The Post-Ideological Hero: Comic Books Go to Hollywood

Extended Director’s Cut by Doug Mann, 2008


1. The Wall Falls and the Post-Ideological Hero Emerges


Films starring comic book heroes have been big box office at least since Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, which appeared the same year the Berlin Wall fell, heralding the end of the Soviet Empire and thus the Cold War. Since the turn of the millennium there has been a steady stream of blockbusters based on comic books, from X-Men of 2000 to The Dark Knight in 2008, with yet more in the wings. Most of them star Marvel Comics characters. An obvious question emerges: even though comic book superheros have been around since Superman’s first appearance in 1938, and have appeared in animation and movie serials since the 1940s, why did it take until the 1990s for them to appear in serious cinematic narratives? And now that Hollywood has introduced the comic book hero into live-action films, why have these films become so popular within a relatively short span of time?[1]


One curious thing about this new brand of comic book hero, making him ideally suited to our own period of history, is his post-ideological nature. He no longer fights grand ideological struggles against America’s fascist or communist enemies, as did previous generations of cinematic heroes.[2] Nor does he fight political corruption or social enemies on the home front, as did Superman in his early days, before the entry of America into the Second World War. Yet he is more grandly heroic than the protagonists of cop and crime films, who tend to battle criminals motivated purely by greed. The cinematic comic book hero instead shows us a postmodern simulated heroism where he combats megalomaniacal villains motivated by twisted schemes to grab power, yet without any real world ideological agenda. The post-ideological villain, like the post-ideological hero, isn’t a symbol of any clear real world political stance. Both hero and villain occupy a cultural landscape where if history hasn’t exactly ended, it has certainly paused for a while, one where daily reports of the coming of Hegel’s Absolute Spirit are heard on CNN (figuratively speaking, of course).


So why the hero at all, whether ideological or not? Joseph Campbell has convincingly shown us in The Hero with a Thousand Faces how hundreds of ancient myths and epic tales feature the same monomythic hero on the same three-stage seventeen-part journey. From Odysseus to Luke Skywalker, the classical hero gets a message, leaves home, enters the belly of the whale, fights many battles, then returns home with a fabulous prize. Jewett and Lawrence later showed us how the heroes of American popular culture repeat over and over again their own tightly structured adventure. So heroes are everywhere, from ancient Sumerian myth and classical literature to modern cinema and professional sports. Why? Heroes are projections of the hopes and fears of the cultures which create and worship them. They express a desire for power over the self and others, the hope for a saviour to protect us against dangerous enemies. Little boys don’t dress up as bureaucrats on Halloween, with mini-briefcases and rubber stamps in their hands: they become Superman, Batman or Spider-Man. One needs no ghost of Nietzsche coming from the grave to tell us that heroes are avatars of personal power and of social salvation. They are Hector and Achilles, Boudicca and Arthur, Luke and Han, dark knights and supermen. They save us, or inspire us to save ourselves.


When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby re-booted Marvel Comics with a new stable of superheros in the early 1960s, thus inaugurating the Silver Age of comics, they created a series of characters who by and large avoided the burning political issues of the day. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Daredevil, and the Hulk rarely addressed such issues as the civil rights and anti-war movements, the war in Vietnam, or the Cold War in general. Iron Man was an exception to the rule, with his alter ego Tony Stark cast as a pro-Cold War arms manufacturer who in his superego guise from time to time battled the Soviet super-villain the Crimson Dynamo.  Thor visited Vietnam to fight the communists once, in Journey into Mystery #117 (June 1965), and never returned. Even Captain America spent most of the 1960s fighting either a re-animated Red Skull (a Nazi agent), Hyrda (a gang of international criminals), or standard costumed super-villains. Lee walked a tightrope in the Silver Age between a conservative Comics Code and a generations of adults who still didn’t quite trust comics as healthy reading material for their children on the one side and a mass of young readers who became more and more sympathetic to the counter-culture and its anti-establishment goals over the course of the 1960s on the other. In this sense Lee and the other writers at Marvel Comics were experimenting with a “post-ideological” position in their work as early as 1963, the year Spider-Man was born. This highwire act worked for the bulk of the 1960s, propelling Marvel Comics to a position of market dominance. Yet it would take thirty years after the end of the Silver Age before Hollywood would be able to create popular live action films based on the largely non-ideological heroes of the Marvel universe.[3]


Part of this absence of serious comics-based films is connected to the limitations of special effects until well into the 1980s: after all, even George Lucas’s cutting edge Star Wars (1977) relied almost entirely on hand-crafted models and rear-screen projection for its dramatic space battle sequences. Yet on a deeper level it can be explained by the political-cultural landscape of the entire postwar period until 1989: cinematic heroes like Luke Skywalker and Rambo did have ideological causes to fight for, and audiences expected to see them fighting these battles. The fact that Rambo III (1988) finds Sylvester Stallone’s hero in Afghanistan was a signpost of things to come, as the center of global conflict shifted from Western Europe and East Asia to the Middle East in the 1990s. This new conflict was more about culture, religion and oil than competing political philosophies, despite George Bush’s post hoc protestations that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was really about the removal of a dangerous dictator and the creation of democracy in the Middle East. This new political landscape called for a hero who fought simulated enemies without real world referents, for a virtual heroism.


