Superheroes for the Empire

Against the Current, No. 169, March/April 2014

Lorenzo Estébanez

“I had hoped that the…moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,“Letter From A Birmingham Jail”

EVER SINCE CAPTAIN America punched-out Hitler during World War II, superhero texts promise the fantasy of invincibility and moral certitude. This promise has been particularly appealing given the last several decades, and the results of America’s actions as the global master.

Our empire’s dominance has produced tremendous violence abroad and inequality at home. Consequently, our pop culture has worked to quiet the feeling that we might just not be the good guys.

Superhero films, with their fantastic subject matter and aimed primarily at young audiences, can conceal ideological messages particularly effectively because their messages seem only surface-deep. You’re not being asked to believe anything “political,” you’re just asked to believe a man can fly. Superhero movies represent a particular kind of American wish-fulfillment, unleashing our id and assuaging our fears.

Some reviewers and film theorists made the connection that much of “Spider-Man’s” (Sam Raimi, 2002) enthusiastic reception had to do with its telling a New York super­hero story the summer after 9/11. “The Dark Knight” (2008, Christopher Nolan) was read by many as an allegory of the Bush administration — an ethically just hero who beat up prisoners and conducted warrantless surveillance to protect his city from the ticking-time-bomb scenario endlessly invoked to justify all manner of horrors.

Both Raimi’s Spider-Man franchise and Nolan’s “Dark Knight” series deal with contemporary anxieties and reified Manichaean ideas of Good vs. Evil. However, the War on Terror parallels in “Dark Knight” were obvious to many, while “very few critics picked up on [Spider-Man’s] symbolic resonance,” in the words of one film scholar.

Veiled Elite Messages

The different ways audiences received both films’ messages shows that ideology is more effectively communicated when it’s invisible. Similarly, of several superhero films released in 2012 — “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” and “Chronicle” — only the former had a clear message against populist uprising, while the latter two communicated that message insidiously.

“Dark Knight Rises” was singled out for its anti-Occupy message. In the third act, the villain Bane unleashes popular outrage against the status quo using the language of economic justice. Over the course of a brief montage, things go very French Revolution very quickly in Gotham City.

The implication that many picked up on in Nolan’s film is that the existing order is upheld for the good of society — rather than solely for elite plutocrats like Bruce Wayne. The message was so clearly received that Nolan himself assured viewers that the film “wasn’t political,”as though such a thing could ever be possible.

No one asked similar questions of Mark Webb or Josh Trank, because their films eschewed overt, politically resonant imagery. Where Nolan’s hero was a billionaire ninja, Webb and Trank’s heroes were regular teenagers. The villains in “Spider-Man” and “Chronicle,” though, were motivated by a desire to stop greater criminality. The law being enforced out by the heroes of “Spider-Man” and “Chronicle” is the sort of justice that protects the powerful against accountability from the masses they exploit.

Where “Dark Knight Rises” evoked the dangers of too much democracy in a blunt, obvious way; “Spider-Man” and “Chronicle” evinced these ideas much more effectively, masking the ideological underpinnings under their gee-whiz spectacle. With the deceptive oratorical finesse worthy of Barack Obama himself, whose presidency has articulated a clear vision of elite impunity, these films offer audiences a conception of order where justice protects the powerful from the exploited — and show how easy it is to escape criticism by eschewing overtly politicized imagery.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012, Mark Webb) is the second cinematic telling of the Peter Parker story. As in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man franchise, Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and, as Spider-Man, fights the evil villains who threaten order in his city.

Dr. Curt Connors, Parker’s mentor, is developing an experimental healing serum for shady Oscorp Industries. Dr. Connors is pressured by his corporate overlord Dr. Ratha to rush the creation to the human testing stage, before its effects have been properly tested on mice. When Connors refuses, Ratha fires him and makes clear his intention to test the serum on wounded veterans under the guise of a flu shot at the VA hospital.

