The Rise of Antiheroes in Modern Superhero Films
The early X-Men movies had some definite angst around their Wolverine-centered films, political allegories, and unflinchingly unforgettable scene that clearly showcases why Magneto became who he is; however, the colorful blasts and powers still keeps this film, in the eyes of most, from being ‘realistic’. Batman Begins was a first look into a new age, and at the time, separated from the sequels that would feed into the darker genre, it probably would have been seen as more positive: Batman series that sought to remove as many ‘fantastical’ elements as possible, relatively easy for a hero with no powers, and tried to emphasize the human characteristics and ingenuity and corruptions of its universe while remaining true to some of the comics’ most defining writers and story ideas (Batman: Year One in particular).
2008 was the year the genre shifted ‘tone’. Most superhero movies since then have been especially defined by that shift, and the real-world perspective on the related matters.
The Antihero We ‘Need’
Leaving aside the lesser known The Incredible Hulk, that year produced two superhero films, one to be a massive hit and acclaimed in its own right and set a precedent for all future superhero movies (The Dark Knight) and the other to bring its company out of the red and set up a massive and continually expanding franchise (Iron Man).
The Dark Knight set up the classical dichotomy known to all Batman fans, in the movie specifically standing for order and chaos respectively: Batman vs. the Joker. Christian Bale’s Batman is almost ‘second fiddle’ in terms of role and audience perception to his archnemesis, Heath Ledger’s Joker, due to the latter’s excellent (and sadly final) performance and a writing team doing all they could to make this character the villain that proved ‘Slaughter is the best medicine’.
In an era following 9/11, the fear that bled from that event rewired all aspects of ordinary lives and changed most ‘official’ perceptions of characters and tactics. The emotional aftermath of fear, anger, and hate installed in the public created a real feeling of vulnerability, a black-and-white mindset, and a desperation for security; these feelings all returned in full force when the audience sat down and watched the plot unfold, a clear picture of Gotham’s terror invoking memories.
With the audience hooked to our seats, thrilled and terrified of what this madman with a permanent smile would do, it would have been easy to agree with Batman when he says about violating every Gotham citizen’s privacy “I’ve got to find this man”. However, in creating the ultimate evil in the Joker, a new idea is created: that nearly any action, no matter how removed from morality, can be excused on the part of the hero in order to eradicate the evil of the villain. The Joker’s mindset of both ultimate brains combined with ultimate chaos is not as likely as the media seems ready to convince people of; with that in mind, how much can the idea of ‘ends justify the means’ be excused?
Iron Man, and all other solo introductory Marvel movies, were defined by the hero in question. Tony Stark, like Bruce Wayne, is a billionaire genius who dons the mantle of a superhero after a tragedy. By seeing first hand the damage his weapons can do, he vows to stop making weapons – and turns himself into both weapon and defense. Interestingly, although the group that abducts him seems closer to the media-popularized Middle Eastern terror groups, they ultimately play second fiddle to the true villain – our middle aged 1% WASP male Obidiah Stane. Though Tony takes it upon himself to play vigilante initially, Nick Fury appears in the end-credit scene, and the ramifications of having a bunch of people in power suits, as well as those people, begin to consolidate.
The Dark Knight Trilogy played out its final film in 2012, The Dark Knight Rises, which received mixed reviews and opinions: some dubbed it too conservative in its morality, owing to Gotham’s social uprising against the wealthy class, with the underdogs portrayed more as the ‘rabble’ and the upperclass as the victims.. Man of Steel, 2013’s take on Superman, and the take that will be used for the new DC Film Universe, was also very divided in its opinions. The choice Superman makes at the end to kill is so contrary to his character that many fans decried this attempted ‘modernization’ as simply taking away the character’s essential traits that make him Superman.
The year 2011 brought a new old day for the X-Men with X-Men: First Class, and 2014 showed us their Days of Future Past. The franchise, to start anew from The Last Stand, brought us back to day one in the series: First Class recreated exactly at its start the beginning Holocaust scene of the first movie; it then delved further into Magneto’s tragic backstory to give further elaboration, motivation, and – as probably intended – audience sympathy. When we see the more privileged (if lonely) lifestyle of young Charles Xavier as a backdrop for his views of mutant-human equality, compared especially with the damage humans throughout the franchise are willing to inflict on mutants, it’s very hard not to sympathize with Magneto and his belief that there can never be peaceful coexistance for mutants and humans.