            These comic book films are not only post-ideological, but also postmodern in a number of key ways:


$  (1) They are a case of a hyperreal media culture where images precede reality, of what Jean Baudrillard called the Third Order of the Simulacrum;


$ (2) They symbolize the breakdown of high cinematic art (if this ever existed!) and its mixture with what was once considered a very low brow medium, comics;


$ (3) They show us an aesthetic where style can all too often triumph over substance - after all, the heros and villains of comic books are fantastic beings wearing colourful uniforms showing us a division between good and evil that is usually quite Manichean;


$ (4) They involve the uniquely postmodern impulses of pastiche and recycling, in this case the recycling of comic-book narratives in cinematic form,


$ (5) And in keeping with their post-ideological nature, they symbolize Lyotard’s very definition of the postmodern condition, our incredulity toward meta-narratives.[4]


The coincidence of post-ideological politics and postmodern culture is by no means accidental: after all, in an age where capitalist democracies reign supreme, alternate political meta-narratives can’t be taken seriously. Our incredulity toward them in the Western world is connected in part to their lack of global power. A possible threat to capitalist democracy comes from Islamic fundamentalism, whose terrorist arm has certainly caused much death and destruction throughout the world of late. Yet the danger of a Islamic terrorism is hardly existential (i.e. as long as they don’t have nuclear weapons), while the appeal of the sort of Moslem theocracies that Al Quaeda and the Taliban seek to establish is almost zero in the West. No propaganda war is needed to defeat the vague political ideology of Islamic fundamentalism in the West, while such propaganda campaign is almost pointless in Palestine, Iraq or Iran, where America is for many the Great Satan.


Liberal Hollywood seems to recognize the ethnic and cultural nature of Islamic fundamentalism. Due to politically correct fears about alienating Arabs, Persians and other Moslem nations, Hollywood has avoided ethnic stereotyping of villains in films about terrorism to the point where realism is thrown out the door (unlike American action films from the 1940s to the 1970s, which had no problem stereotyping Germans or Russians as monomaniacal ideological enemies). A classic case of such a refusal to replace Germans and Russians with Arabs as the villains du jour can be seen in Phil Alden Robinson’s 2002 film The Sum of All Fears, based on Tom Clancy’s thriller about a group of Al Quaeda terrorists who find an Israeli nuclear bomb, transport it to the US, then detonate it. In a bizarre case of bad writing, Clancy’s Moslem terrorists become a German-Russian secret cabal of powerful business and political leaders seeking to foment a nuclear war between Russia and America, in the wake of which a Fourth Reich of fascist regimes will take power in the West. They do manage to blow up Baltimore, though Ben Affleck’s CIA analyst Tom Ryan later uncovers their plot and defeats these New Age Nazis. Despite all the rhetoric coming from the Bush administration about global terrorism after 9/11, Hollywood has devoted comparatively little screen time to the War on Terror. The Green Goblin and Magneto, not Osama bin Laden, drew crowds to North American multiplexes in the years immediately following the biggest terrorist attack ever on US soil.


If asked “when it all changed” and the post-ideological world-view replaced the ideological struggle of the Cold War, we can point to the period 1988-1991. A cinematic metaphor comes immediately to mind: John McTiernans’ 1988 film Die Hard, wherein Bruce Willis’s hard-as-nails New York cop John McClane defeats a gang of German terrorists who have taken over an office building, incidentally kidnapping his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). On the surface a routine Hollywood actioner, we are lead at first to believe by the list of demands the terrorists present that they are ideologically motivated and thus are stand-ins for America’s communist enemies (despite being German and thus echoing in the popular imagination everyone’s favourite movie villains, the Nazis). Later, however, their leader Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman, as delightfully evil as ever) reveals they’re really after $640,000,000 in bearer bonds being stored in the building: they are nothing more than aggressive venture capitalists! We can take Die Hard as a metaphor for the end of communism as a global threat to American interests and the dawning of an age of ruthless globalized capitalism led politically by the USA. Even the title of the film is appropriate: the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and many of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe did, indeed, “die hard.” After 1989 America’s enemies were no longer motivated by political ideas, but by varying combinations of money, religion and cultural fears.


This essay will offer an overview of the history of the use of comic book heroes in film and to a lesser degree television to chart the emergence of the post-ideological hero, showing how he came out of the unique political and culture landscape in the West after 1989.


2. Other Theories about Comic Book Films


Although hundreds of reviews of the second wave of superhero blockbuster films have been published since 2000, there is precious little scholarly reflection on the general cultural meaning of these blockbusters. One thing is clear from the most cursory glance at these reviews: major studios such as Fox, Columbia and Warner Brothers continue to produce these spandex-and-leather epics because they make piles of money. This should surprise no one given the painfully obvious fact that we live in a capitalist economy. Yet that leaves open the basic question: why the comic book film, and not something else? A second level of explanation coming out of a scan of film reviews is that the studios have started to run dry of original snory-telling, yet have of late discovered a vast reservoir of new stories in the comics, so like all good miners have started to dig and dynamite this rich narrative vein. Yet this doesn’t answer the question from the point of view of the audience: why do they attend such films in droves? After all, the most popular monthly comic book today sells only around 150,000 copies, so the vast majority of those attending comic book films are not avid comics fans (see Rae and Gray 56). A footnote to all of this is the fact that CGI effects today are greatly superior to those of ten or twenty year ago, so it’s now possible to create effective images of superhero battles. Yet the “why should we attend?” question remains.


Three general types of explanation for the popularity of comic book blockbusters come out of the literature - though only the first explanation specifically addresses the post-2000 films as a collective phenomenon. First comes the “marketing” theory put forward by McAllister, Gordon and Jancovich (2006). They argue that comic art has been adapted to two very different types of films: the “popcorn” blockbuster superhero film, with big budgets, big stars, big distribution and big profits; and “art house” film adaptations of graphic novels such as V for Vendetta, American Splendour and Sin City. Concentrating on the first type, they find media mega-corporations such as Time Warner making these blockbusters, financed by conservative and cautious financial institutions, powered by the “synergy” of tie-ins to fast food restaurants promotions, product placement, spinoff toys and multi-media such as video games. Of course, if you spend $200 million on such a blockbuster, you better make sure that you sell a lot of tickets, so the popcorn blockbusters emphasize special effects, big explosions, and even bigger stars, while avoiding character development and complex plots. The causal element in McAllister, Gordon and Jancovich’s explanation of the popularity of the blockbuster goes back to Adorno’s cultural pessimism, with his view that the average Hollywood film is aimed at 11 year olds. They suggest that the popcorn blockbuster is successful precisely because it appeals both to a youthful movie-going demographic while at the same time appealing to the inner children of middle-aged audiences nostalgic for their youths. They offer “thrills and well-defined archetype characters, especially heroes who also have well-established track records for popularity, licensing, and sequel potential” (110). In other words, popcorn blockbusters based on comic books are mass produced by a cultural industry intent only on making a profit by exploiting a somewhat simple-minded public’s desire to be entertained. 


