An Age of (Super)Heroes?: Hollywood and the “Global War on Terror”

by Allan W. Austin

Superheroes have monopolized American cineplexes since the dawn of the twenty-first century. Recent iterations of Batman and Superman arrived, in 2005 and 2013 respectively, from the pages of DC Comics. Marvel Studios, on the way to building its sprawling cinematic universe, introduced Iron Man in 2008 and Captain America in 2011, among a host of others. Arriving when they did, these four cinematic heroes found their 21st-century silver-screen adventures decisively shaped by the terrorist attacks of 9/11.* Appearing as American anxiety and insecurity peaked, the films helped audiences sort out the world in which they lived (as popular culture more generally has always done), a reality highlighted by the efforts of those on both the left and the right to “claim” these movies for their respective sides. Given their broad popularity and specific timing, the films stand as cultural signposts directing us to deeper understandings of the ways in which Americans understood and responded to 9/11, revealing both conflicting and shared attitudes that continue to shape the ways in which Americans interact with the world. As Jesse Walker has suggested, those seeking “a map of the debates of the early 21st century” need only “[w]atch a comic-book movie” (“The Politics of Superheroes,” Reason 41.1 [May 2009]).

This engagement with timely issues was not particularly new; superhero popular culture grappled with all sorts of political issues from the start, even when comic books were considered little more than junk culture. In doing so, according to some accounts, the companies embarked upon divergent political paths, DC moving to the right and Marvel the left. Both DC and Marvel, indeed, have long been shaped by the sociopolitical contexts in which they emerged and with which they wrestled, environments that helped to shape what have been seen as the more conservative and liberal bents, respectively, of the two corporations. DC, with the arrival of Superman in 1938, quickly found its line defined by wartime, Cold War, and commercial anxieties (as well as anti-comics sentiments championed before the war by Sterling North and after, more famously, by Frederic Wertham). As Bradford Wright and David Hajdu (among others) have demonstrated, such realities promoted conservative celebrations of the status quo instead of social criticism. Thus, DC has been seen as tailoring its mainstays into monotonous superheroes aimed at a juvenile audience in its early days. Marvel, however, found its commercial footing in the 1960s, a very different cultural context that encouraged more complicated protagonists and stories that addressed ambiguity, Cold War fears, and unease with the status quo, all of which have contributed to understandings of Marvel as having a more liberal outlook.  Their comics commented on current issues from a youthful and moderately liberal perspective, although always carefully, and never in “unpopular” ways that might threaten sales, as Wright, Gerard Jones, and Sean Howe have shown. While the DC-Marvel competition might today for some have “the feel of a friendly family squabble,” Larry Tye argues in Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero that in the 1960s “it was a cultural chasm, one built around beliefs so basic some still resonate a half century afterward.”

These very different corporate “origin stories” continue to shape both DC and Marvel, although it would be a mistake to read too much into what has sometimes been seen as the “conservative” DC spirit and the “liberal” Marvel ethos. When applied to films in the twenty-first century, the simplistic dichotomy holds in some ways. An examination of Batman and Superman, in this way, suggests that DC has tended to toe the line of American foreign policy, the two heroes offering support for government policies by presenting an irrational and hyper-violent terrorist threat that can be countered effectively only by extreme and at times extra-Constitutional violence. Americans will, these films suggest, have to trust the good intentions of those in power (both on the silver screen and off it) as they act covertly to defend American interests. In contrast, Marvel Studio’s Iron Man and Captain America franchises have been more willing to question the American “system.” But the simple contrast between the corporate titans can mislead as well as it might inform, and it is important to note that both, whatever their differences, fail to fully critique the so-called “global war on terror.” The silver-screen superheroes of the twenty-first century in this way reveal that Americans might debate certain aspects of the battle against terrorism, but struggle to imagine an alternative approach to engaging the world.

DC and the “Global War on Terror”

The DC filmic universe is firmly grounded in the twenty-first century, presenting a dark world in which helpless citizens are beset by almost inconceivably colossal threats. Here, cities and even the globe are fair game for villains bent on utter destruction. It is also a world of constant and terrifying escalation; victories for the “good guys” just set up larger threats down the road. In this way, Batman Begins (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2005) ends with Lieutenant Jim Gordon warning that Batman’s triumph over the terroristic threat of Ra’s al Ghul has hardly settled matters; instead, the policeman presciently warns of an inevitably intensifying conflict. This is especially scary in a world replete with various weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which feature in many of the DC movies. Batman, for instance, has to overcome WMDs that have been purloined from his own company in two films, first racing to prevent the use of a high-tech microwave emitter (that will be used to evaporate water containing a hallucinogenic drug designed to drive Gotham’s citizens to madness) in Batman Begins and later, in The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2012), battling to prevent the detonation of a stolen Wayne Enterprises’ fusion reactor, which the villain Bane has turned into a four-megaton ticking nuclear time bomb. Superman confronts even more powerful and dangerous WMDs in Man of Steel (dir. Zack Snyder, 2013) that are literally embodied by the super-powered Kryptonian villains and also represented by the massive machines deployed by Zod to terraform earth (to remake it for Kryptonians); as gravity runs amok, catastrophic destruction ensues.