In desperation, Connors tests the serum on himself, regrowing his missing arm but turning into a reptilian monster. As Connors/Lizard races to stop Ratha’s evil experiment, Spider-Man intercepts him on the Williamsburg Bridge. Though the film introduces Ratha as a figure of menace, he is just a catalyst for the conflict between Parker and his erstwhile mentor.

Who’s the Criminal?

The fight between Spider-Man and Lizard is the focus of the remainder of the film, and Dr. Ratha is not heard from or alluded to again. For all the viewer knows, he could have carried out his Nazi-esque human experimentation while the city’s resources were focused on the havoc being wreaked by the swinging acrobat and the dinosaur. By punishing Connors and forgetting about Ratha, the film frames the crimes of Connors as deserving of punishment — and erases the greater, more institutionalized crimes of Ratha and Oscorp.

It may seem an odd narrative choice for “The Amazing Spider-Man” to show a corporate criminal being saved by the hero. This is the essence of American justice in the 21st century: a system that shields the powerful while punishing those who try to stop their predations.

In his single-minded drive to advance his company’s bottom-line, Ratha reflects the dominant ethos of corporate capitalism and its destructive externalities rather than an aberration. Rapacious corporate capitalism threatens life on the planet itself, in the form of worsening anthropogenic climate change.

The Ratha character and Oscorp’s corporate malfeasance have uncomfortable real-world echoes with numerous examples of American non-consensual medical experimentation, with both biological agents and radiological experiments. However, Americans should be more familiar with the consequences of unchecked corporate greed since the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath.

Most evident in the wreckage left by the 2008 financial crisis has been a cycle in which egregious, profit-driven corporate criminality is exposed and followed by government immunization. In response to the unfettered corporate criminality responsible for destroying trillions of dollars in wealth came both the ethos of “too big to fail,” which resulted in additional trillions in federal bailout money, and “too big to jail”: the notion that some people are too important to the global economy to inconvenience with prosecution under relevant statutes.

The flipside of this oligarchic immunity is what Chase Madar calls “the criminalization of American life,” particularly for those who expose elite criminality. Because Connors refuses to acquiesce to atrocities the film marks him as the aberration: he literally becomes a monster for his decision to fight back.

Connors, with his direct-action resistance, is like so many whistleblowers and environmental activists who have been punished while the war criminals and environmental destroyers they expose are rewarded. This two-tiered system of justice, where acts of conscience are punished inordinately harshly while huge, systemic corruption is rewarded is why Chelsea Manning will be in prison for the next 30 years while Dick Cheney will spend the next 30 years fly-fishing, maintained by a steady stream of transplanted human hearts.

When “The Amazing Spider-Man” allows Dr. Ratha to slip away without sanction, he disappears just as quietly as the latest real-life instance of corporate abuse disappears from the news cycle, supplanted by vacuous, “red vs. blue” partisan sniping and vapid celebrity gossip.

The Meaning of “Chronicle”

“Chronicle” (2012, Josh Trank) sought to inject new life in the superhero origin-story premise by using the found-footage format. As in “Spider-Man,” the villain in “Chronicle” develops powers at the same time as the hero, then becomes their enemy. Similarly, as in “Spider-Man,” the hero is complemented by an antagonist who becomes a villain in trying to stop a more violent individual, who then escapes justice.

In “Chronicle,” the hero is a high school student named Matt, who, along with his cousin Andrew and popular jock Steve, gain powers from an extraterrestrial object the three discover in the woods. Andrew, the character who becomes the villain, decides to videotape his life, and it’s his camera that gives the audience its perspective. Andrew’s mother suffers from cancer and his alcoholic father is verbally and physically abusive, in contrast to Matt’s idyllic home life.

Andrew evinces a willingness to use his powers in a way that Matt disapproves, initially exacting revenge on a rude motorist and later against the school bully. At the same time as his powers grow stronger, Andrew’s home life is deteriorating. His mother’s cancer takes a turn for the worse, and he turns to crime to afford her medication.

