Superhero Movies as Capitalist Folklore

I celebrated my eleventh birthday by seeing the first “Ironman” movie with three friends — including fellow Sideline Observer culture writer, Charlie Plunk. I loved Robert Downey Jr. and his portrayal of Tony Stark as equal parts cleverly charming and tragically flawed. Like everyone else who grew up in the aughts, the Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” trilogy and the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe were some of my favorite entertainment content.

Iron Man, the movie that sparked the market sensation of superhero movies, opened in theaters May 2, 2008.

However, looking back, I find myself subtly annoyed by what the Superhero movie has become. It’s partly the formulaic plots where the hero just happens to run across a villain with strikingly similar powers, and they have a big punching match at the end — see: “Man of Steel,” “Wonder Woman,” “Iron Mans” one and two, “Aquaman,” “Doctor Strange,” “Antman” one and two, “Justice League”, “Black Panther” — one could go on. But I’m realizing more and more that my biggest gripe with our modern Superhero Industrial Complex is that it functions as propaganda for a hyper-capitalist, or even fascist, world view. 

What are the two avenues by which one becomes a superhero? The first is obviously to have a super power, and the second is to possess limitless wealth. Superman and Thor are both ubermensch gods from another world, and Batman and Ironman are really rich guys who use their billions to save the world. The message of superhero movies is that massive earth-threatening problems can — and must — be solved by an exceptional individual. And that person might look like you, an average Joe like Clark Kent! 

Especially in the Disney-fied Marvel films, the whole thing reeks of an Ayn Rand sort of individualist philosophy. A city filled with cops can’t find the Joker. We need rich industrialist Bruce Wayne to break all of society’s laws to do what the government can’t because the government is wasteful and inept. The greatest among us are obviously the ones born special, rich, or both. And they are far better equipped to solve the world’s problems than lots of regular people working together. Or rather, that is the implication of these films.

The extended ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe.

While these movies can be viewed as simple, fun box-office candy for weekend enjoyment, film is also a crucial lens through which we understand culture. The attitudes about elite superiority and the infantile masses found in our superhero movies reflect capitalism and the way it frames the working class of people. How many times are we going to hear the argument that Bill Gates gives lots of money to charity, so he has a right to gripe about taxes going up on his $107,000,000,000? (And yes, I print all the zeros because I lack subtlety.) This kind of thinking syncs up perfectly with the ideology found in superhero films. He has all of this money, so he probably knows how to save us. 

Except it’s crap. Being born into the right place at the right time when the right government-developed technology is being transitioned to the private sector by no means makes a person sufficiently qualified to solve societal ills. For instance, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation dumped hundreds of millions of dollars into efforts to reform grade school education to run more like a business, and it failed miserably. That money could have simply funded the existing schools, but instead went toward harmful and ineffective experiments because Bill Gates believes he knows better what the country needs than, say, voters do. Our cultural myths exalt the strident and brilliant individual and depict the masses and the underprivileged as subjects who need help.

(From the left) Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg, with a combined estimated net worth of $375.7 billion.

Many will be familiar with the hot takes published in the wake of Avengers: End Game, surrounding the villain Thanos and how his plot to kill off half of all living things for “sustainability” was indicative of the reason we should all hate environmentalists. Now, of course these were bad-faith attempts to smear scientists and climate activists, but the good versus evil nature of superhero narratives conceals an underlying subtext.The bad guy is the one who thinks resource sustainability is a problem, and obviously those who want to deal with that problem are advocating genocide and population control. The good guys are the rich and powerful — literally powerful — who swoop in to protect the status quo. 

Notice the plots of superhero movies are never about affecting collective change, but rather returning everything to the way it was at the beginning. This is another reflection of capitalism in the genre. Everything is already fine, and any attempt to alter the resting state is an inherent threat that our elite individual heroes will defeat. Thus, they will have eliminated the threat and restored order. No need to vote. No need to act or fight collectively, no need to organize. The elites will solve this for you, and moreover, that is the righteous way of organizing society.

Here is where the superhero genre slips into dangerously anti-democratic territory. There is never any need to ask the citizenry how they would like to address what’s happening. ‘No time for that, we’ll just punch it out in downtown Manhattan, killing who knows how many, and be lauded for our efforts afterwards.’ The people are the sheep, and the most powerful few the rightful shepherds. Our heroes. But not us though. We aren’t given the perspective of the people. We are part of the elite. So we, the viewers have nothing to worry about, because we’re in the club. 

CREDIT: RICK FINDLER/SHUTTERSTOCK, via Variety

This is not a message of democracy. It’s the philosophy of fascism. Appeal to individualism. Obsession with a plot against the in-group. Life being lived as an inherent struggle.  All of these things are core to fascist philosophy. These themes apply strikingly well onto Hollywood’s favorite revenue generators.

The huge structural problems in our society which make people’s lives worse will never be solved by an individual, no matter how rich or superhuman. Outside of the theater and the comic book shop, collective action and democratic movements of millions of people are required to save the world. 

1 COMMENT

  1. Your piece is on point. However-

    ‘It’s the philosophy of fascism. Appeal to individualism’

    Fascism doesn’t make an ‘appeal to individualism’. It’s about the state (or a particular ethnic group) being glorified above all else, and all else being expendable. This was reiterated over and over and over by fascist theoreticians and fascist regimes.

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