Man of Steel (2013): catastrophic destruction in Metropolis

Such dangers result in scenes of absolute carnage and violence that mirror (and sometimes amplify) the violence of the real world. The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008) includes several scenes that reference the violence of the “global war on terror,” including one that evokes the streets of New York City on 9/11 as silhouetted firefighters work amidst destruction and another in which explosions destroy a hospital. Man of Steel pushes such horrific scenes even further, making a fetish of destruction as Smallville and Metropolis are leveled in orgies of violence [ed. note: see this relevant Tower-ing Fiction entry]. Such violence sometimes directly echoes that of the “global war on terror” as waged in Iraq; in The Dark Knight Rises, for example, after Special Forces soldiers are shot in Gotham, the bad guys hang their lifeless bodies from a bridge. Such scenes leave little question about the violent and dangerous world in which Americans live, both on and off the silver screen.

The Dark Knight (2008): evoking 9/11

This grim, earnest, and brutal world both shapes and is shaped by the villains who inhabit it in ways that reveal problematic American understandings of terrorism. Batman Begins sets the stage for what follows in the trilogy by establishing the threat of Henri Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul and his terroristic League of Shadows. The villain and his followers are shrouded in an “Oriental” exoticism that immediately marks them as foreign, dangerous, and “other”: Bruce has to complete a quest to pick a blue flower and carry it to the top of a treacherous mountain to gain the chance to train under Ducard; our hero then inhales smoke made from the burning flower—a clear symbol of Eastern mysticism—as he confronts his fears; ninjas and lethal violence are everywhere; and Ducard is really Ra’s (in an example of long-held American fears of “Oriental” treachery). Framing the threat to the United States as foreign and thus “other” in the film starkly exposes twenty-first century American definitions of terror as an external, exotic, and historically-rooted danger.

This exotic threat pursues irrational plans to deploy WMDs, further revealing how many Americans saw terrorists after 9/11 as not just violent but insane. The League’s plan is focused on Gotham because Ra’s al Ghul sees that city as a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. He thus plans to use the microwave emitter to release a hallucinogenic drug in Gotham’s water supply, leading its residents to fearfully tear each other and their society apart. This terroristic plan is, however, patently ridiculous, reinforcing the irrational nature of terrorists. For one, Ra’s seems to believe that the destruction of Gotham will push the world toward harmony—“The movement back to harmony will be unstoppable this time,” he boasts—but why would this be the case? The effort seems all the more dubious because the League of Shadows has seemingly overthrown loads of similarly corrupt societies throughout the history of mankind, yet things have only gotten worse with each step. Only a crazy person, to paraphrase an oft-repeated aphorism, would continue to pursue a strategy for centuries that has repeatedly failed. Furthermore, the idea that destruction will build balance seems counterintuitive, at best. Ra’s and his league, in the end, are reduced to little more than an irrational, foreign threat, suggesting the over-simplified ways in which many Americans similarly see real-world enemies.

Batman Begins (2005): the exotic, irrational enemy

Batman Begins (2005): the exotic, irrational enemy

The Dark Knight features the Joker, who on the surface seems a very different kind of home-grown threat, but he represents little more than another simplistic cypher for terrorism and its adherents. Indeed, if the villain is not foreign, he remains exotic and irrational, building on themes established in Batman Begins. That the Joker is a terrorist is made clear by both Harvey Dent and Alfred labeling him as such. His disfigurement and wacky sense of fashion make the Joker stand out as different. He also adds a clear irrationality to his exoticism. As Bruce struggles to understand just what motivates a maniac like the Joker, Alfred tries to explain (via an analogy to a Burmese warlord that “others” the villain) how the Joker has no larger end goal in mind for his actions; instead of pursuing some kind of rational agenda, he only wants “to watch the world burn.” (The reduction of the Joker to little more than destruction personified also cuts against some readings of the villain as the Batman’s counter; here, the Joker stands in as nothing more than a symbol of terrorists’ commitment to what can only be understood as a morally vacant violence.) The Joker himself agrees with this assessment, telling Gotham’s mob overlords—as he lights half of their money afire—that he cares nothing for wealth and has one simple message to share: “Everything burns.” In case anyone may have missed the point, the Joker lays it out clearly when he talks with the grievously burned Dent in the hospital. Here the villain compares himself to a dog chasing cars; as nothing more than “an agent of chaos,” the Joker explains, he wouldn’t know what to do if he ever actually caught one.

