‘Sergeant!’ says Captain America. ‘I want you to station your men in all these buildings, and I need a perimeter all the way down to 39th.’
The grizzled officer looks incredulous.
‘Why should I take orders from you?’
At that moment, a posse of Loki’s space gremlins – or whatever the fuck they are – attack, and Captain America effortlessly dispatches them some balletic chop sockery.
There’s a pause and the sergeant backs away. He turns on his radio. ‘I want men posted in all these buildings! And I want a perimeter all the way down to 39th!’
The sequence from The Avengers, the film currently topping box offices around the world, plays as comedy, the joke squarely on the uniformed chump doubting the authority of a superhero.
Yet, actually, the cop’s question seems entirely sensible question. Why should he (or anyone else) take orders from Captain America, who, throughout the film, presents as a perfect ninny unacquainted with the simplest aspects of the modern world? And why, more importantly, does a proficiency at violence establish a right to command – indeed, make that right so self-evident that a challenge to it becomes retrospectively ridiculous?
The radical journalist Robert Fitch once quipped that vulgar Marxism explains 90 per cent of what goes in the world.
In that spirit, the proliferation of superhero movies – at present, Hollywood seems to make almost nothing else – can be explained through crass economics. Film versions of much-loved comic books enjoy the same material advantage as remakes of classic TV shows, in that they bring an established fan base. A superhero blockbuster establishes a franchise that can remain lucrative despite the occasional flops or failures. Even more than, say, the James Bond series, a superhero can be rebooted and retweeked to efface the memory of any particularly unfortunate instalment (cf the Batman movies).
Most of all, superheroes particularly suit the horizontal integration that the media behemoths now rely upon in their financial planning. With their costumes and logos, comic book characters serve as walking trademarks, transitioning effortlessly from the silver screen to the computer games or Happy Meal tie-ins that may well be more commercially important than the film itself.
But are those the only reasons that superheroes dominate the cultural landscape? Is there something about the genre that reflects the current moment?
Superman, whose extraordinary success legitimated all the imitators that followed, can be understood in all kinds of ways. He’s the original immigrant: Kal-El from Krypton reinventing himself as a loyal American. He’s modernity’s invisible citizen, dreaming of a heroic escape from the anonymity of metropolis. He’s an anti-fascist revenge fantasy dreamed up by two Jewish kids as the Final Solution drew ever nearer. And so on.
Yet you cannot ignore the origins of Siegel and Shuster’s iconic creation in an era awash with supermen, from the Nietzschean blond beasts so popular with national socialists to the Stakhanovites inspired by Joe Stalin, the original man of steel. That doesn’t mean that the genre’s innately and inevitably fascistic, as is sometimes argued. Nonetheless, the concept of the superhero necessarily rests upon a distinction central to both the far Right and the Stalinist Left – the gulf between the (ordinary) masses and the (extra-ordinary) hero. Superhero narratives can play with that, and even consciously subvert it (as some of the more obviously leftwing films do) but they can’t escape it.
One of the biggest difference between our cultural situation and that of the 1930s lies in the relative absence of mass politics. That is, even as we enter a cycle of economic booms and busts reminiscent of the early twentieth century, we so far lack the political movements characteristic of that time (though, in Europe at least, that may be changing). To date, the neoliberal era has been defined by the atomisation of the citizenry, their sullen withdrawal from public life.
In the past, the superhero worked as a fantasy precisely because of the centrality of mass politics. The notion of the exalted individual performing heroic deeds appealed precisely because it seemed so fantastical at a time when politics was being shaped by collective forces as never before. The cult of the superman developed by the fascists, like its equivalent in Stalinism, was implicitly directed against mobilisations of ordinary people. The Aryan ubermensch was necessary precisely because the untermenschen against whom the fascists raged were so numerous and so well organized (in Nazi posters, the ‘blond beast’ emerges to cow the communists and the Jews), while the exaltation of the Soviet shock worker expressed the mentality of a bureaucratic class increasingly distinguishing itself from the ordinary Russian workers.
What happens, though, when the disengagement of the populace from political life gets thoroughly normalised? In such circumstances, the political class and its agents seem, almost by definition, able to perform feats that ordinary people simply cannot.
That seems to me the context for the new hegemony of superheroes. The genre no longer presents as wish-fulfillment so much as a kind of realism – an accurate depiction of the way society works. We are, in other words, already living in a comic book.