Days of Future Past, probably one of the best of the franchise’s films, paralleled the 2003 X2: X-Men United (the other great contender) in many ways, the clearest being: humans and their creations are the enemy (for most of the film) and the X-Men team up with Magneto and his crew to stop the humans. Days showed the clear and devastating future that could come from humans oppressing mutants, which seemed to have been the catalyst for – strangely enough – Professor X and Magneto uniting once more.
In the past, the small X-Team try to stop an assassination that could set this future on course with the aid of Magneto – but, again paralleling X-Men United, Magneto has his own plans to ‘save mutantkind’. This repeated demonstration of Magneto’s black-and-white mentality and – as demonstrated when he turns all cameras towards him – flare for drama show that although he comes from a very sympathetic place that gave him good reason for his mindset, his refusal to compromise and determination to use ‘any means’ (even, in both movies, the humans’ means) to ‘save mutants’ do not create a better world, and in fact are just as likely to lead to a similar devastation for mutant and human alike.
Batman v. Superman
Batman v. Superman seems to seek to revitalize the idea that these two characters must be ideologically opposed rather than ‘World’s Finest’; an idea spawned by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, featuring Superman as a tool of ‘the man’ and Batman as maybe not being all there. And fans who decry the optimism that they perceive as foolishness and seeming ‘invulnerability’ of Superman will undoubtedly cheer for Batman to defy every logical rule in the book and beat Superman in the movie.
This opposition is symbolic of what people are being conditioned to believe, or already believe: that this is no longer an era for compromise and belief. It’s an era for darkness both morally and in the lighting cues.
But is that what the audience wants?
Freedom over Fear
Marvel’s 2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier, setting Steve Rogers in a spy thriller in which the government turns against him, was a critical hit. Captain America as a character represents not really what America is, but what America ideally could be. His first movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, was a period film in addition to being a superhero movie. The relevance of several of the topics presented in Winter Soldier almost makes it a period movie for our day and age. S.H.I.E.L.D and Nick Fury talk about ‘the Battle of New York’ (the alien conflict in The Avengers) having changed everything, and the shift in world and government perspectives symbolizes a post-9/11 mindset. Nowhere is this clearer than in the creation of three Helicarriers – flying machines with the potential to “neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen”. “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime?” Steve retorts.
These creations are a clear parallel to America’s usage of drone strikes, and in the end, they must be destroyed to ‘save the world’. In a crucial move, before destroying the means to kill all potential ‘threats’ to the villains – villains embedded inside the government – Steve announces the truth to all who work inside S.H.I.E.L.D’s building in question. “The price of freedom is high…but it’s a price I’m willing to pay.” This choice makes a very dramatic contrast to The Dark Knight and Batman’s choice to invade everyone’s privacy; Batman doubted the faith of the many, and his sequel turned many ordinary citizens into a mob. Captain America trusted the people, and we saw many of them willing to side with him. “Captain’s orders”, after all.
The Winter Soldier was interesting, and acclaimed, partially for this returning concept: that freedom should never be sacrificed for security.
Holding Out For A Hero
The train of superhero or comic-influenced films shows no signs of slowing down, whatever direction it may be going. There’s definitely a place for superpowers as well as no powers, period superhero movies as well as modern ones; the question is, can we trust our heroes?
In The Dark Knight, one scene set in a restaurant discusses a tangent line of thought, with Bruce Wayne (Batman) siding with his ballet date and against himself as he asks “Who elected the Batman?”
“We did.” Harvey Dent, current Gotham District Attorney and future supervillain responds. “All of us who let scum like Maroni take over our city.” When the matter of democracy is posed, his response is to turn to the history books “When their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor, it was considered a public service.”
His date, and Bruce’s love interest, points out that the last man elected – a man named Caesar – never gave up his power. “Okay, fine. You either die a hero,” the future Two-Face concedes, “or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
There’s a long line of ‘he who fights monsters’ mentality here, and in the film the audience watches Bruce Wayne, card-carrying member of the Caucasian 1%, decide what’s best for everyone to know and invade everyone’s privacy – even if the means to do the latter are destroyed at the end. With all that considered, his ‘moral’ standard of not killing – even the Joker – seems almost hypocritical, and that standard and decision are held without any balances to restrain him.
For a good question, used in another popular superhero comic and film: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
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