The cinematic superhero has come to define the summer movie season. A genre that blurs boundaries, the characters offer something new (yet familiar) to an audience escaping terrorism, economic worries, and fractious politics. While decades of popculture exposure and technological advances explain some of the cinematic superhero’s success, these reasons do not explain the more profound impact for US viewers. Distilled from a uniquely US perspective, the cinematic superhero translates contemporary sociopolitical circumstances in a manner that uniquely reassures U.S. audiences. In doing so, the cinematic superhero picks up the mantle of the western.
In Cold Warriors: Manliness on Trial in the Rhetoric of the West, Suzanne Clark writes that, “American studies scholars who delineated the frontier, the wilderness, the pastoral garden, and the West as key elements of an American cultural mythology legitimated the condensation of soldier and cowboy…” Her critique, concerned with the failure to recognize a persuasive cultural production during the Cold War, resonates with contemporary concerns around modern popular culture. Cold War discourse in American popular culture has had a powerful and some would argue deterministic influence on public perception, shaping the understanding of public policy. Hegemonic and jingoistic, the Cold War popular culture landscape immersed US consumers in tropes of “Us versus Them” that served to facilitate militaristic and covert actions. So thoroughly engaged in the substantive construction of a communal narrative of peril, most Americans were either incapable or unwilling to see the broad contours of differing opinion that could surround Cold War politics.
At that moment, popular culture offered the western hero as a symbol for the time. Films such as High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953) did much to codify the shift to militarism and suppress civic discourse necessary for state security. (This is a sentiment echoed in Stanley Corkin’s Cowboys as Cold Warriors). In this charged atmosphere, concerns for safety opened the door to actions hasty or ill-conceived that pitted the US against ruthless adversaries. Almost unconsciously, the western simplified the complexities of postwar internationalism for the US audience. The inevitable confrontations between good and evil at the heart of the western seems trite to modern audiences. Yet, a quick survey of the contemporary cultural landscape reveals the cinematic superhero seems to have inherited the western’s mantle. Like the western, the cinematic superhero has a clear framework. The white hat (hero) fights the black hat (villain) to protect the community. After much adventure, the hero wins and the community is saved. The western’s popularity in the 1950s reflected this narrative in the midst of an emerging Cold War framework with the United States representing the hero and the Soviet Union representing the villain. The success of Watchmen (2009) and X-Men: First Class (2011) utilized this Cold War iconography to good effect. Moving beyond those films however, arguably, the superhero genre is effective in reflecting U.S. values in a vastly more complex world.
This framing works because it follows a pattern within the genre. Batman’s 1966 film, inspired by the camp television show, provided audiences with a funhouse mirror to the 1960s psyche. On the surface an escapist farce, yet with a yearning for security at its core. Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) sought to reclaim Americana after a bruising decade of uncertainty. The periodic embrace of Superman and Batman on the big screen highlights the genre’s power. Both characters speak to enduring ideas. Superman, the positive immigrant narrative, appeals our hopes for community. Batman, the cautionary tale of urban life, reminds us of the dangers posed by a lack of that same community. Neither narrative is easily ignored, but the need to engage with those beliefs waxes and wanes with the national mood. Superman’s 75th anniversary reminds us the concerns that informed the Golden Age (c.1938-c.1950) comicbook hero looks and feels different to an American public facing new millennial concerns.
No surprise then that the success of Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) sparked a renaissance for the superhero film. (While Blade did precede X-Men, the former remains rooted in as much horror and supernatural cinema as the superhero experience). The X-Men’s successful transition to film opened the door to plethora of Marvel characters on screen. Spider-Man (2002), Daredevil (2003), Hulk (2003) and the Fantastic Four (2005) all followed that success. The resulting sequels and spin-offs gave Marvel Comics the clout to created their own movie studio.