The most obvious example is the War on Terror, which, from its beginning, played out as the most clichéd super hero script. In what other context would the phrase ‘Axis of Evil’ be accepted as a serious proposition? How did it ever make sense to devote $1.3 trillion to defeating the tiny organization that was al Qaeda, unless you understood bin Laden as exerting the kind of mighty power wielded by the mad geniuses in comic books? Think back to the outrage that erupted when the Obama administration briefly contemplated trying the 9/11 perpetrators in a civilian court in New York. Why did that generate so much angst? Because, of course, they were Super Villains – and everyone knows that Super Villains always escape and run riot. Guantanamo Bay makes sense for the same reason we understand the special cage Nick Fury prepares for Loki.
Consider, for instance, the iconic photo of Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton and others staring grimly at computers in the Situation Room as the operation to kill bin Laden plays out.
What I’m suggesting is that the lack of popular agency, the absence of mass participation in politics, made the presentation of the last decade in comic book terms not only possible but almost inevitable. As Jim Larkin famously said, ‘The great appear great because we are on our knees.’ In a period in which, for most people, the prospect of political participation seems entirely implausible, the depiction of world politics as a tussle between mighty beings makes intuitive sense – and our leaders have played on this relentlessly.
The Avengers is interesting, then, as making visible the dynamic of superhero politics. Take that encounter between Captain America and the cop. Why is the sergeant inherently ridiculous? Because the battle with the space monkeys demonstrates what should have been immediately apparent: that there’s a qualitative gulf between heroes and everyone else, and that fundamental division makes entirely risible attempts to hold the former to the standards of the latter.
Again, we all know this. This is, after all, the era of black ops and secret prisons, a time when heroes demonstrate their heroism by brushing away rules and laws and similar impediments. That’s why when Fury confers with his political masters, we already know they’ll do nothing but carp and vacillate and put obstructions in his way.
But The Avengers sequence also demonstrates the centrality of violence in separating the superheroes from the little people. Barack Obama’s made, in a new television commercial, the killing of bin Laden central to his re-election. Consider the following extraordinary dialogue that played shortly after the bin Laden operation between cable host Chris Matthews and the editor of the online journal Politico, Jonathan Martin:
MATTHEWS: It seems to me that this president is—and I mean this positively—cold-blooded. I think people who are chief executives of this country and have all the firepower before them, they have to be willing to use it, or they shouldn’t take the job. It’s very simple. If you’re not willing to use our military power, if you’re not willing to kill people when you have to, you shouldn’t take that job. This president is not a wimp about using power. In fact, I dare say he is pretty cold-blooded. He went after the pirates. He—he actually called for the contract. He called for the hit. He did it again here.
MARTIN: […] But this does I think provide a problem for Republicans on the issue of this narrative. What you touched on, Chris, the notion that he is somehow weak or, you know, unwilling to sort of use force, he doesn’t like violence. He’s sort of the faculty lounge guy who is unfamiliar with the U.S. military. He has a ready response for that now for the next year and a half. He can say, well, you can ask Osama bin Laden about how soft I am. You’ll find him at the bottom of the Arabian Sea.
MATTHEWS: Yes, I think he’s the man that shot Liberty Valance.
I’ve written more about this elsewhere but the Avengers provides a neat illustration of the transformative power of deadly violence: just as Captain America’s roundhouses remind us who’s really in charge, the killing of Osama bin Laden transforms Barack Obama from mild-mannered legal academic into a wild west gunslinger.
Is The Avengers a fascist film? No, it’s not. It’s a very rightwing movie but it’s an expression of the mainstream Right, not fascism. But it does hint at what might be around the corner.
That is, the movie drapes its final confrontation in 9/11 imagery, as firemen pull civilians from the ruin of New York skyscrapers. Yet, interestingly, it culminates not in a celebration of the victory over the fearsome goblins from outer space but in a montage showing the divisions emerging in the battle’s aftermath, as various opportunistic politicians blame the superheroes for the devastation.
In the wake of the First World War, German politics was dominated by the stab-in-the-back myth – the notion that German soldiers performed like heroes on the front line, but were betrayed at home by the socialists and the Jews. This became a central trope of far-right politics in the decades that followed.
Over the last decade, Iraq and Afghanistan became central to the ideological identity of the American Right. As the US shuffles, more-or-less defeated, out of both conflicts, we can expect an Americanised version of the stab-in-the-back narrative to become more and more prominent. The Avengers provides a taste of how it might work: heroes win the war but civilians lose the peace – and then punish heroism for being heroic. And, while the cop who challenges the right of a superheroes to lead might be comical, the politician who sells them out is despicable and dangerous.
That’s why I came out of the movie thinking about Jim Larkin. For there’s another part to that quote. In full, it runs like this: ‘The great appear great because we are on our knees: let us rise.’