With The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man hitting theaters in July, superhero blockbuster films look to be as successful as ever.
Superheroes have reflected American values and social trends throughout history. While in the past, popular culture featured patriotic, soldiery, physically strong white males fighting political and social issues, recently Hollywood has showcased anti-heroic, intelligent human beings with original stories and private struggles. For example, Christopher Nolan’s Batman reveals more private motivations and fights psychological evils rather than clear social or political problems. While this introspection creates more complex characters, it also draws away from these comics' historic political relevance.
During WWII, superheroes were a vehicle for American patriotism. They often fought the Axis powers in comic strips, with Captain America defeating Hitler on the first cover of his comic series. In the 1950’s, these heroes tackled threats of nuclear war and communism.
Born and raised in the 1960s and 70s, Spiderman, Hulk, and X-Men challenged social norms. As products of scientific accidents, these "mutants" reflected doubts about the space race and nuclear energy. Rejected based on who they were, they underscored the social marginalization of ethnic minorities, LGBT people, and Jews. These heroes, along with the African American character Black Panther and Mexican-American Blue Beetle, grappled with issues of poverty, race, and social marginalization.
While recent movie superheroes have not been as socially or ethnically diverse, they have become geekier and more anti-heroic. Batman, Iron Man, Hulk, and Spiderman are all science or technology nerds with genius-level minds. But they lack conventional “heroic” qualities; Batman is a brooding, cynical, disillusioned loner; Iron Man is an obnoxious prick; the Hulk is an angry bitter outsider; Spiderman is an insecure, shy nerd. To be sure, high-tech special effects and an information-based world lend themselves to nerdier characters. But these darker personalities may also reflect a disillusioned, unhappier America, who has left behind the optimism and perfect heroism of Superman.
By providing a three-part Batman trilogy, Nolan has given us more of a psychological character study rather than a social or political message. Beginning with an origins story in Batman Begins, we learn that Bruce Wayne is motivated entirely by his early childhood memory of his parents’ murder; his sense of public duty and heroism stems from a private goal of revenge. We see this internal struggle trend in other movies, such as Iron Man, Spiderman, and the Hulk; The Amazing Spider-Man plot surrounds Peter Parker’s high school life, obsession with the truth about his parents, and coming-of-age.
So while Batman villains threaten the public, they also give Batman an internal struggle. Their evil is all the product of psychology: the psychopathic Joker lacks empathy and remorse; the “fear-toxin” wielding Scarecrow reflects Batman’s struggle against fear; Two-Face is the victim of physical torture who turns tragically schizophrenic and then completely evil. Bane seems to be more of a traditional superhero, as a physically massive ex-con who wants to destroy Gotham, but Nolan is better able to deliver a traditional superhero movie after having laid out the Dark Knight’s epic life story. Whereas 20th century popular comics focused mostly on social or political issues, today’s popular superhero films deal with the heroes’ internal struggles as they relate to an anonymous public not grounded in today's American reality.
It's true that many comics grapple with current events, but most of the blockbuster movies are not politically charged. Maybe these directors have looked inward because foreign threats, though definitely ongoing, seem more distanced than during WWII and the Cold War. But we still have political and social issues that Hollywood superhero movies have not addressed. Americans may not want to watch a political allegory. Whatever the reason, the introspection allows the Batman films to paint a more complex portrait of the famous superhero but also moves away from the comics' traditional role of portraying American current events.