DC gave birth to the superhero, but Marvel seems to be doing a better job advancing it in this era of cinematic adaptation. Of course the auteurs given control of the properties shape the outcome a great deal. Tim Burton’s Batman films are as different from than Joel Schumacher’s technicolor spectacles as Christopher Nolan’s somber dynamic trilogy. Beyond this fact however, the societal narrative infused within the DC fictive universe differs from Marvel’s narrative. This fact informs the vision created around the characters. In essence, the Silver Age (c.1955s - c.1970) of superhero comicbooks, which was marked by both the evolution of established iconic superheroes and the emergence of conscious engagement with the cultural complexity of 1960s social liberalism, challenged readers to reconcile heroic expectations with broader social justice concerns. Marvel Comics, guided by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, represented this change with heroes that incorporated the challenging politics of that era with the heroic adventure intrinsic to the genre.
Marvel heroes are ideally suited for post 9/11 uncertainties because those characters have always existed in a narrative universe both celebratory and judgmental. The contemporary moment seems to be offering the cinematic superhero film as a means to channel communal desire to overcome contemporary uncertainty in much the same way as the western in the 1950s. Uniquely American in their construction, but recognizable around the world, the superhero film seems to be acting as a millennial guidepost reflecting and refracting internal concerns about a rapidly changing global experience. In this way, the cinematic superhero is serving the same role as the 1930s superhero in print. The heroic tales are far more complex, but the framework continues a pattern of affirmation familiar to the domestic audience. More importantly, these narratives do not generate the same dissension with international audiences since the superhero vs. supervillain clash is fanciful and because of the universality of the heroic message. The summer’s crop of superhero films takes on new meaning in this light.
A Hero’s Quest
By now you know that the plot for Robert Downey Jr.’s third outing as Tony Stark in Iron Man Three features his “brash-but-brilliant” hero against the Mandarin. A jingoistic villain inspired by Cold War uncertainty linked to Asia in the 1960s, the creators have easily re-structured the character as a referent to Osama Bin Laden. Playing on our contemporary anxiety, this enemy, “whose reach knows no bounds” will attack the US with a new weapon. Tony Stark must embark “on a harrowing quest” to punish the bad guys. In this third film Iron Man’s journey becomes a proxy for the US experience over the last decade. With his values and beliefs under pressure, will Tony find the strength to fight his way back? The answer, obviously is yes. This has been the answer for more than 50 years, but the benefit for the audience is the fantastic adventures take the emotional uncertainty of the age of terror and uses it to fuel a giant action adventure. Challenged in every way, Tony Stark must rely on his core beliefs to overcome his enemy. The challenge is as much ideological as physical. Not unlike action films of the 1980s (Rocky and Rambo series in particular), the journey become redemptive for the audience as much as the hero.
The challenge to find meaning is also at the core of Man of Steel. After the lackluster performance of Superman Returns (2006), hopes for another cinematic outing for Superman were low. Yet, this summer we will see the first superhero on the big screen directed by Zack Snyder (and produced by Christopher Nolan). Man of Steel brings us an introspective story. Drawing on the streamlined and modernized origin by Mark Waid and Leinil Yu in Superman: Birthright (2005), the promo material promises a young man on a journey to discover who he is and what he is meant to do. From the beginning, the creators have promised Man of Steel will be action packed. At the same time, they have also provided subtle hints that Clark must choose to be Superman. Caught between an unknown past and an undefined future, Man of Steel return to the immigrant allegory at the core of Superman mythology. The words of both his fathers in the teaser trailers highlight the point:
“You’re not just anyone. One day, you’re gonna have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, is gonna change the world.” -Jonathan Kent
“You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” -Jor-El
These early trailers where followed by a longer version that offered a different vision of Jonathan Kent. While we have always seen Clark’s parents as positive forces helping him to become Superman, Jonathan Kent in the Man of Steel is afraid of what will happen to his son. This film will be a journey for Clark to overcome his father’s fear and his own doubt. While some have argued that this is a rejection of the Superman we know, I disagree. Instead, the effort is to make Superman’s eventually heroism more engaging by giving him a period of soul searching beyond the traditional adolescent angst. Thus, his experience now mirrors this generation’s concern about the future. Clark must take a chance and embrace the dream of something better in the face of an ambiguous world. Snyder has pushed back against early buzz that Man of Steel was “somber” by pointing out Superman is about hope, and in the end, he must be optimistic. Whatever the trials he faces, the journey will lead Clark to be the Superman we know. This is the superhero’s strength and greatest weakness. For all the history attached to superheroes, the contemporary audience may struggle to identify the paragons of virtue. Luckily, the genre has complex roots that can reach viewers turned off by adventure too tinged with the fantastic.
