Do Superheroes Reveal a Frightening Tendency of Post-9/11 America?
America has changed the way we interact with the world in this post 9/11 era. Our interventionism, although not new, has changed from the idealistic mission of spreading democracy to one of protecting the homeland at all costs, from the Post-Soviet power high of the nineties to paranoic fear of terrorism.
Superhero films have, since the attacks on 9/11, seen a surge in popularity that rivals the ubiquity of the Western in its heyday. Films bear the watermarks of the time they were built in, for better and for worse. Just as Westerns are imbued with the imperialist romanticisation of American expansionism, superhero films carry the weight of the neo-fascist law and order doctrine that has driven America into a long and exhausting war.
The superhero is a larger-than-life figure endowed with superhuman abilities that allow them to keep the world safe from similarly superhuman terrorists. In this process, there are civilian casualties, and violations of civil liberties from shadowy government organizations such as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Avengers that are given extrajudicial powers over those that are deemed too dangerous to be given due process. But it’s all okay, one man’s rights are a worthy sacrifice at the altar of public safety. The question remains of who decides when someone is too dangerous to deserve a trial?
Tony Stark decides that he can’t sell weapons to bad people in fear of what could happen to innocent bystanders. So he becomes the hero by building a weapon that can kill all the foreign nationals he deems to be a threat without any fear of repercussions. He decides, not a court of law. But none of that matters; America is safe from the bad guys and the weapons of mass destruction have been reclaimed.
The Batman of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight hacks everyone’s cellphone in in an effort to catch the terrorist, something Morgan Freeman’s character objects to. Batman tortures, extorts, and intimidates his way around existing power structures that are deemed incompetent. But it’s okay, crime was stopped. To his credit, I do not believe Nolan ever intended for Batman to be a hero. But the power he is allowed by those who would deem him a hero are the same as in any other superhero film
Man of Steel, the 2013 movie that failed in many ways, does succeed in illustrating this point particularly well. Especially because of Superman’s place as a purveyor of “Truth, Justice , and the American Way”, he operates in a way that the ideological part of the American psyche would find disturbing. Superman, like the other so-called heroes, disregards the effects of his actions on the innocent and skips past diplomacy in favor of a use of force. Superman doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, he fights them.
Superheroes are fun and provide a certain catharsis. Their worlds, at the end of the day, are simple: they win and the bad guy loses. But these films reveal the ways in which we have grown complacent in the way our power structures use the authority they have. The fear of terrorism is one that has become so prominent in our collective psyche that we have forgotten to respect the power we give to those tasked with fighting them. The fires of an attack are loud and frightening, but Rome wasn’t felled by barbarians.