Despite the dismal year in film, the box office for Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol has benefits from The Dark Knight Rises (DKR). While “Ghost Protocol” has invigorated a sixteenth year old film franchise, there is no doubt the buzz linked to DKR prologue and trailer helps to explain some of the film’s box-office success. Unexpected to some, the story alluded to in the DKR trailer offers a subtext beyond comic book escapism that provides perspective on the superhero’s enduring appeal. For some critics and fans, Nolan’s final installment to his Batman trilogy offers a commentary on rising tension between the haves and the have nots. Long a symbol of our dark urban past, the Gotham City glimpsed in the DKR trailer is seemly overcome by the brutal savagery of Bane (played by Tom Hardy). While superheroes stories are casted as escapist, they can also serve as an intriguing commentary on our society. The assertion that the superhero offers “only” fantasy ignores the symbolic power associated with the United State’s unique contribution to graphic literature.
It’s worthwhile to step back and consider the allusion to political commentary linked to superheroes. While real political debate rarely directly spills onto the comic page, the gist of the political environment does, and often with startling results. Whether pro-war sentiment associated with Captain America’s first appearance punching Adolf Hitler or a flurry of President Obama appearances, comics are not divorced from the political climate. Superhero comics and society interpenetrate contextualizing values, delineating beliefs, and highlighting concerns associated with political debates. Thus, feminist critiques elicit change in the status and action of female characters and concern about racial equity trigger the introduction of diverse characters. While we can argue about the quality of these changes, the fact of these shifts is inescapable. Indeed, in an era of excess rhetoric, an analysis of the historical and cultural consistency in the superhero genre offers insights into the broader society. Uniquely linked to the United States’ social, political, and economic circumstances, superhero comics present a continuously updated narrative of the U.S. experience shaping and being shaped by Americans’ view of themselves and the world.
In a world redefined by the threat of terrorist action, both Marvel and DC Comics have provided stories that heighten the drama and put the spotlight on the iconic worth associated heroic deeds. In a post Cold War global community facing terrorist threats, heroism and villainy have added meaning forcing superhero stories in print and in film re-focus their attention on defining heroic action. Incorporating the morally challenging circumstances of a “war on terror” and asking what heroes represent, superhero stories in every media have focus attention on the meaning of community protection, individual responsibility, and moral ambiguity. This mandate, whether conscious or unconscious, has driven creator toward a more synergistic storytelling style that adds to the impact of superhero adventures. Superheroes are not just physically challenged; their code is suspect and their actions under scrutiny.
Adding to the complexity of the new moral landscape, the U.S. is experience the deepest economic downturn in decades. With external threats combined with domestic injustice, its no surprise that superheroes have gotten so much attention in the media. Indeed, the recent re-launch of DC Comics with its The New 52 on serves to highlight how the core concepts related to superhero characters can be applied to contemporary concerns. In this new atmosphere, superheroes in print and film offer a complex narrative on values, ideals, and beliefs linked to the United States. Indeed, the anticipation surrounding DKR and Superman: Man of Steel is understandable. Superman and Batman have always served as mirrors to the U.S. experience. Superman and Metropolis offer a bright urban future where the immigrant roots of every Americans are seamless woven into a glorious bright future. Batman and Gotham however, offer a commentary on the dangers of rapid urbanization and societal excesses that can corrupt the community.
By bringing these characters to screens large and small, creators can connect to an ageless tension between the urban future and rural past. In both cases, a redemptive message, unconscious and unspoken, links the superhero’s journey to societal constancy, economic success, and political coherence. Superman preserves a society by following the tenets of his rural midwestern upbringing. Batman in contrast, acts as a one-man vigilance committee asserting a civilizing agenda to an urban environment weaken by wickedness. Bruce Wayne’s personal tragedy provide justification for his action but, his identity-the son of an elite family-provides the means that exceeds the ability of similar victims of urban violence. It is Bruce Wayne’s birthright, as a wealthy steward to Gotham that reinforces his crime fighting actions. Unlike other members of his class content to support philanthropic efforts, he punishes those that trespass against the community. Nolan’s brilliant turn is to point out the obvious, in his campaign against crime; Bruce Wayne affirms the privilege and insures the safety of his own class and their control of the city.
Should we dismiss the Batman’s campaign as self-serving violence against the poor? No, indeed the villains in Batman comic book stories represent the myriad psychosis, theorists first feared would affect urban dwellers or the problem of “organized” crime linked to individual embrace of evil, more so than the poor driven to criminal action. Regardless, in its gritty realism, Christopher Nolan’s cinematic Batman captures the struggle between corruption and virtue that has always been represented by the character. This is the core of story in Batman Begins and it serves as the key factor in The Dark Knight. Gotham’s health and safety rest at the center of the narrative. Bruce Wayne’s pledge to save Gotham is not just a pledge to save the city from crime, but to save the country from corruption. Nolan’s visual approach to the Batman films emphasizes this point. His use of IMAX makes the action larger than life and heightens the threat looming over our collective experience. How will the story end? It impossible to say, but at some level it is not important. Speculation that Nolan might kill Bruce Wayne to end the trilogy misses the point. Batman’s struggles against evil represent our collective aspirations for our cities.