Yet the “marketing” explanation is dubious as best: for one thing, it hardly explains the move away from historical blockbusters (think of Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia) that dominated American screens in the 1950s and 1960s, nor why comics-based films have more recently outpaced science-fiction blockbusters such as Independence Day. Certainly blockbusters have always been popular, though they sometimes crash and burn as  (think of Heaven’s Gate and Godzilla). Yet why have a combination of comic book movies and fantasy films such as Harry Potter, Pirates of the Carribean and The Lord of the Rings run up such big box office over the last decade?[5] Further, are the characters and plots of these blockbusters always simplistic? Sometimes yes; though the two most successful comic-book blockbusters of 2008, Iron Man and The Dark Knight, feature both strong character development and complex plots, especially the latter. In the end the “marketing” explanation is for the most part a “shell” hypothesis, tautologically reminding us of something we already know: that a lot of people like big-budgeted comic book films.


Second comes a number of “spiritual” explanations. Niall Richardson (2004: 695) sees Spider-Man (2002) as a Christian parable where Peter Parker must atone for this sinful flesh for lusting after Mary Jane and accidentally letting his Uncle Ben die by converting his general sense of shame into an expiable guilt. The Green Goblin stands in for the devil, quoting scripture, tempting Spidey with power and trying to force him to make the grim choice between saving a trolley car of children or an imperilled Mary Jane (he manages to do both). Admittedly, Richardson makes no claim that his “Christian parable” interpretation applies to all superhero films. This is a good thing, for it most certainly does not. Daredevil fits into this Christian mould, and to a degree the various Superman films, especially Superman Returns. Yet Tony Stark AKA Iron Man is no self-flagellating Christian, and while both the Fantastic Four and the X-Men show us a variety of moral-religious personae in their team members. And Batman is motivated by that most unchristian of motives, revenge.


A related “spiritual” explanation is the much more comprehensive position on American popular culture in general found in Jewett and Lawrence’s The American Monomyth (1973). Their view is that deeply embedded in American popular culture is a monomyth at odds with the classical monomyth explored by Joseph Campbell. This American version tells the following story:


A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil: normal institutions fail to contend with this threat: a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out a redemptive task: aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisical condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity. (Jewett and Lawrence xx)


They go on to argue that the supersaviors of the American monomyth act as substitute Christ figures with divine, redemptive powers in a culture where belief in the actual Jesus Christ has been eroded by scientific rationalism. They offer American culture a “mythic massage,” relaxing it sufficiently to believe that extra-democratic heros will save the day in times of crisis should they be needed (xx).


Superhero films do administer a mythic massage, though not especially the pseudo-Christian one hinted at by Jewett and Lawrence. Some of the superhero stories fit the American monomyth quite well, notably the one they focus on, Superman. Yet other key superhero narratives are either ambiguous cases of the American monomyth at best (e.g. the X-Men) or simply don’t fit it at all (the Hulk, Iron Man, Batman). The fact that in the last scene of Iron Man (2008) Tony Stark starkly proclaims, “I am Iron Man!” gives away the monomythic game: he’s out of the secret identity closet, and can’t get back in. As I write this Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) has just broken first-weekend box office records across North America. It’s a grim tale of psychosis and revenge, with Batman and the Joker at its center, hardly the story of a self-denying hero who returns Gotham City to a “paradisical condition.” As Tim Burton’s 1989 film already makes clear, Batman is no latter-day Christ: he’s much more Old Testament, a dark knight ridding the city of psychotic criminals.


A third explanation for the popularity of comic-book films of a sociological nature comes indirectly from Matthew Wolf-Meyer’s analysis of the hostility to utopian narratives amongst comics fans. Wolf-Meyer (511) argues that comic book readers are a conservative lot who ironically cherish their “subcultural position of difference” within consumer capitalism: they are against its hegemony, yet sure enjoy the comics it provides them with, even if that system creates social injustice. As a result, they favour their superheroes fighting an endless array of super-villains rather than changing society for the better and thus ending their own monthly usefulness.[6] Comics fans know the majority don’t understand them, and that’s the way they like it. Stories about utopia achieved are out of the question:


...if the discourse were to alter significantly to allow such things as utopian narratives then fandom, and its position of difference, would collapse, eradicating difference and solidifying comic book fans as typical citizens within hegemonic capitalism, deprived of their discourse and their difference, maintaining only their conservative ideology, trivialized and commodified within the constraints of hegemony... Hence, comic book fans trade “utopian” narratives for the utopia of a subculture standing against hegemonic capitalism. (513-514)


Wolf-Meyer’s theory does seem to explain why comic book fans accept the conservative status quo in the alternative universes where their superheroes live - though a simple economic explanation, that comic book publishers want to keep publishing their most popular superhero titles so they avoid creating utopian “end of history” scenarios, would suffice. One could try to apply his theory to comic book films. Yet there’s no indication that the majority of non-comic book reading audience members at superhero films, probably 80-90% of the audience - judging by monthly comics sales - are anti-capitalist rebels, or members of any subculture at all. In addition, most superhero films take place outside of the decades-long continuities of the main DC and Marvel characters: they start over from the beginning (e.g. Batman, Spider-Man, The X-Men), and feel free to kill off secondary characters and villains for dramatic effect (e.g. the Joker, the Green Goblin, Harvey Dent). So these films are partly free from the seriality and endless repetitions that many comics fans at least tolerate, if not treasure. Within a single “reboot” (e.g. the four Batman films between 1989 and 1997 or the Spider-Man trilogy of 2002-2007) utopia can be achieved - though admittedly rarely is - without either disrupting any cinematic “continuity” or alienating mainstream popcorn movie fans.


