Rebirth of the superhero: Comic book movies post 9/11

Movies are a product of their times, and what was at first a natural reaction to a demand in positivity and patriotism has morphed into an inward observation of the United States since 9/11. This self-reflection is a marked difference from the rise of comic books during the Great Depression.

The question then is why?

The previous onslaught of comic book-related media occurred during the Great Depression. Comic books represent fantastical escapism and heroism in perhaps its most literal form. Sandwiched between two world wars with a global economic collapse on top, Americans were hungry for heroic imagery of the United States. The comic book became an answer to this quandary — a genre with a new brand of hero was born out of illustrated serial magazines.

The late 1990s and early 2000s have a lot in common with that time. The Gulf War was wrapping up and the homeland was in slight disrepair. The dotcom bubble was bursting. Columbine and other school shootings gripped the nation and asked Americans to reexamine themselves. Finally, on September 11, 2001, the twin towers fell.

Americans looking to escape the despair that gripped the nation might have gone to the movies and seen a trailer for “Spider-Man,” due out May 2002. When it premiered, its opening weekend surpassed “Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring” and “Star Wars: Episode I the Phantom Menace” by more than double. By the time the War on Terror and Operation Iraqi Freedom were in motion, superhero movies were in full swing.

As the War on Terror waged on, a sense of realism became injected into the otherwise fantastical world of comic book cinema — the narrative of these films shifted to become a commentary on issues within the United States. This realism lent to the attractive nature of the films, rooting movies in reality and making them more believable.

Comic books were born out of economic depression and war, created initially to help people escape the problems of the The movies that dominate the current cinematic landscape provided escapism but stuck around through its use of realism. These movies present heroes that seem to have achievable measures for any American. It is then natural that fantastic movies rooted in realism would begin to respond to reality and merge with the familiar: terrorist cells, computer hacking, infrastructure damage, gun control, vigilantism, mass surveillance and the like.

The first “Iron Man” film took this narrative to task by commenting on the military industrial complex’s effects on places of conflict. It premiered May 2008, at the end of Former President George W. Bush’s administration and in the midst of a presidential election. It was not the first, nor would it be the last, film to criticize the current state of affairs in the world.

Films such as “The Dark Knight,” “V for Vendetta” and “Captain America: Winter Soldier” highlight the issues of mass surveillance and the increasing threat of instability on the home front. Of these, none has become more iconic than the film adaptation of “V for Vendetta” and its influence on Anonymous, the leaderless hacker army of the internet. Although Anonymous existed prior to the film’s release, their attachment to V is undeniable and reshaped the group into a political entity.

Much of The Avengers series highlight the difficulties of private militias, the consequences of civilian casualties abroad and balancing power within an increasingly policed governing body. Iron Man’s senate hearing in which Tony Stark defends the rights to own and operate his Iron Man suit, as seen in “Iron Man 2” (2010), mirrors the gun law arguments taking place at the time throughout the United States.

Furthering this point, “Kick-Ass” (2010) gave American audiences a group of normal humans becoming superheroes and super villains through ingenuity and dedication. Americans latched onto this concept and now, throughout the country, real life vigilante heroes patrol neighborhoods to protect civilians. Efficacy aside, these films act as guidelines for social behavior and assist audiences in understanding trauma.

2017’s “Wonder Woman” has been criticized and praised by feminist voices for its portrayal of women and will likely be the centerpiece of dozens of humanities research projects for decades to come. It’s design and marketing was spearheaded at female audiences. Nearly half of comic fans in 2014 were female, justifying a unique approach that should shape similar campaigns in the future.

Last year’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016), a movie plagued and panned for a variety of reasons, could suggest the final nail in the coffin of superhero films celebrating American heroism. The death of Superman, and the general divided response to his on-screen presence by on-screen U.S. citizens, feels like a temporary reprieve to his trump-card-style character design.

The film has also been tied to the existential risk calculus, a political philosophy that came about as a response to the proliferation of nuclear weapons which states that anything that can cause irreparable damage to humanity or the planet, even if there’s a small chance of its occurrence, is unacceptable and must be eliminated, in this case Superman.

Superman represents an unstoppable divine being that is, essentially, nonpunishable and answers to no one. This evokes fear in the government, the people, and in Batman who then vows to end Superman’s life with a spear made of kryptonite. This imagery culminates in Superman’s sacrifice of himself to stop Doomsday.

The parallels to Christianity aside, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” could represent Americans’ own apprehensions regarding limitless power and authority that answers to no one — after two decades of nonstop war, Americans might be starting to wonder if they will, or can, ever stop going to war.

Film companies continue to squeeze their golden goose franchises for eggs. The world outside is not calming down, and for the foreseeable future, neither are superhero movies. Will these movies transform into the “America the great” action genre of the 1980s? Or will the prevailing cinematic genre continue to observe and analyze the world through a superhuman lens troubled by entirely human issues? With “Spider-Man: Homecoming” arriving July 7, the third reboot of the series since “Spider-Man” (2002), the beginning of this era of comic book cinema, audiences won’t have to wait long to find out.


Originally published at UHCL The Signal.

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