Andrew is harmed during the course of a robbery, and Andrew’s father comes to the hospital, distraught over his wife’s death and intending to harm his unconscious son. As his father is about to strike, Andrew awakens and flies off with him, prompting a psychic twinge in Matt. Matt flies off to stop Andrew, killing him in the ensuing fight. Presumably, Andrew’s father escapes relatively unhurt.

Given the abuse the audience has seen Andrew’s father inflict on his son, it’s jarring to see him protected by the film’s hero. The father character was about to brutalize an unconscious teen, on whom he had a long history of inflicting abuse. For the abused to resist and fight back against their abuser would seem like justified resistance.

While it may seem odd for “Chronicle” to show that justice is a hero protecting an abuser from retribution, the film is reflecting the dynamic at work in society when the marginalized try to resist their oppression.

This reality becomes evident on the personal level when an abused person expects to rely on laws that were never intended to protect her. This is what happened to Marissa Alexander when she invoked the “stand your ground” defense against her abusive husband. CeCe MacDonald, a Black trans­woman, was sent to prison on manslaughter charges after defending herself from attempted murder at the hands of neo-Nazis.

[For an update on the Marissa Alexander case and her pending retrial, see On CeCe McDonald’s sentence, see —ed.]

The dynamic is embedded in the very framework of rape culture, and the huge numbers of women who will suffer sexual violence. The autocratic paternalism of an abusive father is present in the larger discourse of colonialism, which infantilizes the colonized. When Matt kills his cousin Andrew, he not only saves an abuser, he sends a message about the acceptable limits of resistance. It’s not only a personal form of resistance he’s policing, but also forms of resistance that have ramifications on a larger scale.

During the epilogue of “Chronicle,” Matt records a video for his dead cousin from a snow-covered mountaintop. Facing the camera, Matt says that he finally made it to Tibet, a peaceful place that Andrew had always dreamt of visiting. As the homeland of the Dalai Lama, of course Tibet is the film’s physical and philosophical endpoint.

Most Americans are probably only familiar with the Dalai Lama’s teaching of  “think different,” from its time as Apple’s corporate motto. However, the monk formerly known as Tenzin Gyatso has a firm conception of justice that looks exactly like the one at work in these films.

Some were surprised when, in 2011, the monk suggested that the killing of Osama bin Laden was justified. It made more sense when, in 1999, the Dalai Lama vocally supported Augusto Pinochet in the former Chilean dictator’s struggle to avoid extradition to Spain to face charges of crimes against humanity.

Pinochet, the fascist who came to power on September 11, 1973, killed more than 3000 people and tortured countless times more during his reign of terror. The difference between the two 9/11s, though, is that while bin Laden was hunted by the world’s most powerful empire, Pinochet remained part of the global elite. As reward for turning Chile into “one of the most privatized economies in the world,” Pinochet enjoyed the friendship of Margaret Thatcher, Henry Kissinger, and the Dalai Lama. The latter acted as elites do, passing down the notion that justice is punishment meted out from the top, while for the crimes of elites, as the Dalai Lama put it, “it’s better to forgive.”

Selling Insurrectionary Imagery

The fact that these three superhero movies contain top-down conceptions of law and order doesn’t mean that this is all the culture industry creates. The film industry, with its larger budgets and longer production periods, necessarily responds more slowly to popular trends than the music or fashion industries.

Both halves of American music’s premiere power couple, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, released music videos with revolutionary imagery after the resonance of the message Occupy made insurrection very fashionable. In the video for Beyoncé’s “Superpower,” the superstar initially wears a midriff-baring niqab/balaclava headpiece as she and rioters storm through a parking structure and what look like the ruins of a shopping mall.

Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” directed by Romain Gavras (son of legendary left-wing filmmaker Costa-Gavras), opens with a Molotov cocktail thrown at a line of riot police in a vaguely Eastern European city. Like actual pornography, the “No Church” video is a highly-produced simulation of the real thing, an intricately staged, slow-motion replica of images first seen on the streets of Greece and Egypt.

“No Church” was Jay-Z and Kanye West’s second video, after “Run This Town,” to feature revolutionary imagery. As a pre-eminent pop culture figure working in a traditionally transgressive genre, Jay-Z embodies the culture industry’s ability to sell explicitly revolutionary imagery.