In the end, all the meta-theories that seek to explain either directly or indirectly the post-1989 popularity of superhero blockbusters are either tautological or partial theories, missing key elements or overlooking key films. Let’s now return to comic books’ Golden Age and review the history of the interaction between the print and cinematic versions of the superhero to see how the post-ideological simulacral hero has emerged.


3. The DC Superheros: Superman and Batman


The most famous superhero is probably DC Comics’ Superman, who made his first appearance in Action Comics in 1938, getting his own book a year later. The Man of Steel, a refugee of the planet Krypton, is almost invincible: he can only be defeated by the element kryptonite, a fragment of his home world. He can fly, lift huge weights, deflect bullets from his chest, and jump tall buildings with a single bound. He is the all-American hero.


Superman crossed over from the comic book page to film and television soon after his first appearance in 1938 in Action Comics, and has had an almost continuous existence outside these pages. George Reeves starred as Superman in Adventures of Superman, a TV series based on the comic-book character broadcast from 1952-1957. Several other series concerning Superman have aired, including Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997), which made Teri Hatcher a minor celebrity for playing the role of Lois Lane, and Smallville, on the air since 2001, about the young Clark Kent. The characters on this show take themselves rather seriously - it’s part superhero story, part teen drama. There have also been a number of cartoon versions going back to the package of seventeen shorts created by Max and Dave Fleischer for Paramount in 1941. The definitive movie versions of the Superman story are the four films starring Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. They appeared in 1978, 1980, 1983, 1987, and were as big an element of 80s pop culture as were the Batman movies in the 90s. Yet one can’t classify these as “serious” cinematic narratives: any film featuring a flying General Zod is by definition pure camp.


Bryan Singer’s 2006 film Superman Returns pictures him as a Christ-like redeemer straight out of the American monomyth, with the voice of Marlon Brando substituting for the voice of God. In this enthusiastic adventure the Man of Steel once again battles Lex Luthor. Singer’s Christian metaphysic is thinly disguised at best. After being clobbered by Lex Luther, we see Superman fly into the heavens to renew his Sun-powered energy as he spreads his arms in a Christlike pose and a choir of angels sings on the soundtrack. He then plays the role of humanity’s saviour, lifting Lex’s expanding kryptonite island into space, then falling back to Earth in another Christ-like pose. He hovers near death in a Metropolis hospital for days, but is reborn, presumably healed by the Platonic love of Lois Lane (in an earlier adventure he presumably slept with her, fathering a super-powered child and thus completing the holy trinity). It’s odd that in our increasingly secular age we look to comic book heroes for religious messages. It’s also odd how much Singer’s film looks like a somewhat more serious simulacrum of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman, with lead actor Brandon Routh looking uncannily like Christopher Reeve.


Superman is comparatively stiff compared to most of the other superheros, a do-gooder without emotional depth. He doesn’t have the personal problems of the Marvel superheros, other than protecting his secret identity from nosey reporters. In a lot of ways he’s more like the heroes of 1930s serials than later comic book characters - he’s not a model for real people and doesn’t care about social problems.[7] In fact, he’s not even human, but a refugee from the planet Krypton. He harkens back to an earlier age of science fiction and comic books, when the heroes were lily white, and the villains dark and nefarious. The films certainly illustrate the way that Hollywood has recycled other pop cultural forms into a cinematic form. Yet the Man of Steel is no fan of a Lyotardian decline of meta-narratives, preferring instead Truth, Justice and the American Way. Frank Miller was clear about this, picturing the Man of Steel as a servant of the American state lead by a doddering President Ronald Reagan in his mid-eighties comic book series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Superman is not a post-ideological hero, but a somewhat  campy symbol of American democracy.[8]        


Batman also goes back to the innocence of the pre-WWII period in American comics, making his first appearance in Detective Comics in 1939, getting his own book in 1940. His adventures were turned into a set of serial shorts in 1943 (Superman had to wait until 1948 for a serial adaptation). Batman became part of kitschy pop culture in the 1960s with the tongue-in-cheek TV version of the comic book starring Adam West as the main character. Batman dresses in a bat costume made of tights and boots, rides around in his batmobile, and uses his brains and all sorts of neat gadgets to defeat enemies like the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman. In the TV series he is shown with his partner Robin (Burt Ward) the Boy Wonder in place right from the start. The fights are corny, adorned with cartoon bubbles with “zowee” and “kaboom.” The best written episodes, especially those by Lorenzo Semple Jr., are full of sly humour and visual puns. This incarnation of Batman never took itself too seriously - in its own way it was part of the pop art movement lead by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.


The polar opposite of the campy 1966-1968 TV series was Tim Burton’s evocation of the later, much grittier version of Batman based on the 1986 The Dark Knight Returns series of DC comics written and drawn by Frank Miller (later published as a popular graphic novel). Burton’s 1989 Batman movie starred Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight, with Robin nowhere in sight. Gotham City is portrayed as a sort of art deco monstrosity, with monumental statues and dark alleyways. His enemy is the Joker (Jack Nicholson), who killed his parents years earlier while a small-time hood. The Joker has been disfigured by a chemical spill, and has become a homicidal maniac. This film represents the real start of simulated post-ideological heroism, though the series deteriorated into camp by the third film. The date of the film is rich with political resonance: it’s the year the Cold War ended.