The Dark Knight (2008): the inscrutable Joker/terrorist enemy

The Dark Knight, having presented a destructive and irrational villain, then argues that the reasons for the Joker’s violent proclivities are beyond knowing. Twice during the film, for instance, the Joker explains how it is that he got his facial scars, but the stories don’t jibe. In one, a fiendish, drunken father attacked first his mother and then the Joker, cutting his son while saying, “Why so serious? . . . Let’s put a smile on that face.” In the other, the Joker disfigured himself (after his wife was cut by a loan shark) to show that he didn’t care what she looked like; disgusted, she left him. The film thus presents its message about terrorists clearly: they are irrational and beyond comprehension. In both film and the real world, based on such reasoning, terrorists are not to be understood or negotiated with, but only eliminated.

While Bane’s attack on the Gotham Stock Exchange has led to some worthwhile analysis (on the part of scholars and critics such as Will Brooker, Marlow Stern, Matt Taibbi, and Peter Travers) of The Dark Knight Rises as a commentary on the Occupy Movement as well as a broader critique of wealth and American privilege, this theme should not overshadow the larger one that runs consistently across the trilogy. Read in this way, the final film in Nolan’s series is really a return to the original threat: an exotic, foreign, and violent enemy that pursues an irrational terrorism. Here, Bane and Talia al Ghul—the vengeful daughter of the first film’s antagonist—take western technology, in the form of the fusion reactor as well as most of Batman’s armory, and turns it against the helpless citizens of Gotham. Talia plays the exotic and treacherous role, seducing Bruce Wayne and stealing his company out from under him without his knowing her true intentions. Bane embodies the brutal violence of terrorists, luring Batman into a trap and literally breaking his back. He then tortures our hero, throwing him into a primitive prison and forcing him to watch, on television, as Bane “terrorize(s)” Gotham. Bane—a “terrorist” in his own words as well as those of the fictional president of the U.S.—proceeds in what he calls “liberating” Gotham, although his rhetoric is belied by his plans: he arms a nuclear bomb, sets it to explode in five months, and kills the only person who can disarm it. Thus, Bane, it turns out, does little more than replicate Ra’s al Ghul’s ideas and plans, never moving beyond the simplistic terroristic tropes of Batman Begins, an outsider/foreigner who presents existential danger to the citizens of Gotham as he pursues his own peculiar (and obviously mad) vision to perfect the world.

Man of Steel presents a similarly irrational and hyper-violent terrorist, General Zod, who embodies an existential threat to humankind. Programmed from birth to fight, it is literally all that he knows how to do. He first appears to earthlings via a grainy broadcast image, demanding that they turn Superman over or face utter destruction. Seeking the codex, a device that will allow him to recreate Krypton on earth, Zod pursues his goal single-mindedly, even with the understanding that all on earth must die; he accepts this cost as the logical consequence of his “duty to [his] people.” He, in fact, freely admits that he will commit genocide to “save” Krypton and its people. As the movie continues, Zod and his soldiers attack civilians, most notably Superman’s mother, Martha. Scenes of Martha picking through the wreckage of her house highlight the inhumanity of the terrorist, who is more than willing to target innocent civilians to achieve his goals. As one of Zod’s foot soldiers explains to Superman, the invaders’ lack of morality is an evolutionary advantage that ensures their victory. The extent of Zod’s immorality and irrationality becomes clear when he realizes he cannot bring Krypton back; he turns to naked revenge instead, promising to make humans (and especially Superman and his friends and family) suffer. In this and many ways, Zod is the ultimate terrorist enemy in the nascent DC universe, taking themes developed in the Batman trilogy and carrying them to perverse, violent, and apocalyptic conclusions.

Man of Steel (2013): terrorists target innocent civilians

In response to the escalating threat posed by terrorism, Batman and Superman protect the innocent. The former decides to become a vigilante crusader for justice for seemingly moral and praiseworthy reasons, unlike his opponents. Having learned in the aftermath of his parents’ murder that he is naïve about how the world operates, Bruce trains with the League of Shadows so that he can fight injustice by turning fear against those who prey on the fearful (in an obvious and enlightening allusion to terrorists as well as—importantly—what is required to defeat them). At the completion of his training, however, the League demands that he execute a criminal. Bruce refuses, his compassion distinguishing him from the criminals that he wants to combat. From the start, then, Bruce—standing in for Americans—is established as moral, compassionate, and rightly motivated, a true hero in a world desperately in need of one.

Bruce’s inherent morality allows Batman, over the course of the three films, to engage in a range of illegal and even immoral activities, including torture, which are dismissed by viewers because of the hero’s inherent goodness. Whatever his flaws, Jacqueline Furby and Claire Hines argue in Fantasy, Batman remains “our ‘good guy’ protagonist,” a controlling reality that shapes how the audience views his questionable actions. (Marc DiPaolo has made the point more generally, noting that the hero’s morality excuses his actions across his many media incarnations.) As a result, as Bruce explains to Alfred in The Dark Knight, “Batman has no limits.” He can resort to immoral tactics because his goals and morality are unimpeachable; Americans can trust him—and thus what he represents—because of his inherent goodness. Thus, when Batman engages in torture, viewers accept it as a necessary response to the very substantial threats he confronts. While torture in the second film produces limited results (the Joker doesn’t provide totally reliable information, and a mobster dropped from a rooftop offers little actionable intelligence), it does work in Batman Begins, when our hero hangs a corrupt cop upside down from a rope and drops him repeatedly from a rooftop, catching him just before impact with the city street below.