Search For Order
The idea behind the superhero movie, and indeed the western, is so simplistic it is easy to miss—good people battle bad people to make the community safer. The irony in modern society is that such a clear moral directive is easier to believe when attached to super-powered beings. In our hearts however, the concern that society has become too corrupt and that lawful citizens have no place in it resonates. Thus, the return of the Lone Ranger this summer makes perfect sense.
Created in 1933 by Fran Striker as a radio show for WXYZ in Detroit, the Lone Ranger has been a staple of the American popular culture for 80 years. The new film starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer promises a simple, but satisfying cinematic experience. From the promos and trailers, the basic outline of the classic story is in focus: an ambush, a lone survivor, a Native American companion, and quest for justice. These elements have been adapted to every medium and adjusted for each generation since the character’s debut. While some might think that the Lone Ranger was a risk after the lackluster performance of the Green Hornet (2011), the reality is much different. Reclaiming the western locale and cowboy hero, the Lone Ranger is likely to find an eager audience.
There is little in the way of uncertainty about cowboy adventures in the film’s promotion. Instead, we see an embrace of the western form. Bad men are up to no good and the Lone Ranger and Tonto are going to set things right. The fact that the bad men seem to be in positions of authority, thus forcing an honest law man to wear a mask, plays all too well in a country where powerful men have seemingly escaped justice for allegedly illegal acts in recent years. The return of the cowboy, or more precisely the gunfighter cowboy, represents a powerful moral symbolism. As Richard Maxwell Brown explained in his book No Duty to Retreat, gunfighters, “were violent protagonists in the great social, economic, and cultural conflicts that rocked the West in late nineteenth century.”
Brown’s analysis makes a distinction between community oriented or grassroots gunfighters and political or glorious gunfighter. It is the glorious gunfighter that shapes western folklore and live so vividly in the U.S. experience. Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and Billy the Kid represent this type of hero (or villain). Skillful and deadly, these figures were drawn into conflict with political, economic, and social import. They acted as key players in an unfolding drama. The cowboy as moral warrior seeking to stabilize the community remains a powerful trope. Placing a lone warrior at the center of a conflict with wider societal implication emphasizes the importance of individual agency and belief. Not surprisingly, those issues are at the heart of Hugh Jackman’s latest outing as Wolverine.
The Wolverine, based on Wolverine, the iconic 1980s mini-series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, takes arguably the most popular Marvel mutant to Japan for this iconic story. After a less than appealing outing in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) Jackman has teamed with director James Mangold for an adventure that brings together western and samurai cinema. Like the western, Japan’s samurai films mythologize the country’s past. But also like the western, samurai films offer a seemly simplistic action oriented narrative that can easily transform into complex tales of loyalty, tradition, romance, and social commentary.
Jackman’s already-publicized excitement about this film is matched by legion of diehard fans. Everyone recognizes this story possesses elements that showcase why Wolverine is such a fascinating character. It doesn’t hurt that the story has ninjas, sword fights, and femme fatales. Moving beyond those elements, Wolverine must come to terms with the beast within. Violent, driven, and ultimately noble, the Wolverine is a redemptive journey informed by the imagery of two frontier narratives.
Who we are and what we believe (as US citizens) rests at the core of the superhero narrative in print and that tradition continues in this new cinematic explosion. Given that these narratives go beyond the realm of reality, the technological capabilities of modern filmmaking took time fully realize these stories. Now, when done effectively, these adventures continue a supportive dialogue about the US experience both engrossing and empowering. Just as westerns offered framework for Cold War anxiety, the cinematic superhero offers an affirmative narrative in an age of terror. More flexible in form, the cinematic superhero may persist in a way the western could not by using fictive narratives constructed over decades. If so, the impact of superhero escapism make take on new meaning in the years to come.