Sobering realism is not a combination of words you would normally use to describe superhero movies, yet this is the direction Hollywood seems to be aiming for
There is a sequence in the movie, Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which the man of steel himself is called upon for a congressional hearing, as Holly Hunter’s fiery senator condems his tendency to act unilaterally without government authorisation. Releasing hot on the heels of Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War will see the pantheon of Marvel’s superheroes imploding in disagreement over the idea of a Superhero Registration Act, which would keep their power and authority in check through government regulation.
Whilst the majority of superhero movies, not to mention plenty of their respective comics, have previously glorified their characters’ powers without any regards for accountability, the fear and pessimism that surrounds the politics of the twenty-first century has finally caught up with Hollywood. As a result, superhero films are starting to make a surprisingly expressive statement; unaccountable power is an issue, and even superheroes aren’t free from such ethics.
Of course, it’s not as if the superhero genre hasn’t ever tackled this concept before — the very motto of Spiderman is, of course, ‘With great power, comes great responsibility’ — but never has it felt so explicitly political. In fact, previous movies have been almost offensively unaware of the way in which they guilelessly celebrate their heroes regardless of the collateral damage they may have caused in the process.
Consider 2013’s Man Of Steel, for example, also directed by Dawn of Justice’s Zack Snyder. In the final act of the movie, Superman and antagonist General Zod fight one another in Metropolis, destroying practically half the city in the process. The critical backlash to this part of the film was incredible, with some going so far as to suggest the entire sequence marks Superman as responsible for genocide. You see, whilst Man of Steel showed the consequences of unaccountable power, it never made the next step towards responsibly addressing it. In fact, we are left to assume that Superman was actually considered a hero for his actions that day. In one of the most tasteless scenes of recent cinematic history, Clark Kent embraces love interest Lois Lane and begins to romantically smooch her amidst the debris of a corpse-ridden Metropolis.
Dawn of Justice is Snyder’s way of openly responding to these critiques, as Superman is now portrayed as a war criminal, with Henry Cavill spending the entire movie looking like a soulless demi-God, with little regard for the ethical debates surrounding his existence. The movie isn’t just influenced by audience reception however; Ben Affleck’s raging, paranoid Batman is representative of the political attitudes that now pepper the social conscience of the West. At one point in the movie, an angry Bruce Wayne asserts that ‘if we believe there’s even a one per cent chance that [Superman] is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty’. This kind of language is reminiscent of the rhetoric you might see coming from politicians across Europe and North America, whose doom-ridden portents align perfectly with their audience’s bleak perception of today’s international landscape. Russia is acting increasingly chauvinistically, North Korea continues to test its missile technology, the Islamic State shows no signs of being contained, immigration is considered an international crisis, and Bashar al-Assad remains in power in Syria. Like Bruce Wayne’s concerns over Superman, we are scared, wary and visibly angry over these unpredictable threats to stability.
Though Civil War is yet to release, we have already been given a taste of Marvel’s political commentary with the previous Captain America film, The Winter Soldier. That movie turned its ire closer to home, with a narrative focused on the dangers of government data collection and the balance between national security and private freedom. This debate is expected to be escalated in Civil War, as Captain American and Iron Man lead two teams of heroes who war against each other over the prospect of superheroes being brought under government regulation. The film is based on the popular comic series of 2007, but it’ll be interesting to see how Marvel adapt the literature to touch on more current real-world issues.
What is made clear from the trailers, however, is that neither side is portrayed as wholly right or wrong in their cause. Steve Rogers’ team believe they are fighting for freedom against government overreach, but Tony Stark and company consider regulation as a means to preventing the civilian casualties that have been caused by their actions in the past. These heroes, despite their altruism and idolized status, are finally having to confront — in the words of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor — ‘the oldest lie in America. […] That power can be innocent’.
Superheroes have never been portrayed as perfect, but today’s cinematic interpretations are starting to reveal these characters as victims and instigators of the unstable political climate of the twenty-first century. Some have criticized Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as too bleak and depressing for a movie which is supposed to be popcorn entertainment; the reality is that this movie, and perhaps the future of the superhero genre itself, is a product of the world we now live in.