Batman’s inherent goodness allows him to adopt additional questionable tactics employed by the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11. For instance, he practices a kind of extradition in abducting the criminal Lao in Hong Kong and returning him to Gotham for trial. Clearly working outside of both domestic and international law in this case, Batman is forgiven by both the people of Gotham and viewers because his actions are “right,” if not strictly legal. Batman also deploys an electronic eavesdropping system to defeat the Joker. Lucius Fox, in echoing critics of President George W. Bush’s use of domestic surveillance, describes the Dark Knight’s technology as “unethical” and even “dangerous” as well as just plain “wrong” and “too much power for one man.” He nonetheless agrees to help Batman use it (but just once to defeat the Joker), after which he threatens to resign if the machine is not destroyed. Batman, of course, gives Fox the code to destroy the machine, again demonstrating not only his goodness but also the ways in which Bruce’s inherent, unerring morality makes it acceptable for him to act unethically when needed. Such questionable actions never undermine his purity; they are in fact justified by it.

The Dark Knight (2008): Batman adopts the Bush administration’s strategies for waging the “global war on terror,” here with massive electronic eavesdropping

Batman’s unquestioned morality and willingness to act are all the more important, the trilogy suggests, because the public cannot be trusted to understand the complicated issues raised by the “global war on terror.” Indeed, the public’s inability to comprehend the battle against terror makes it all the more important that Batman act for them. This point is made most clearly in The Dark Knight, when the Joker plants bombs on two ferry boats, one full of innocent civilians, the other of despicable criminals. He gives each boat the detonator for the other, and warns that one must blow the other up; if neither does so, he will destroy both ferries. None of the passengers, ultimately, push the button (and all survive because Batman takes down the Joker), and the film’s point is clear: the denizens of Gotham are moral enough to be trusted with one another’s lives. However, the public, despite its morality, cannot be trusted to understand, let alone prosecute, the “global war on terror,” as becomes clear with the climax of The Dark Knight. Here, Batman decides to take the blame in order to hide Harvey Dent’s many crimes, allowing the latter to die a hero (only because the public doesn’t know what he actually did). He does so because, as Gordon notes, Dent was the “hero we needed.” Here, the film asserts that the general public is not smart enough to handle the truth. The Dark Knight Rises reinforces the point after Bane destroys the government and police; left to their own devices, the people of Gotham accept a new court system that exists only to mete out punishment, inevitably lethal. The trilogy thus argues that, in the real world, it is best to hide the truth from the public, which—no matter how moral—lacks the capacity to engage such issues; in such a world, Batman’s off-the-books vigilantism is not only justified, but necessary.

The moral emptiness of the trilogy is laid bare in Batman Begins in the final showdown between the hero and Ra’s al Ghul. Here, as an out-of-control train hurtles to its fiery doom, Batman prepares to escape the train, but leaves the helpless villain behind, explaining, “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.”

Batman Begins (2005): Batman’s dubious morality as a reflection of the American approach to the “global war on terror”

This dubious reasoning, when applied to the “global war on terror,” seemingly allows Americans to look away, disavowing responsibility for the carnage caused by the conflict. When Bruce and his paramour, Rachel, reunite after this lethal showdown, she notes that Batman is Bruce’s real identity now. While she hopes that Bruce might return, she knows that this can happen only when Gotham no longer needs Batman, another allegory that excuses Americans for not being their true moral selves until the terrorist threat is defeated. The trilogy’s finale makes the point (again) when, in The Dark Knight Rises, Gordon lectures an unconvinced Blake that Batman did the necessary dirty stuff so that everyone else didn’t have to, yet another filmic excuse for fighting outside the law in a “global war on terror.” When Blake quits the police force at film’s end, however, he does so because he has finally come to see that Gordon is right: structures become shackles that limit Americans’ ability to defend themselves from looming threats. Blake’s visit to the Batcave at film’s end suggests Americans’ continued need for extralegal defenses, even after the defeat of the League of Shadows. Until the broader conflict with terrorism is won, un-American tactics will have to be accepted because of the threat posed to American society.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012): Blake and the continued American need for extralegal approaches to combat terrorism

The Dark Knight Rises (2012): Blake and the continued American need for extralegal approaches to combat terrorism

Superman ultimately takes the same path in Man of Steel. The film certainly presents the young Clark as a moral hero, flashing back to his childhood choice to save his classmates in Kansas after their bus goes over a bridge, risking his secret to do so. He does the same later, too, when an oil rig disaster moves him to save his fellow workers. His refusal to fight as a kid and his visit to his minister in a moment of moral quandary reinforce our hero’s fundamental, corn-fed morality. In the end, however, Superman confronts Zod as the latter threatens to kill three innocent civilians, the helpless family members cowering in response to the villain’s incredible power. Superman snaps Zod’s neck to save them. The hero’s actions are especially shocking in the way in which they cut against traditional depictions of Superman and thus reveal another “lesson” for Americans in the “global war on terror”: sometimes “good guys” (Superman in the film, Americans in the real world) have to do terrible things, but the ends justify the means when one faces such an enemy. Superman’s sadness afterwards proves, after all, his goodness and lack of choice in killing.