The first sequel was Batman Returns (1992), with Burton still at the helm. In this film Batman battles the Penguin (Danny De Vito) and Catwoman, played as a sort of vengeful feminist heroine by Michelle Pfeiffer. Christopher Walken does his usual menacing turn as the crooked businessman Max Shreck. In both the Burton films, Batman’s enemies are vicious, psychotic criminals who richly deserve their fate. The next two sequels were less successful artistically speaking. Batman Forever (1995) sees Burton gone and Joel Schumacher as the new director, with Val Kilmer as Batman. A petulant Robin (Chris O’Donnell)  becomes his partner in crime fighting. Their enemies are Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face and a typically over-the-top Jim Carrey as the Riddler. In Batman and Robin (1997), George Clooney takes over the title role. Batman is teamed once again with Robin, while Alicia Silverstone pops up as Batgirl. The tremendous trio fight Arnold Schwartzenegger as Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. A return to the camp humour of the sixties’ series seemed just around the corner.


The faltering Batman franchise called for a cinematic re-envisioning, which it got with  Christopher Nolan’s more dark, serious and camp-free version of the caped crusader in his 2005 film Batman Begins. In one scene we actually see Bruce Wayne lying in bed battered and bruised after a battle, unimaginable in the Val Kilmer and George Clooney Batman films. Also, Nolan used very few CGI shots in his version, adding to its air of naturalism. Interestingly, Nolan featured mainly British and Irish actors in key roles: Christian Bale as Batman, Gary Oldam as Commissioner Gordon, Michael Cain as Alfred the Butler, Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane AKA The Scarecrow, Tom Wilkinson as Carmine Falcone and Liam Neeson as Henri Ducard. One presumes that his goal was to add some gravitas to an otherwise lighthearted filmic heritage for Gotham City’s most famous citizen.


In Nolan’s followup The Dark Night (2008) we see the ultimate in grim noir realism applied to the Batman mythos. In this long (two and a half hours) and complex film, we witness a triadic struggle between reformers in the Gotham City administration and police force led by D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and Lieutenant (later Commissioner) Jim Gordon (Gary Oldham); Mafia-style gangsters led by Salvatore Marone (Eric Roberts), who have bribed or threatened a number of cops into betraying the cause of justice; and the demented Joker (Heath Ledger) and his ever-changing gang, true agents of chaos. Batman is obviously allied to the good cops and later to Dent, though throughout the movie has crises of faith about his role as populist hero: we see several “copycat” Batmans injured or killed as they try to battle crime. There is no ideology at all in Nolan’s film: Batman’s main goal is to stop the Joker from killing innocents, which the clown prince of crime does with glee, supported by an existential nihilist philosophy that sees the average human being as weak and selfish. There’s no external enemy or threatening belief system in The Dark Knight: Batman’s goal is to battle chaos and death itself - in two scenes he refuses to kill the Joker, though he could easily do so, once by running him over with his batcycle, the other by dropping him off a building. This battle is punctuated by the fact that death is all around him: a raft of minor characters and two major ones actually perish when caught in the Joker’s maelstrom. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman has his own inner demons, yet they pale in comparison to the Joker’s psychosis. There’s no explicit reference to fascism, capitalism, communism or Islamism in this film: it’s about revenge, madness, and survival. The Dark Knight perfects Batman’s status as DC’s post-ideological hero par excellence: he’s both insider and outcast, both criminal and defender of justice.


Batman is the perfect post-Cold War hero: his primary motivation for fighting crime is revenge over his parents’ death at the hands of criminals. There’s no grand meta-narrative to explain Batman’s raison d’etre: he is an instrument of personal vengeance. He fights evil, though this evil isn’t ideologically motivated: instead, it consists of a coterie of colourful criminally insane enemies such as The Joker, Two Face and Poison Ivy. Arkham Asylum replaces the penitentary as the usual place of residence for Batman’s enemies for good reason: their motivation for being criminals are their various psychopathologies.


In addition, the Batman franchise is a powerful example of TV and film recycling comic book culture. We can also see it as an example of the breakdown of high art and the penetration of pop culture into mass consciousness - more people know and take seriously Batman than characters from the novels of Dickens, Dostoevsky or Jane Austen. He’s as famous as any poet or composer, his image and story instantly recognizable by most people under the influence of American mass culture. Yet there is a shadow of the old good-versus-evil meta-narrative in the Batman stories, even if the Dark Knight’s motives for fighting crime have more to do with revenge for the death of his parents than any high-minded concern with truth and justice. This is certainly ambiguous, with one bat foot in modernism, and the other in the postmodern. To be continued.


4. The Marvel Superheros: The X-Men, Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Hulk and Iron Man


Though the Batman films from 1989 on are an interesting prologue to the emergence of a new type of simulated heroism, it wasn’t until the new millennium that we see a marvellous (pun intended) explosion of post-ideological comic book heros on the big screen. X-Men (2000), which stars the distinguished British actors Patrick Stewart as Dr. Xavier and Ian McKellan as the villain Magneto, is the movie version of the Marvel comic book series The Uncanny X-Men, which dates back to 1963. The X-Men are mutants, human beings who have been given special powers due to genetic mutations. They share some of the characteristics of all Marvel superheros: they have ordinary lives when not being superheros, are misunderstood by the masses, and have the same personal problems as everyone else, magnified times ten due to the heavy burdens of super-herodom.


The X-Men include Cyclops, who shoots a powerful ray from his eyes (he is thus stuck wearing sunglasses when not in his crime-fighting gear), Storm, who can control the weather, and Jean Grey, who has telekinetic powers. They are lead by Dr. X, played by Patrick Stewart, who is crippled but has tremendous mental powers. A late addition to the group is the popular character Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), a Canadian who sprouts claws from his hands and has a bad attitude toward authority. The interesting thing about the film is that there are also “bad” mutants who don’t trust ordinary humans. Yet this is for good reason - American politicians led by Senator Kelly (a postmodern stand-in for Joseph McCarthy) are seen trying to pass a law registering mutants, if not imprisoning or banishing them as a dangerous “alien” influence. In a flashback at the start of the film we see the leader of the “evil” mutants Magneto as a young boy in a Nazi concentration camp, driving home the supposed central theme of the movie: the wrongness of discrimination against groups of people based on biological difference.[9] However, this theme is old hat in Hollywood, being played out time and time again from the anti-Nazi films of the 1940s from Warner Brothers and other American filmmakers to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) and Amistad (1997), that it is in danger of becoming hackneyed. Yet this old-fashioned liberal homily is played against the backdrop of a virtual world populated by refugees from pulp story-telling originally aimed at teenagers. In addition, the mutants evoke the postmodern trope of pastiche: they are half human, half something else, in some cases part animal (like Toad), in other cases part super-human.


