Monday, June 24, 2013

What Hollywood’s superheroes tell us about America

When it comes to recent superhero movies, Hollywood has quite literally hit the jackpot. Americans like what we’re seeing.
We should think about what this means for our society. To do so, we must first examine the themes that run through these movies.

For a start, consider Hollywood’s renewed celebration of service. In the 2011 Captain America we saw the essence of an American folk hero- Brave, honorable, indefatigable. The metaphor of Old Glory shining brightly upon an unbreakable shield; Selfless sacrifice sustaining an invincible nation. Some might have argued that this was a corny rehash of a bygone era. Instead, with patriotic traditionalism evidently alive and well, American audiences flocked to the theaters.

Interestingly, Hollywood’s contemporary conception of patriotism runs deeper than pure American exceptionalism. Take the Iron Man trilogy. Here, we’ve been given a military industrialist who uses his creations to defend America against all enemies; foreign, domestic and/or alien. In The Avengers, Iron Man literally goes to another galaxy in order to save America. For some, Hollywood’s celebration of capitalism and the arms trade might have been shocking. Then again, the ticket sales speak for themselves. When it’s coupled to honorable purpose, Americans remain comfortable with military power.

This isn’t irrelevant pontification. There’s great topical relevance to be found in our introspection of movie habits. For one example, think about the security vs. civil liberties debate alongside Nolan’s Batman trilogy. In The Dark Knight (the 15th highest grossing movie of all time), the Knight renders a Chinese mobster from Hong Kong. Then, with Batman struggling against the Joker’s unrestrained mayhem, Alfred offers our hero some poignant guidance- ‘’some men just want to watch the world burn’’. To save his city, Batman must ‘’burn the jungle’’. And so, he does. In a grudging embrace of the NSA, Batman uses Gotham’s phone network to find the Joker and defeat him. As gleeful audiences, we accepted that Gotham’s safety required extraordinary measures. But Nolan wasn’t done. In his final chapter, The Dark Knight Rises (8th highest grossing movie), Nolan presented us with another potent message – for all the imperfections of our government, the rule of the mob is no solution. Order exists for a reason – government power is necessary.

        How did we react to Nolan’s not so subtle preaching? By adorning him with the laurel wreath of a movie demi-God.

Talking of Gods, in the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, we’ve seen another telling narrative – religion. This is a movie in which the Christian messaging is far from subtle. In one scene, while framed against a stain glass window, Superman’s priest provides a lesson in faith. In another telling moment, Superman dives from the heavens in a slow, cross shaped presentation of his commitment to the earth. Facing this box office hit, secularism, it seems, can’t yet claim the mantle of cultural victory. 

So what conclusions can we take from all this. Well, for a start, Hollywood studios know that they will rise and fall on the audiences they attract or alienate. As with any private industry, Hollywood focuses on products that will earn positive receptions. The messaging is intentional. Thus, through their stellar box office returns, our superheroes tell two stories – about heroes and about America. 

We expect our superheroes to be just that, super; doing the hard tasks that we cannot and in so, shaping inspirational identities worthy of our energetic support. Taking box office receipts as our measure, Hollywood’s superheroes can, in turn, tell us much about America.
Property: Warner Brothers - ''The Dark Knight Rises''

No comments:

Post a Comment