Man of Steel (2013): Clark’s religion-infused morality

Man of Steel (2013): Clark with Christ

 Marvel and the “Global War on Terror”

The Marvel films centered on Iron Man and Captain America are grounded in a world in crisis, too. Iron Man’s origin story in Iron Man (dir. Jon Favreau, 2008), set in an Afghanistan rife with terrorists, reminds viewers from the start of the United States’ continuing struggle against terror. The third Iron Man film, Iron Man 3 (dir. Shane Black, 2013) also reminded viewers of the conflict, if in a more novel way, by addressing issues of trauma, loss, and PTSD. Veterans, maimed by the horrors of war, are targeted by an unscrupulous arms merchant and become pawns of the military-industrial complex (MIC). As he investigates this mystery, Tony Stark/Iron Man suffers anxiety attacks himself, the result of his struggling to come to grips with his near-fatal participation in the Avengers’ Battle of New York [ed. note: depicted in Marvel’s The Avengers (dir. Joss Whedon, 2012)]. Here, Tony mirrors the soldiers/victims (and perhaps real-world Americans) in struggling to come to grips with the experiences and costs of war. Captain America, once he arrives in the present, faces a similarly violent and threatening world. In his second film, for instance, threats to the innocent have grown so significant that SHIELD, an organization meant to protect the public, is developing weapons that can instantly kill millions of people suspected of evil intentions. The Marvel universe certainly doesn’t want for threats.

Iron Man (2008): Afghanistan as threat

If both companies thus set their films in anxious worlds, Marvel’s villains and heroes have some significant differences with DC’s nonetheless. Indeed, the Marvel films often focus on internal American villains and even more so on systemic evil. Thus, Iron Man sets ups the 10 Rings—fairly generic Middle Eastern terrorists—as the putative bad guys. They kidnap Tony Stark and torture the tech genius to build a super-weapon. Their camp and surroundings are incredibly primitive, and the terrorists are brutal, forcibly trucking women away (to who knows what kinds of abuse) and lining up men for mass executions during an attack on a local village. The film’s twist, however, upsets the viewer’s expectations: the real villain is Tony’s business partner, the American Obadiah Stane, who has been clandestinely and selfishly orchestrating the 10 Rings’ activities all along, much to the terrorists’ chagrin when they realize it. Stane later turns on the 10 Rings, stealing their technology and brutally killing the terrorists. While the members of the 10 Rings are undoubtedly reprehensible, the film makes the point that some Americans are no better; in fact, it suggests that Americans have made their own problems in the world.

Iron Man (2008): Obadiah Stane (right), the American as enemy

Iron Man 2 (dir. Job Favreau, 2010) inverts the relationship, but continues forward with the idea that the MIC is a substantial part of the problem. In his second film, Tony Stark faces off with Ivan Vanko, who carries a grudge against the hero because their fathers had fallen out in the past. Here, as Tony grandstands and refuses to share his Iron Man technology with the U.S. government, the slimy Justin Hammer, a rival American arms manufacturer, uses Vanko to capture more and larger government contracts for his inferior weapons. Hammer is, however, a dope; Vanko ends up using him to build an army of flying robots for his own use. Vanko’s cunning manipulation of the military-industrial complex to his own ends reinforces the notion that threats that may seem external often have internal causes.

Iron Man 2 (2010): the slimy Justin Hammer (right) makes a deal with the devil, Ivan Vanko (center)

The Iron Man trilogy concludes by returning to the system-as-villain theme once more. Tony’s voiceover to a black screen as the film opens makes the point—in reference to both himself (in the film) and Americans (in the real world)—clearly: “A famous man once said, ‘We make our own demons.’” Iron Man 3 then flashes back to 1999, when Tony snubs Aldrich Killian, inspiring the latter to help to develop a biotech that he is intent on selling as a weapon to the U.S. government. To do so, Killian creates a fictitious terrorist, the Mandarin, played by a down-on-his-luck actor, Trevor Slattery. In his televised videos, Slattery becomes a classic, threatening, and exotic terrorist, delivering menacing messages to Americans and their leaders. As the Mandarin’s threats and attacks grow in scope, unpredictable violence seems to confront Americans potentially anywhere. All of this is mere theater, however, meant only to benefit Killian’s company. As he explains to Tony, Killian has literally created an enemy in order to “own the war on terror. Create supply and demand.” If Marvel’s questioning of the “global war on terror” had not been concretely established to this point, it was now quite clear: Americans were responsible for the dangers of world in which they lived.