We see impressive special effects in the film: the evil mutant Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) changes her physical appearance several times; her boss Magneto levitates through the air and lifts police cars, guns, and other metal objects with the power of his mind; while Storm (Halle Berry) conjures up veritable tempests to brush aside her enemies. The sequel, X2, released in 2003, replays many of the same themes as the original, ramping up the vague meta-narrative of the battle of a biologically defined minority against prejudice and discrimination. This film centers on the persecution of mutantkind by William Stryker, who has the support of the US government. He uses his mutant son Jason, who has been partly lobotomized, to mind-control Xavier, hoping to manipulate him into using Cerebro to overload the minds of all mutants, leading to a mutant holocaust and a “final solution” to the mutant problem. Magneto starts as a prisoner, though escapes, and even allies with the X-Men to stop Stryker. The less successful third X-film, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) contains a muddled mixed narrative about Magneto organizing dozens of mutants in a war against humanity while Jean Grey morphs into a scaled-down version of the Dark Phoenix seen in Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s classic comic book story arc in X-Men #129-138 (1980).


Overall, the X-Men are vaguely ideological at best, in the sense that in their various incarnations in comics and film they have fought against prejudice based on biological difference. The problem is that so do Magneto and his merry band of “evil” mutants: both sides want to improve the plight of mutants, it’s just a question of how to accomplish this. Yet at its core the anti-discrimination theme in the X-Men corpus is rather hollow: after all, there are no mutants, good or evil, in the real world, while the mapping of these fictional mutants onto any actual minority groups is a slippery process at best. The process of seeing the mutants in the world of the X-Men as symbols of groups of people in the non-comic book world is fraught with difficulty, in part due to the internal contraditions in the X-corpus. In the end, the X-Men are simulated post-ideological heros just as much as Magneto, Toad and Mystique are simulated post-ideological villains, with some pretense to real world political significance.


Spider-Man is one of the most famous of the Marvel superheros. He is in the Marvel mould of being an ordinary guy thrust into the role of being a hero by a freak accident - he was bitten by a radioactive spider, and as a result gained extraordinary strength, the ability to climb walls, and a sixth sense that is aware of danger before it happens. He develops a device that shoots sticky webs from his hand across large distances, hence his nickname “the webslinger.” His motives are suspected by J. Jonah Jameson, the publisher of a tabloid newspaper that ironically Peter Parker, the real man behind the mask, works for as a freelance photographer. The spectacularly drawn special editions of The Amazing Spider-Man comic book drawn by Todd McFarlane in the late 1980s and early 1990s helped to revive the character. There was also a crudely drawn cartoon TV series dating from 1967-1970 directed in part by Ralph Bakshi that spawned the theme song for Spiderman: “Spiderman, Spiderman, Does whatever a spider can...,” of which the Ramones recorded a delightful cover.


The film version from 2002 uses spectacular special effects of an all-virtual CGI Spiderman swinging from building to building as he does in the comic books, which would have been technically impossible a couple of decades ago. It’s directed by Sam Raimi. His foe is the Green Goblin, played with verve by Willem Dafoe, a millionaire deranged by his own experimental nerve gas. In it we are given a glance of insight into Peter Parker’s teenage angst - just enough to make the film true to the spirit of the comics. Spider-Man was an existential hero right from his origin in Amazing Fantasy #15. Even in his early days in the mid-60s he rarely fought for abstract ideas or national causes, but out of a very personal sense of existential responsibility fuelled by the death of his Uncle Ben at the hands of a theif who Peter Parker for selfish reasons let escape just before the murder. The film emphasizes Spider-Man’s existentialist origins by having the spirit of Uncle Ben repeat Spidey’s famous mantra in a voiceover: “with great power goes great responsiblity.” Spider-Man’s loyalties aren’t to his nation or to any given ideology, but to a very personal (and thus very contingent) sense of existential responsibility.


In 2004 a successful sequel appeared, Spider-Man 2, in which Spidey fights Dr. Octopus. Once again his enemy is a deranged scientist who is tragically driven insane by his own invention. Peter Parker is still tormented by problems in his school, love and personal lives, with Mary Jane set to marry someone else and J. Jonah Jameson’s Daily Bugle trumpeting the idea that Spider-Man is the true menace to society.  The uneven Spider-Man 3 appeared in 2007, featuring Spidey’s battles with three villains: the Sandman, Venom, and the son of the Green Goblin. Peter faces the real danger of losing his true self when a black alien goo enhances his powers, making him arrogant and overbearing. Yet he manages to triumph over these threats to his existential integrity, at the end of the film offering these thoughts to the audience in a voice-over meditation on the death of Harry Osborn:


Whatever comes our way, whatever battle we have raging inside us, we always have a choice. My friend Harry taught me that. He chose to be the best of himself. It’s the choices that make us who we are, and we can always choose to do what’s right.      


