call The Scarecrow!” (11). While the name Ra’s Al Ghul means ‘head of the demon’ and in the comics he leads a group know as the ‘Brotherhood of the Demon’ (12), or to state it another way, “a fanatical force run by the bastard sons of Fu Manchu and Osama bin Laden” (13). Ra’s Al Ghul’s aim in the film is an apocalyptic one like the aims of terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda, which he alludes to when he says: “Gotham’s time has come, like Constantinople or Rome before it… it is beyond saving and must be allowed to die” (10). This is like the extremist Muslim view that Western society has become a disease in need of a cure and is corrupted in a “culture of selfish individualism” (2). Having such a broad world view is different from the majority of the Batman villains, in particular the Joker in Batman who was out to cause chaos and get revenge on Batman himself. It seems Al Ghul was picked due to the prevailing political climate.
Batman goes about fighting his enemies in a war-like fashion in Batman Begins with a Batmobile that uses the semantics of a war vehicle as director Christopher Nolan points out on the DVD, “the Batmobile is based on a cross between a Lamborghini and a Humvee… with elements of Stealth craft” (10) while in the film this similarity is referred to by the police: “it’s a black tank!” The rest of Bruce Wayne’s gear is shown in the film as having been developed for the military including the Batsuit, which was designed as body armour (no longer spandex tights for this hero) further showing an association between the Batman and a military aggressor. A superhero surrounded by these weapons of war seems to be an obvious metaphor for a superpower at war.
The closing scenes of Batman Begins are more apocalyptic as the enemy is now led by Batman’s former mentor Ducard, who turns out to be the real Ra’s Al Ghul in a twist that shows the deception involved with fighting a terrorist-like organisation. He hijacks a Weapon of Mass Destruction, or a “Microwave Emitter, designed to evaporate the enemy’s water supply” (10) and tries to use it on the city of Gotham in order to unleash The Scarecrow’s poison into the air and “watch Gotham tear itself apart through fear” (10). This is an aim that our politicians would have us believe is not very different to any terrorist network looking to spread fear and bring down Western civilization.
The superhero and celebrity
But what if it isn’t just about the politics of the time? It could be argued that the rise in the number of superhero films is based on a pop culture influence: the success of the celebrity.
There is certainly something similar about the way famous public figures have to present themselves that is almost superhero-like, with an alter-ego of their private face to their public one that almost gives them a split personality (14). This was highlighted by Johnny Depp when he attacked photographers in London in 1999 saying, “I don’t want to be who you want me to be tonight” (14). In this quote, Depp appropriately points to the role of the press in the appearance of the celebrity for it is they who control how we the public see these famous figures: “The fan to celebrity relationship is mediated by the screen, audio and print media” (14). This relationship is something often found in superhero stories, with many characters linked to the media cropping up: Clark Kent (Superman) is a journalist, Peter Parker (Spiderman) is a newspaper photographer and Vicki Vale (Batman’s love interest) is a photographer. These characters show an understanding that a superhero (like a celebrity) interacts with the public through the media.
In the film Fantastic Four after gaining their superpowers, the characters turn up in New York and instantly become famous, going into hiding from the media as they are recognised by photographers on the street (15), like paparazzi pursuing celebrities. In a very post-modern scene in the film, the character of ‘The Thing’ is shown a toy action figure of himself by Johnny Storm, who introduces it by saying, “Look what the marketing guys gave us!” (15). This shows the truth of being a superhero/celebrity in the real world: having an action figure and a marketing team, treating them as if they are a brand. In another extra-textual reference to the world of celebrity, when explaining the choice of name for ‘The Thing’ they say, “We would have gone with The Rock, but it was taken,” (15) drawing parallels between him and the former wrestler turned actor Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. The film seems to depict the actual defeating of the villain as a kind of sideshow to the main story of them being understood and gaining acceptance from the people, for the final scene has the characters from the Fantastic Four united and laughing in a bar with the people of New York (15). It is as if the moral of this story is not about defeating the villain and bringing justice to the city but instead it is more important to be popular with the public.
However the appreciation of the celebrity is not a new phenomenon and doesn’t explain the recent upturn in the number of superhero films. Since the beginning of cinema, film stars have attracted an obsessive following due to the fact they seemed to come from a magical on-screen world where anything could happen. In 1912 the actress Florence Lawrence made a special appearance in St. Louis and “so many fans flocked to see her that she was nearly crushed to death” (16), proving obsessive fans have been around for at least 90 years.