Iron Man 3 (2013): Trevor Slatter, monstrous terrorist

Iron Man 3 (2013): Trevor Slattery, dissipated actor

The Captain America franchise also played to the system-as-enemy theme. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (dirs. the Russos, 2014) directly vilifies the system as Cap slowly pieces together a mystery that involves Hydra infiltrating SHIELD, which provides a base from which to undermine the American system by corrupting key government officials. This reality inexorably pits Captain America against his own government, its leaders, and the World Security Council, all embodied in Alexander Pierce [ed. note: and SHIELD’s headquarters, the Triskelion; see this relevant Tower-ing Fiction entry]. Our hero eventually learns that Hydra—via SHIELD and other quasi-governmental agencies—has been creating chaos in order to convince Americans (and humankind more broadly) that they should sacrifice their freedom for their security, much like Killian sowing terror to reap selfish rewards. This is a harsh realization, one made starker by the Black Widow’s observation that the seemingly heroic SHIELD is in reality no better than her native KGB. When Nick Fury confronts Pierce, the latter contends that they both want to end disorder and war, and that he can ensure “order” in the world by killing “only” three million people. Captain America’s victory over such evil requires not only the destruction of Hydra but also SHIELD.

Given the internal and systemic villains identified by Marvel, it is hardly surprising that its superheroes deviate from those presented by DC, most especially in their relationship to the “global war on terror.” This is made clear by Tony Stark’s character arc in Iron Man (that is repeated in Iron Man 2), which carries him from a carefree playboy who enjoys massive profits from the MIC to an “outsider” who rejects the system and battles against those who use it for selfish reasons. At the start of Iron Man, Tony is decadent, drinking freely while selling new military hardware in Afghanistan or missing award ceremonies in his honor as he gambles in Vegas. When confronted by a beautiful reporter who calls him “the merchant of death,” Tony blithely responds that the “imperfect” world needs his weapons, which, in American hands, actually produce peace; he should be seen a hero, not a war profiteer. He then seduces the reporter, suggesting his hedonism, a reality driven home as he flies on his private jet, on which the stewardesses dance for his pleasure.

Iron Man (2008): Tony Stark as playboy

After his kidnapping by the 10 Rings, however, Tony begins to mature, questioning not only his profligate lifestyle but the MIC that supports it. He wonders about the ethics of what he does, now aware that his weapons have been used to kill Americans. He realizes that he is part of a system with no accountability. Now aware, Tony shuts down weapons manufacturing at Stark Industries and, when confronted with a massacre in Gulmira in which Stark-made weapons were deployed, decides to act as Iron Man, flying off to do good in the world (by massacring terrorists to save innocent lives). His redemptive arc complete, Tony emerges as a true hero, positioning his heroism against the MIC and the evil that it produces, as exemplified by his showdowns with representatives of the MIC over the course of the trilogy.

Tony’s alienation from the system is completed in Iron Man 3. In the aftermath of the Avengers’ Battle of New York (a nightmare version of 9/11, much like the fighting in Metropolis in Man of Steel), Tony is a more human character, suffering from PTSD, an affliction that serves as a metaphor about national anxieties after 9/11. Attacked at home after he confides to Pepper Potts that “nothing’s been the same” since New York and now on the run without the help of his suit (which is damaged and out of power), Tony makes do on his own, revealing again his inventiveness and self-reliance. Triumphant at the end of Iron Man 3, Tony’s voiceover notes that even the purest of goals can be corrupted by compromises and mistakes, a final critique of the system, not just in the film but in the real world as well; Tony warns viewers, in effect, that the ways in which he created his own “demons” are mirrored by the ways in which the MIC has created its own enemies in the real world.

Like Iron Man, Steve Rogers/Captain America, in the first two films in his trilogy, starts out as a true believer in the American system but ends up alienated from it. That he starts in a much more moral position than Tony, indeed, only highlights further the corruptions in the system that the Marvel Cinematic Universe repeatedly and insistently points out. Thus, in Captain America: The First Avenger (dir. Joe Johnston, 2011), Steve’s arc begins by setting him up as an almost to-good-to-be-believed hero. Too physically frail to serve in WWII, Steve insists upon doing so, traveling from recruitment center to recruitment center, but getting rejected over and over again. He watches newsreels celebrating the young men fighting overseas with sadness, and fights a heckler who disrespects the soldiers. He gets pummeled, but keeps getting back up, famously remarking, “I can do this all day.” In addition to his patriotism and courage, Steve desperately wants to sacrifice for others, a quality noted by Dr. Erskine, who heads the Americans’ experiments to create a super soldier. Finally in basic training with Erskine’s help, Steve fills out the rest of his impressive biography: he is smart (out-thinking the more physically-gifted recruits) and selfless, throwing himself on what he thinks to be a live grenade to save other soldiers. Praised by Erskine for his internal strength, compassion, and goodness, Steve is an ideal American hero.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): Steve Rogers