The artist, who has both his own clothing line Rocawear and a multi-million dollar collaboration with Barney’s, released a shirt in early 2012 with the message “Occupy All Streets.”

Despite the insurrectionary clothing and music videos, Jay-Z denigrated Occupy as “a picnic” that he claimed he didn’t understand.

Both Beyoncé and Jay-Z, who cloak their products in the signifiers of rebellion, are famously close to Barack and Michelle Obama. The British-Iraqi musician Lowkey, in criticizing how the culture industry perpetuates hegemony, points to the friendship of the Knowles-Carters and the Obamas as an illustrative example of whose voices get rewarded with exposure:

“We have to ask why the person who’s being pushed as ‘the greatest rapper of all time‘ is being pictured in the White House — whose interests does that serve?” The rapper and activist is uniquely positioned to comment, since his music’s revolutionary message has kept him off MTV, despite impressive sales of his albums.

Compared to the music or fashion industries, superhero films are beholden to more interests, and have to make many times more money to be profitable. That is not to say that large studio movies can’t also traffic in insurrectionary imagery, or that the appropriation of that imagery can’t have transgressive ends.

In marketing Warner Brothers’s 2005 adaptation of Alan Moore’s dystopian “V For Vendetta,” the film’s stars were emphatic that the film could be read as a criticism of totalitarian regimes in Iran and North Korea, rather than the Bush administration. The Guy Fawkes mask popularized by the film has been ubiquitous at sites of citizen unrest, famously providing the face for the hacker activist group Anonymous at the same time as sales of the mask line the coffers of Time Warner.

More recently, the success of the “Hunger Games” franchise has created a marketing juggernaut centered around a story about a society immiserated by inequality and authoritarian state violence. A four-film series about a violent revolution is being used to sell everything from branded clothing and jewelry to a possible Hunger Games theme park.

Still, the possibility that revolutionary imagery even in the service of capital can serve a transgressive end finds some support in the Hunger Games Subway sandwich tie-in. With a series in which starvation is such a central motif, a branded meal invites a reading as sly, subversive commentary on marketing.

Our Fears and Laws

The first “Hunger Games” film was the third-highest grossing film of 2012, after “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” In the 21st century, few genres of films rake in the money or can boast the kind of studio push as established superhero franchises. In the past decade, these films have acted as assuagers of collective fears and moral reassurance.

The messages these films impart are noteworthy, as is the ideology embedded in their generally Manichaean narratives. Whom our superheroes fight demonstrate the permissible avenues for force to be directed in the name of American justice. In “Spider-Man” and “Chronicle,” superheroes are fighting to entrench the existing power structure at the expense of their victims. Yet it was only “The Dark Knight Rises” that was singled out as expressly political.

It may speak to how pernicious a message can be when it’s communicated without explicit signifiers. It may also speak to how normalized America’s two-tiered system of justice has become.

 This perversion of basic “equality under the law” has come from the top. At the beginning of his first term, president Obama summoned a rogue’s gallery of Wall Street’s worst to assure them that he was “standing between [them] and the pitchforks.” His administration has followed through on that, defending both elite criminals from the oligarch class and the deep state.

The narrative dynamics at work in “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “Chronicle” reflect this bipartisan American reality, where the law exists to protect the powerful and entrench systems of inequality. In his piece “It’s Called the Ruling Class Because It Rules” (, Arthur Silber says:

“The law is not some Platonic Form plucked from the skies by the Pure in Heart. Laws are the particular means by which the state implements and executes its vast powers. When an increasingly authoritarian state passes a certain critical point in its development, the law is no longer the protector of individual rights and individual liberty. The law becomes the weapon of the state itself — to protect, not you, but the state from threats to its own powers. We passed that critical point some decades ago. The law is the means by which the state corrals its subjects, keeps them under control, and forbids them from acting in ways that the overlords might perceive as threatening. In brief, today, in these glorious United States, the law is not your friend.”

March/April 2014, ATC 169