Special effects-driven superhero films take over the multiplex each summer, raking in massive box office returns but often drawing yawns from the critics. But maybe they should take notice. Many of these films have substantive ideas along with their popcorn thrills and can serve as a cracked-mirror reflection of real-life issues.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (out now) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (opening in most territories on 23 May) have pronounced political dimensions. Captain America features a strong critique of government surveillance and glorifies a superhero character for uploading state secrets to the internet in the manner of Edward Snowden, while X-Men continues that film series’ ongoing metaphor for the struggle for gay rights. A promotional X-Men website set up by 20th Century Fox presents an alternate history of America that reveals one mutant character was killed by a lynchmob associated with the Human Majority, a fictional organization led by a televangelist minister who believes “disease is God’s curse for mutant integration” – a thinly veiled reference to TV pastor Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority organisation.
The political dimensions of these new films is nothing new in the pages of actual comic books. The first issue of the Captain America comic series in 1941 featured the superhero punching Adolf Hitler in the face. In his early days, Superman fought Nazis as well as corrupt business leaders. In the 1960s, Marvel’s X-Men comics were an allegory for the American Civil Rights movement, with the integrationist Professor Xavier serving as the Martin Luther King Jr of “mutant rights” to his separatist nemesis Magneto’s Malcolm X. By the time the X-Men movie series launched, the civil rights allegory had become a gay rights allegory. Others have changed over time as well. Iron Man was originally a major defender of the military-industrial complex in the 1960s before becoming a critic of it decades later.
In a segment for Talking Movies, Deputy Culture Editor Christian Blauvelt investigates the political dimensions of these comic books and whether or not contemporary politics effectively made the jump to the big screen in their blockbuster film adaptations.