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): idealized American hero

The too-perfect hero, however, serves to highlight the very imperfect system that he inhabits. Steve first discovers this after becoming Captain America, a true superhero who could make a real difference abroad. Instead of being sent to fight, however, the government drafts Steve into public relations work. He is obviously uncomfortable with this role at the start, delivering a series of awkward speeches while dressed in a ridiculous costume and punching out an actor who looks like Hitler, all the while backgrounded by dancing women. Faked newsreels further highlight the emptiness of the system, one depicting Cap leading a diverse “All-American platoon.” (Here the filmmakers quietly critique persistent myths of American racial unity during the real-world war, too.) Despite his “successes” in this role, Steve obviously chafes in it, especially when he takes the show on the road to the European theater, where soldiers respond coldly, driving home our hero’s growing conviction that he is little more than a monkey dancing at the system’s command when he could actually be doing so much more.

Having decided to join the fighting when his childhood chum is taken captive by Nazis, Cap embarks on wartime adventures that further critique the racist and moral shortcomings of the system even while he works within it and fights for it. When he frees a multiethnic group of American captives, Cap assembles an All-American platoon—possible in the fictional film, if not real life—populated by a range of ethnic fighters, one of whom is Jim Morita, a Japanese American. When Morita’s origins are questioned, his response that he is from Fresno references the unconstitutional treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII, further critiquing myths of the American past as well as the system they are intended to support. As he racks up victories, however, Steve always maintains that he’s just an average kid from Brooklyn, and his ultimate sacrifice—giving his life (or at least putting it on ice for more than half a century) to save New York City (and, really, civilization) from the Red Skull—reminds viewers again of his pure heroism.

If the first Captain America film established a complicated relationship between Steve and the government—he fights and even “dies” for it and its ideals, despite having witnessed its imperfections—the second film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, sees the revived hero called to fight the system, which has become substantially more corrupt since WWII. Here, the film opens to government corruption, as Nick Fury stages a ship hijacking, the audience later learns, as an excuse to look into some potential disloyalty inside SHIELD, at which Fury works. Fury then reveals SHIELD’s big undertaking, codenamed Project: Insight, to Cap; it involves massive helicarriers with “long-range precision guns” that can read terrorist DNA and be used to neutralize threats before they happen. Cap is appalled, and wonders, “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.” Fury insists that the dangers of the world make waiting a luxury that can no longer be afforded, but Cap resists, describing Project: Insight as “holding a gun to everyone on earth and calling it protection.” While he can acknowledge that Americans did some unseemly things in WWII, he insists that they were done for freedom. “This isn’t freedom,” he lectures Fury, “its fear.” Fury remonstrates that SHIELD is just being realistic and Cap ought to get with the program. Cap’s response—“Don’t hold your breath”— reveals his alienation.

Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014): freedom versus fear, achieving security in a threatening world

While Cap will employ some less-than-savory methods as the film continues (for example condoning Jasper Sitwell’s torture for information), he remains driven by his earlier (and earnest) commitment to American ideals, which no longer fit the system. He will fight for the right cause, we learn, when he strives to rescue Bucky from his brainwashed role as the Winter Soldier (an arc that is completed in Captain America: Civil War). But even if Cap clearly sees at least some individuals as capable of redemption, he no longer views the system as worth saving. Thus, when he visits a now-elderly Peggy Carter, he notes that he has always wanted “to do what’s right,” but can no longer be sure just what that is as he struggles to serve. Peggy’s response reinforces Cap’s alienation, as she points out that the world has changed, a reality that means Cap (and it) may need to start over. The film’s conclusion, in which Cap decides that SHIELD must be destroyed along with Hydra, makes Cap’s point clearly: a corrupt system is not worth supporting and, in fact, must be destroyed so that something better may takes its place. 

Conclusion: Marvel, DC, and the Limits of the American Imagination

If Captain America: The Winter Soldier reinforced Iron Man 3’s direct indictment of the system (in ways that DC films didn’t), it is worth noting that the film’s outcome destroys SHIELD, a key representative of what is wrong with the system, but offers little in the way of alternatives to it. Thus, when the Black Widow testifies to a skeptical Congressional committee in the aftermath of SHIELD’s exposure and destruction, she has no fear that the government will assert its authority over the superheroes. As she explains confidently, “You need us.” (In Captain America: Civil War [dirs. the Russos, 2016], Steve even more directly makes the point, refusing Tony’s preferred government oversight of the Avengers, trusting himself and his own morality more than that of the system.) Thus, while Marvel looks at the “global war on terror” in some ways differently than DC, both ultimately end up in the same grim place: extralegal vigilantes—euphemistically labeled superheroes—will have to police the world to make it a better place by providing extralegal and clandestine security to Americans. The public will just have to trust them to do the right thing.