In summary, Spider-Man was envisioned by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko as an existential hero who had to daily face both his own inner demons (e.g. his responsibility for the death of his Uncle Ben and his doubts about being a crime fighter) and problems with personal relationships (e.g. his sick Aunt May, his chronic money shortage, and his hapless love life). Sam Raimi’s films capture the existential spirit of the classic Spider-Man stories of the Silver Age of comics quite well. In doing so they make manifest what was latent in the early Spider-Man comics: his status as a post-ideological hero.[10]


Daredevil is a blind lawyer who fights crime mainly with his radiation-enhanced strength and extrasensory awareness that’s a bit like radar. He’s a sort of poor man’s Spider-Man. Certainly the vulnerability of a blind man to enemies is a far cry from Superman’s near invincibility, another indicator of Marvel Comics’ unique narrative strategy. He’s played in the 2003 movie version by Ben Affleck in a dark red rubbery suit, armed only with a multi-purpose nightstick. The film was critically panned by both fans and professional critics, though it does serve an important role as an example of simulated heroism mixed with identity politics: Daredevil’s being blind makes him a champion of the handicapped. Daredevil is thus post-ideological in a politically correct, feel good sense: he battles the criminal mastermind the Kingpin and his flippant hitman Bullseye as a super-hero while acting as socially concerned sight-impaired attorney Matt Murdock in his everyday life, an attorney with so much conscience that he refuses to defend the guilty. Added to the mix is Murdock’s devout Catholicism, which adds an air of spiritual gravity to the character as he leaps from one cathedral spire to another. A fourth Marvel comic book title, The Incredible Hulk, was given the blockbuster treatment by Hollywood with the 2003 release of Hulk. It was directed by Ang Lee, better known for more intimate films such as Sense and Sensibility (1995) and The Ice Storm (1997). The monstrous Hulk is pictured in the film using computer graphics alone, unlike the late 1970s television series, where bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno donned tattered rags and green makeup to portray Bruce Banner’s gamma-ray-generated alter ego. The computerized Hulk met with a less than enthusiastic response from critics and fans. In the summer of 2008 Marvel rebooted the Hulk mythos with critically acclaimed Ed Norton in the title role. The Hulk is another nebulous Marvel symbol, in this case of a vague anti-authoritarianism: Bruce Banner becomes the Hulk in part due to genetic experiments his father David did on him as a child, while our green-skinned hero is ruthlessly hunted down by the US armed forces when he escapes from a lab which had imprisoned him to do yet more genetic experiments on our favourite green anti-hero.


With Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) we get a curious mix of ideological and post-ideological narratives. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) starts out as a dedicated member of the American military-industrial complex who in the wake of new geopolitical realities has found his arms-manufacturing business turned by Obadiah Stone (the company’s second in command) into a more mercenary way of doing business, selling weapons to whomever has the cold cash. When captured by an Islamic militia with its own mini-imperialist goals, Stark becomes aware of the mass destruction his weapons have caused, so he manufactures his Iron Man Mark I suit to escape from the militia and destroy the Stark Industries weapons they’ve managed to buy on the black market. When he returns home, he decides to turn swords into ploughshares, moving Stark Industries away from arms production, while using his much improved red-and-gold Iron Man Mark III suit to wreck some more mass destruction on Stark Industries weapons in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Opposed not so much by the American military as by his own right-hand man Obadiah Stone, in the finale they battle it out in powered armour suits. At the end of the film Stark reveals his “Iron Man” identity against the advice of his friends in the military, thus severing the story from anything like the American monomyth. Robert Downey displays all his roguish charm in the lead role. Yet in the end we’re not sure where Iron Man stands: has he become a pacifist? Or is he merely revolted by the possibility of his weapons being used to kill Americans? This highly entertaining film manages to mix post-ideological pacificism with the legitimacy of the “war on terror,” suspicion of the American military and large corporations with support for the US armed forces.


In the case of all these comic book heroes from Batman on, their heroism is post-ideological: they fight simulated (not symbolic) enemies who are motivated not by ideology or money (at least in most cases), but by a combination of pathology and power. They also evoke some of the central elements of postmodern popular culture: recycling characters and stories from less serious to more serious cultural forms, the emphasis on style over substance, the breakdown of high art, and the decline of grand narratives (except insofar as themes like the struggle against racism can add a bit of spice to the techno-virtual stew of films like the X-Men). Comic book culture was once largely the innocent preserve of excited young boys handing over their precious dimes and quarters to convenience store clerks for the latest number of Batman, Spider-Man, or The X-Men. Now it has washed over adult cultural industries as a veritable pop entertainment tsunami, its narratives shifting from the good-versus-evil simplicities of pulp fiction to the deeper, darker characters and stories found in the later Marvel and Dark Horse Comics series.[11]  Yet in the end these heroes don’t fight the ideological enemies of the West, whatever their personal intricacies. They fight virtual enemies in a post-ideological environment. History may not be over in the real world, but in the world of Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men, it is frantically gasping for air.  




Videography - Films


Superman. Directed by Richard Donner. Characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. Written by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton. 1978.


Superman Returns. Directed by Bryan Singer. Story by Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. Screenplay by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. 2006.


Batman. Directed by Tim Burton. Characters created by Bob Kane. Story by Sam Hamm. Screenplay by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren. 1989. [Villain: The Joker]


Batman Returns. Directed by Tim Burton. Characters created by Bob Kane. Story by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm. Screenplay by Daniel Waters. 1992. [Villains: The Penguin & Catwoman]


Batman Forever. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Characters created by Bob Kane. Story by  Lee Batchler and Janet Scott Batchler. Screenplay by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman. 1995. [Villains: The Riddler and Two Face]


Batman and Robin. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Characters created by Bob Kane. Written by Akiva Goldsman. 1997. [Villains: Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy]


Batman Begins. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan. 2005.


The Dark Knight. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Story by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan S. Goyer. 2008.


X-Men. Directed by Bryan Singer. Story by Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer. Screenplay by David Hayter. 2000.


X2. Directed by Bryan Singer. Story by Bryan Singer, David Hayter and Zak Penn. Screenplay by Michael Dougherty and Daniel P. Harris. 2003.


X-Men: The Last Stand. Directed by Brett Ratner. Written by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn. 2006.


Spider-Man. Directed by Sam Raimi. Original comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Written by David Koepp. 2002. [Villain: The Green Goblin]


Spider-Man 2. Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Michael Chabon and Alvin Sargent. 2004. [Villain: Doctor Octopus]


Spider-Man 3. Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent. 2007. [Villains: Sandman and Venom]


Daredevil. Written and Directed by Mark Steven Johnson. 2003.