Superhero stories as mythology
Some would say that the stories of superheroes are the same stories that we have been telling each other time and again throughout history and the political climate has very little effect on the structure of these tales. Storytelling has existed since man has been able to speak and mythologies act as moral stories that tell people right and wrong and help them understand their place in the world. However in Western cultures the study of mythology has been demoted in favour of the study of our respective society’s histories: “I am not far from believing that, in our own societies, history has replaced mythology and fulfils the same function” (17). Is it therefore possible that in America the superheroes are filling the role of mythology?
Certainly the structure of the superhero story fits with the framework of the hero’s journey as mapped out from hundreds of stories the world over by Joseph Campbell:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious venture with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (18)
Parallels can clearly be drawn between a hero coming from ‘the world of common day’ like all superheroes who begin as normal people, before gaining their powers from ‘supernatural wonder’ and defeating the villain (or ‘fabulous forces’) in a ‘decisive victory’ and returning to the everyday bringing peace.
Our idea of the modern superhero is clearly not very different from the likes of Hercules, Perseus and Theseus about whom many adventure stories were written. This seems to say more about the way mankind likes to see our heroes in literature and the structure that the stories take: “it will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvellously constant story that we find” (18). From Joseph Campbell’s research and examples he has discovered that throughout all times and under all circumstances the same basic myth has flourished (18). The fact that the superhero story fits within this mythical structure is something that could be said of many stories and doesn’t give me a convincing reason for these films proliferation during 2001 – 2005.
The Hollywood machine
This essay originally carried an additional chapter about the role of how Hollywood creates films to explain the superhero phenomenon. But despite highlighting many good reasons why superheros make sense as protagonists, due to the long development time on making films it doesn’t feel as if this can explain a trend in a short space of five years. I now feel this will be better served in my follow up part as it better explains how the proliferation of films have continued.
As to whether the events of 9/11 have affected the way we see superheroes on the big screen, I believe there is certainly some evidence for that. Spiderman is clearly a post-9/11 film, recognising that with the removal of the World Trade Centre from the film. While Batman Begins appears to be a product of its time, using a number of symbols associated with fear, terrorism and the military. But this theory can not show these factors as being immediately obvious in every other superhero film to come out between 2001 and 2005.
If this aspect can not be the sole reason for a revival of a genre it is because a superhero film is a text that carries associated meanings like any media product: “any cultural artefact… can be seen as a text” (19). The creation of a text is due to a series of factors and this is certainly true of a Hollywood film, which goes through a complex process in being created and along the way many decisions are made about its outcome: “networks of systems of options… are selected amongst in the production of texts” (19). This means that even if the writer or director wants to tell one story it must pass through a whole network of different people and departments, which affect the outcome of this text. There could be the initial intention to depict a superhero as a metaphor for fighting terrorism and although this may not be immediately clear in the film it doesn’t mean it isn’t intended: “the richness of the ideological elements which go into producing… a text may be sparsely represented in the text” (19).
Any film produced after 9/11 and during the time where the ‘politics of fear’ persist in the world is a post-9/11 text and a product of its political climate. But it would be naïve to believe that in a capitalist society where the goal of a film is to make money, this provides a sufficient reason for its creation.
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- Curtis, Adam (2004) The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear, BBC
- Parsons, Patrik (1991), Batman and His Audience: The Dialectic of Culture, The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media, BFI Publishing
- Goodenough, Ian (1997), Batman vs. The Dark Knight: Has the Development of the Graphic Novel Caught Up with its Audience, University College Falmouth
- Vaughan, Don (2003), Four-Color Combat, http://www.moaa.org/magazine/March2003/f_fourcolor.asp
- Lewis, Claire (2003), American Revolutionary: Noam Chomsky Talks to Francine Stock, BBC
- Pilger, John (2003), Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror, ITV
- Empire Online (2005), Exclusive: Why They’re Making Flight: 9/11 Film’s Producer Responds to Empire, http://www.empireonline.co.uk/news/story.asp?NID=17701
- Raimi, Sam (2002), Spiderman DVD, Columbia/Marvel
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- Finger, Bill (1941), World’s Finest Comics #3 – ‘Riddle of the Human Scarecrow’, DC Comics
- O’Neill, Denny (1971), Batman # 232 – ‘Daughter of the Demon’, DC Comics
- Newman, Kim (2005), Batman Begins Review, Empire Magazine Issue 194, Emap Consumer Media
- Rojek, Chis (2001), Celebrity, Reaktion Books
- Story, Tim (2005), Fantastic Four, 20th Century Fox/Marvel
- Barbas, Samantha (2001), Movie Crazy: Fans, Stars and the Cult of Celebrity, Palgrave Macmillan
- Lévi-Strauss, Claude (2001), Myth and Meaning, Routledge Classics
- Campbell, Joseph (1949), The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Pantheon
- Fairclough, Norman (1995), Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language, Longman Group