Flying from my home in Europe to my native United States to help care for my injured mother, I decided to get in touch once again with my distant youth, when I was a heavy consumer of super-hero comic books. I knew from experience that I would be chagrined and occasionally horrified by the modern-day cinematic versions of Superman, Batman and other heroes whose exploits I followed with such devotion in the 1950s and 1960s.
But there is some kind of strange fascination that keeps me coming back to them to see how they have evolved, and on each of my occasional flights these days there are new super-hero films which have been released since my last flight. I can see them then for the cost of the flight, which I have to pay anyway. I’d never pay to see them in a movie theater. They’re mostly pretty bad and generally by the end of the first half hour I’m feeling like an idiot for watching yet again. But these characters were such a major part of my consciousness as a boy that, to this day, I have a recurring dream about finding new and eagerly awaited comics on the rack at the Tennessee drug stores and markets where I used to buy them.
I was a DC fan. Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and The Atom were among my favorites. Occasionally I would read Marvel comics too – Spiderman, Thor, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man – but my friends and I considered them inferior. A Marvel comic book tended to be one long fight from beginning to end, whereas the DC comic stories of that era often involved elements of science-fiction and fantasy that made them far more interesting to us. The artwork was often better as well. Artists such as Murphy Anderson, Wayne Boring, Gil Kane and others drew comic art that I still find impressive. However: these days the Marvel films are far better made, and far truer to the original comics which inspired them, than the DC films.
As an adult in my 60s on the socialist left, an atheist and expatriate who long ago rejected most of the conventional wisdom I was taught in school and church and by my FBI agent father and others in America, I find a strange irony and much underlying political content with which to be amazed in these tales of humans with god-like powers, which used to so enthrall me those many years ago. These films represent some of the most popular and successful entertainment in the modern world. They tell us a whole lot about the Hollywood film culture that produces them and the many millions of Americans (among others) who cannot get enough of them. Long ago, these modern mythological figures and these simplistic representations of good and evil broke out of their commercial ghetto as a disapproved pastime for young boys, and hit the big-time.
A number of aspects of the new crop of films reminds me of those old comic books, although there are modern twists.
Many of the villains seem to be Russian or Eastern European. (I notice the same thing in Germany when I occasionally watch a “krimi” or murder mystery there, produced by the major television networks, which were once part of a German literary and film genre of quite high quality featuring – always — heroic plainclothes police officers. Russian gangster villains, murderous Russians, are now the rule, often associated with sex slavery or human trafficking.) Terrorism is a big theme in the new movie comics, many of the terrorists are recognizably Middle Eastern or Asian, and they are brutal and sadistic beyond belief. Americans are either victims or they are heroic military personnel or super-heroes, fighting courageously against tremendous odds to defeat this thoroughly foreign evil. All of these super-heroes are American, including Superman who – although an extraterrestrial – has chosen America and its people as his home and his protected population. These heroes appear to rarely leave the United States unless it is to fight terrorists, who may inhabit some barren desert or frozen wasteland overseas. Other non-Americans rarely register on America’s radar. Perhaps they are not as threatened by incomprehensible evil as are Americans.
The amount of violence in these films is incredible. There are assaults, attacks, assassinations, explosions, violent and horrifying car chases, hostage-takings and torture, helicopter crashes, collapsing buildings and fires, and more. But rather than affecting helpless populations in the third world, the Middle East or Africa or Asia, scenarios which might bear a bit more resemblance to current events, this violence is mostly confined to the largest cities of the United States. And hard-pressed DC heroes now fight almost non-stop like the Marvel heroes.
Recently the collateral deaths of innocent civilians as a result of these terrible battles, carried out by superhumans who are not subject to government orders, have become a sub-plot in some of the super-hero films. The heroes are sometimes attacked by the public as vigilantes who cannot be trusted and who do almost as much harm as good. This is a modern twist, as is the outright murder of some villains by the heroes. To the best of my recollection this never occurred in the comics of my youth. The general upshot appears to be that this collateral killing is regrettable, but the alternative would be even worse, as the monstrous terrorists and criminals would take over the planet without the intervention of the well-meaning super-heroes.
Batman has evolved into a true renegade, who now tortures vicious criminals by taking them captive and burning a bat-brand into their flesh. Even Superman (before his recent untimely death) disapproved and called him on the carpet for it. For decades in the comic books, Superman and Batman were best friends who often worked together. In this time of transformation and confrontation, in the movies, they became bitter enemies who tried to kill each other, reflecting the old Marvel model in which the heroes fought among themselves fairly often. But the cinematic Batman long ago ceased to bear much resemblance to the shadowy acrobatic detective created by Bob Kane in 1940. Batman’s technological development on film has now made him into a sort of one-man army, flying futuristic death machines and sometimes wearing high-tech armor which together render him a semi-robot. His creator Kane would not recognize the current Batmobile, a deadly combat vehicle capable of destroying anything in its path. This new figure, bent on extreme violence and punishment, was apparently considered too R-rated and destructive to be trusted around young people, and his former sidekick and adopted son Dick Grayson alias Robin, who fought zany super-criminals with the Batman for decades as his costumed partner, has simply been written out of the modern narrative.
As with British Secret Service agent James Bond in the Hollywood version of the UK, whose enemies continue to be, uniformly, foreigners with odd accents and sadistic instincts perpetrating a kind of terrorism very different from the sort the British Empire brought to many parts of its far-flung colonial possessions, the motives of the American CIA in such films are beyond reproach. These cinematic CIA agents do not organize or finance terrorism, nor do they overthrow democratically-elected foreign governments to further the hegemonic aspirations of American neocons. Rather, they protect innocent Americans from evil. They are often beautiful and noble women. One might almost suspect that the CIA has some kind of direct involvement in the production of such fictional portrayals of American virtue … ah, but there I go slipping into paranoid conspiracy theory again. Media reports asserting such Hollywood-CIA cooperation must certainly be Fake News. Such media manipulation by the CIA would betray a cynical belief on the part of our government that many Americans are ignorant enough of the true geopolitical situation, and easily enough influenced by shallow Hollywood pulp entertainment, to base their view of the world and their political sympathies and voting patterns upon video caricatures no more sophisticated than a comic book conceived and written for children.
On the contrary: we know that, as politicians regularly assure us in pious speeches, we are in fact wise and savvy citizens who cannot be fooled by such deception and chicanery, which is why we have had the foresight and good judgment to put those same politicians in charge of shaping the future of this planet. No amount of Fake News can pull the wool over our eyes. Still, it might be more prudent to begin censoring the internet and filtering out these disturbing narratives which challenge and call into question our goodness, our innocence and our special status in the world. For some reason a surprisingly large number of people around the world are beginning to find news analysis in broadcasts on networks such as RT more persuasive than the assertions of the CIA and the American government. If that isn’t proof that Russians are evil and are a danger to world peace, then I never saw it. It could be that many of these Russian dupes prefer the evidence of their own senses to the moral lessons sold under the auspices of America’s comic book icons. That would be a most insidious trend which could seriously undermine world stability, as maintained by the American military presence and vast arms sales around the world, and our interventions in the Middle East, Africa and Asia to fight terrorism. Then the vast outpouring of refugees into Europe from — in a strange coincidence! — the exact countries where we have been so successful in controlling terrorism, might even get worse. That could cause the European Union and NATO to be considered impotent, inept and obsolete, and since Europe has no super-heroes of its own, it might prove difficult to prevent even more destabilization. China might then be encouraged to think it is a major world power with just as much right to influence world events as the United States, and not only because the two countries’ economies are now joined at the hip.
Things could get seriously out of control.