Elektra. Directed by Rob Bowman. Original character created by Frank Miller. Written by Zak Penn, Stuart Zicherman and Raven Metzner. 2005.


Hulk. Directed by Ang Lee. Original comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Written by John Turman, Michael France and James Schamus. 2003.


The Incredible Hulk. Directed by Louis Leterrier. Written by Edward Norton and Zak Penn. 2008.


Fantastic Four. Directed by Tim Story. Original comic by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Written by Mark Frost and Michael France. 2005.


4: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Directed by Tim Story. Story by John Turman and Mark Frost. Screenplay by Don Payne and Mark Frost. 2007.


Iron Man. Directed Jon Favreau. Written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway. 2008.


Sin City. Directed by Roberto Rodriguez and Frank Miller. Special Guest Director: Quentin Tarantino. Based on the series of graphic novels by Frank Miller. 2005.

300. Directed by Zack Snyder. Based on graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. Written by Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon. 2006.


Watchmen. Directed by Zack Snyder. Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse. 2009.


Videography - Television Shows         


Adventures of Superman. TV series starring George Reeves as Superman, 1952-1957.


Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. TV series, 1993-1997.


Smallville. TV series on the life of young Clark Kent, 2001-now.


Spider-Man. Animated TV series. Written by Ralph Bakshi. Directed by Ralph Bakshi and various others. 1966-1968.




Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949.


Jewett, Robert and John Shelton Lawrence. The American Monomyth. Garden City: Anchor, 1977.


Gordon, Ian, Mark Jancovich, and Matthew P. McAllister eds. Film and Comics. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2007.


Lang, Jeffrey S. & Patrick Trimble, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An Examination of the American Monomyth and the Comic Book Superhero,” Journal of Popular Culture 22.3 (1988): 157-173.   


McAllister, Matthew P., Ian Gordon and Mark Jancovich. “Blockbuster Meets Superhero Comic, or Art House Meets Graphic Novel? The Contradictory Relationship between Film and Comic Art.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 34.3 (Fall 2006): 108-114.


Miller, Frank. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. DC Comics, 1997 (10th anniversary edition).               

Neil Rae and Jonathan Gray. “When Gen-X Met the X-Men.” In Gordon, Jancovich and McAllister eds., Film and Comics, 2007, 86-100.


Palumbo, Donald. “The Marvel Comics Group’s Spider-Man is an Existentialist Super-Hero; or ‘Life Has No Meaning Without My Latest Marvels!’ ”Journal of Popular Culture 17.2 (1883): 67- 87.


Richardson, Niall. “The Gospel According to Spider-Man.” Journal of Popular Culture 37.4 (2004): 694-703.


Strinati, Dominic. An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture. London: Routledge, 1995.


Wolf-Meyer, Matthew. “The World Oxymandias Made: Utopias in the Superhero Comic, Subculture, and the Conservation of Difference.” Journal of Popular Culture 36.3 (2003): 497-517.


Wright, Bradford. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.


Comic Books (most of these series have spin-offs):


            Action Comics/Superman (DC Comics, 1938/1939 and on)

            Detective Comics/Batman (DC Comics, 1939/1940 and on)

            The Amazing Spider-Man (Marvel Comics Group, 1963 and on)

            Daredevil (Marvel Comics Group, 1964 and on)

            The Incredible Hulk (Marvel Comics Group, 1966 and on)

            The Invincible Iron Man (Marvel Comics Group, 1968 and on)

            The X-Men (Marvel Comics Group, 1963 and on)

[1]I exclude the Superman films of the 1970s and 1980s as too campy to be taken as serious narratives, though even they contain post-ideological elements such as extra-planetary invaders.

[2]I refer to the superhero as “he” since the vast majority of the central heroes of comic book films are male, with apologies to Jean Grey, Storm and Rogue of the X-Men.

[3]This despite a number of popular Saturday morning animated series based on both the DC and Marvel characters being broadcast from the mid-sixties on.  

[4]This list is based on my discussion of postmodern popular culture in my Understanding Society (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2008), which is itself based loosely on Dominic Strinati’s list in An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture (London: Routledge, 1995).

[5]Of the top ten highest-grossing films of all time, only Titanic is a historical blockbuster. The rest are fantasy films or light scifi such as Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. All three Spider-Man films made it into the top 25. See: 

[6]This despite exceptions such as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ brilliant Watchmen, and Mark Gruenwald’s lesser known Squadron Supreme, both of which feature heroes who aim to create at least a fragment of utopia.

[7]Although in the first year or two of his run in Action Comics, prior to America’s entry into World War II, he fought corrupt politicians, racketeers and other enemies of popular efforts to drag the country out of the Great Depression. See Braford Wright, Comic Book Nation (Baltimore, 2003).

[8]Superman’s role as loyal servant of the state is exploited to good effect in Mark Millar’s 2004 graphic novel Superman: Red Son (DC Comics), in which the baby Kal-El lands in Russia instead of America, and grows up as a champion of Soviet Communism.

[9]This theme is, of course, hyperreal, since mutants don’t really exist. It’s at best a metaphor for real forms of discrimination based on race, gender, physical disabilities, and so on.

[10]This despite the fact that the film ends with a shot of Spidey briefly hanging off a New York flagpole on which is hoisted a large US flag, this no doubt being Sam Raimi’s salute to the brief wave of  post-9/11 insular American patriotism.

[11]I mention Dark Horse Comics in passing as it is one of several smaller “alternative” comic book companies whose pages gave birth to such cinematic anti-heroes as The Crow (1994) and Spawn (1997) in the nineties, thus contributing to the adultification of comic book culture. I might also note in passing  M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 film Unbreakable, which features Bruce Willis playing the sole survivor of a train crash who turns out to have recuperative and visionary powers that make him a sort of super-hero. The film, full of comic-book references, is another example of this adultification.