This is a somewhat surprising conclusion, especially given how differently DC and Marvel defined the “global war on terror” in their foundational films. DC presented villains who were distinctly defined individuals—external and “other,” exotic, irrational, incomprehensible—while Marvel instead examined the internal American system as the source of its villains, who act in rational, albeit self-interested, ways. Different villains produced somewhat different heroes, too. While the protagonists at both DC and Marvel certainly take the law into their own hands from time to time (or even often), Superman and Batman spend little time considering, let along critiquing, the system’s problems and shortcomings; external villains make such considerations seemingly superfluous. Meanwhile, Iron Man and Captain America both complete character arcs that move them from enthusiastic insiders and supporters of the system to staunch critics alienated from it.

That DC and Marvel end up in the same place—even when presenting such different villains and heroes in the seemingly never-ending battle against terrorism—provides a sobering realization about the fundamental lack of an American imagination to rethink the United States’ approach to the “global war on terror.” It is a critique leveled, if never resolved, in Avengers: Age of Ultron (dir. Joss Whedon, 2015). Here, Ultron challenges the superheroes who confront him, accusing them of wanting to protect the world, but not to change it. Such resistance to change surprises some critics, and might explain in part why Daniel Immerwahr argues that the heroes in the Marvel films have “little of the subversive aura that once surrounded them.” They now focus, he correctly argues, on suppressing threats in ways that provide only “consoling fictions” to Americans uneasy about the world in which they live (“We’re the Good Guys, Right?: On the Marvel Movies,” n+1).

But blaming the heroes for this lack of imagination and escapism seems to miss the point; it’s foolish to look to superhero cinema to fix problems that only Americans themselves can solve. In this way, the films reflect, all too sadly, the ways in which Americans struggle to think their way to new solutions for the threats posed by the twenty-first century world, echoing the truth in Alex Evans’s contention that the American superhero presents a site that both celebrates and contests dominate cultural ideals. And therein lies the conundrum facing Americans and their leaders today, almost two decades since the 9/11 attacks. So long as Americans remain unable to imagine something better (or even different), they will be susceptible to trading security for freedom, to sustaining policies that seem more apt to perpetuate war than end it, and, ultimately, repeating a destructive cycle that offers nothing new moving forward.

* I have chosen to focus on the Marvel Cinematic Universe to limit the scope the essay. The Spider-Man and X-Men franchises, while worthy of consideration, began earlier, before the full effects of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 could more fully shape the films produced by Hollywood. Their position outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe proper creates further complications in trying to build comparisons across fictional universes and a plethora of real-world companies.

I would like to thank Patrick Hamilton and Shawn Gilmore for their help and advice as I wrote this essay.

Bibliography/Suggestions for Further Reading

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Black, Shane, dir. Iron Man 3. 2013; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2013, DVD.

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Brooker, Will. Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman. London: I. B. Taurus, 2012.

“Celluloid Hero.” Rolling Stone, 2 August 2012.

Chiarella, Tom. “The Superhero.” Esquire, August 2012.

Comiskey, Andrea. “The Hero We Read: The Dark Knight, Popular Allegoresis, and Blockbuster Ideology.” In Riddle Me This, Batman: Essays on the Universe of the Dark Knight. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.

DiPaolo, Marc. War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011.

Evans, Alex. “Superman Is the Faultline: Fissures in the Monomythic Man of Steel.” In Reframing 9/11 Film: Popular Culture and the ‘War on Terror.” New York: Continuum, 2010.

Favreau, Jon, dir. Iron Man. 2008; Los Angeles, CA: Paramount, 2008. DVD.

Favreau, Jon, dir. Iron Man 2. 2010; New York: Marvel, 2013. DVD.

Fradley, Martin. “What Do You Believe In?: Film Scholarship and the Cultural Politics of the      Dark Knight Franchise.” Film Quarterly 66, no. 3 (2013): 15-27.

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Immerwahr, Daniel. “We’re the Good Guys, Right?: On the Marvel Movies.” n+1. Accessed 22 October 2018.

Ip, John. “The Dark Knight’s War on Terrorism.” Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 9, no. 1 (2011): 209-229.

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Kading, Terry. “Drawn into 9/11, But Where Have All the Superheroes Gone?” In Comics as Philosophy. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

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Postrel, Virginia. “Superhero Worship.” Atlantic, October 2006. Accessed 21 May 2019.

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Russo, Anthony, and Joe Russo, dirs. Captain America: Winter Soldier. 2014; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Studios, 2013. DVD.

Russo, Anthony, and Joe Russo, dirs. Captain America: Civil War. 2016; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Studios, 2016. DVD.

Snyder, Zack, dir. Man of Steel. 2013; Burbank, CA: WarnerBrothers, 2013. DVD.

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