As many have said before, it’s no coincidence that in the world of Hollywood blockbusters the last decade has been the decade of the superhero film. In the nineties our blockbusters brought us fantasy about the apocalyptic near-destruction of society. In the country’s most globally dominant decade, it was as if our only possible challengers were aliens and asteroids. But after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it became clear that our mind-blowingly powerful war-fighting technology wasn’t enough to make the world idyllic. Great powers, great responsibilities: the superhero’s dilemma.
And so in the biggest hits — Spiderman, Batman, and Iron Man — we’ve had a series of perspectives on power and morality. Spiderman is the least directly topical and the most like a case for liberal interventionism, and Peter Parker’s enemies tend to be vastly more powerful than he is. So Spiderman is really an earlier incarnation of the United States, or more properly an idealized self-image: one that shows some of our nobler instincts, and shows what we’d like to be to the rest of the world. I don’t care so much for the Batman films, through which Christopher Nolan first embraces the neoconservative vision of executive power, then applies his trademark faux-thoughtful equivocation. Which leaves Iron Man: an icon of the military-industrial complex who grows a conscience. A fantasy scenario, perhaps, but one that’s rather appealing to Americans with worries about the size of the defense budget. (I also think that Jon Favreau’s screwball comedy is much more appropriate to a blockbuster than Christopher Nolan’s ponderous philosophizing.)
I say this by way of bringing up Christian Thorne’s essay on the first Iron Man film, which does a great job setting the film in its political context. What I’m not so sure about is the way Thorne invokes Andrew Bacevich to explain Iron Man. “Bacevich’s main recommendation,” Thorne says, “[…] is that we drop the charade and get serious about our imperialism—and above all that we adopt a set of properly imperial virtues. … [H]is hope now seems to be that since those virtues are already extinguished anyway, then at least empire might resurrect some notion of duty, though only if one commits to its militarism—and to what’s best about that militarism: honor, sacrifice, &c.—and not only to what is worst.” I haven’t read Bacevich’s American Empire (2004), but this would be a strange interpretation of Bacevich’s 2008 The Limits of Power. That book’s ideal is a limited, energy-independent republic, capable both of self-defense and self-denial, and if the very idea of a virtuous citizenry seems to Thorne to be imperial, so much the worse for his argument. But I don’t want to say much more without having read the passages Thorne is referring to.
At any rate, Thorne argues that the Iron Man fantasy, if we take it seriously, is at least a little dangerous, since “there is nothing and no-one in the real world that even approximates Tony Stark’s position in the film, part-government, part-corporation, but finally neither: a vigilante NGO or bunker-busting Red Cross.” Indeed, this is the biggest problem with the way that our political conversation about superpower status plays out in blockbusters: the superhero story generally assumes its protagonists will be defined by heroic self-restraint and ultimate adherance to a code. This is not a safe assumption to make about politicians. (You know, I had high hopes that Watchmen would manage to work against this assumption, but that film was just a wreck. A sad, shambling, hyperviolent wreck.)
If you like this kind of from-the-left critical analysis, Thorne’s four part series on the ideological consequences of shifting from slow zombies to fast zombies explains both what Thomas Hobbes was all about and how his thought applies to 28 Days Later.