The conflict in Syria has reached an ebb in the international consciousness. It has been buried under the weight of other, apparently more pressing, concerns like the rise of Nazism in the white English-speaking world, Russia investing heavily in the disruption of other Nations and the general economic and societal decline in nearly every developed country all over the world. But still the mess of a conflict in Syria carries on at much the same pace as it has done these last few years. With a vested interest in the war from nearly every Nation it is emblematic of the current, growing crisis we see across the world, yet it is relegated to an ‘also’ in most media coverage today. It’s a bleak time to be alive and as has always been the case throughout history in times of such upheaval, art and culture reflect this. Whether it’s the Mainstream Media chasing the next high of a revelation about Trump, Brexit or some scandal that once would have claimed the career of an individual it is simply shrugged off, or today’s biggest money spinner of cultural ephemera: Superheroes.
If, like me, you were a comic book reader and superhero fan before the release of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man which seems to have kick started this current trend, the almost unanimous adoption of this culture is a little jarring. It’s also kind of annoying. Where were you all when I was a kid? I had (and have) it even tougher because I was (and still am) a DC kid (the publisher of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman among others, for anyone who doesn’t know/care). As such, it’s kind of tough trying to support the company/publisher that is, in a world saturated by the presence of costumed heroes, the least liked and, indeed, actively hated by many. I often feel compelled to defend my love of these characters, comics and movies etc but then realise this is pointless. It’s all too dumb. I’m 34, there are better things to fight for. But lately I’ve been prompted to think more about my enjoyment of the, arguably, most iconic Superhero of them all: Superman. It was his 80th birthday earlier this year so I’ve been going over all the stuff I enjoyed of his in the past and even bought the special edition of the commemorative comic book that was released to coincide with his birthday for MY birthday. All of which has made me look at the Big Blue Boy Scout in a few different ways.
On the face of it Superman, and thus Clark Kent, are the ideal American: white, male, from a rust-belt State, clothed in the colours of the flag and spends his free time when not at work still working hard at serving the community/nation/world. The ideal American. What’s so fascinating about the current trend in superhero culture is the insistence on this sort of status quo being required. The good guys fight to keep the world as it is despite the real world being a place of unending social upheaval right now. They seem to fight for the world to go back to what it once was, an era a lot of people perhaps associate with the 80s or 90s where the much mooted ‘End of History’ seemed to be occurring. With ‘Marvel Now!’ and the Disney owned Marvel Studios, Superheroes are being forced to contest with today's much less black and white, good and bad world. X-Men is almost solely depicted as an allegory for the LGBQT+ community and their struggles, Black Panther went to great lengths to wrestle with the VERY touchy subject of race relations in the USA and the lead character of the biggest film of all time, Infinity War, Thanos the Titan, is a rounded and developed character whose intentions, whilst not pure necessarily, are certainly not the boo hiss villainy of the past. And Yet… the endings of these comics and movies ultimately show a profound lack of imagination on the part of the heroes and therefore Producers/Writers. Without wishing to spoil, the shock ending of Infinity War is hardly permanent. "The only spoilers are in the actors contracts" as a friends pointed out. Change is resisted at all turns, even in the face of cataclysmic and seismic shifts in the story the movie makers would literally rather turn back time than maintain these changes. It is a frustrating business model to watch playout. You can tell Disney/Marvel realise they need to address a polarised and changing audience by incorporating similar themes to the contemporary issues of society but end up just falling back on meaningless platitudes that result in almost no real or significant change. For my money at least, DC has always been different.
Back in the 80s DC produced some of the comics that would come to define the culture of comics and consequently the mainstream of today by hiring genuinely talented and alternative writers and artists to rethink their major lines. This was the era of writers like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Grant Morrisson and more, who wrote the likes of Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns that deconstructed the genre and the characters themselves. There’s plenty of material by fanboys like me on the internet about this stuff but its significant to me because, successful or not, DC has always made attempts at looking at comics and the culture differently and how that relates to the modern world. And it is this, I argue, the much loathed ‘Snyder-verse’ of Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman and Justice League does better than Marvel (yeah you heard me). The merits of the technical accomplishments, style, dialogue, effects, etc … well, that’s up to you. There’s a metric shit-tonne of angry video essays and podcasts on how woefully these movies fail at everything and Snyder deserves death or whatever, but I’d like to look at one or two points about why there’s – at least some – merit to the now aborted DCEU.
There is a reason we call the likes of America, China and Russia ‘The Superpowers’ of the world. They lead global thinking or practice in most areas. Where one of the global superpowers goes, others either follow or come into conflict with another, which is essentially what Superman represents. How a Superpower operates is part of the narrative. The much-discussed Christian imagery of Man of Steel is indeed present but far from the most significant facet, yet sadly the one most fixated on. This iconography comes along with the discussion of what a superpower (Christian or otherwise) should or should not do, their influence, their interventionism etc. Similar to the discussion of terrorism which was viewed as Bush apologism in The Dark Knight. The villain of Batman VS Superman, however, is the (admittedly poorly performed) Lex Luthor, depicted as a young, Zuckerberg-esque, tech Billionaire, the opposite of Wayne’s old-school, inherited wealth type of Billionaire. Neither of whom are depicted as good or nice people. The representation of a major international newspaper is that it's a dying artform who must conform to clickbait and not pursue stories of merit that are worth investigating (a more in-depth side plot, that was cut from the theatrical release of Batman vs Superman). While the films offer no ideas for how to change these things, these real-world issues are at least present and part of the discussion in each film. Far more than any other franchise at the moment. I’m not arguing these films are underrated works of art, BvsS is a mess certainly, but they are certainly ambitious and are attempting to do something actually different.
Which is why I bring up Syria. The end of Man of Steel was much criticised for its wanton destruction of Metropolis (a fictional city) and the probable deaths of thousands caused by two Superpowers slugging it out. If this finale had been set in Aleppo before the War, the Capital of Syria that is now reduced to rubble, I wonder what would have been said? As that would barely be an allegory at that point. As an audience we are disgusted by, and refuse to accept, the huge destruction of a major city in the United States, but we have relegated the exact same story to a shrug and an afterthought on the rolling news when it is a true story, just thousands of miles across the globe. The allegory of superpowers wreaking havoc in the middle of a major metropolitan city in havoc seems so absurd yet is clearly tied to the destruction of the Twin Towers (an event now nearly 20 years old), an similarity that was explicitly explored (and ridiculed by audiences) at the beginning of Batman vs Superman. This notion of bringing distant destruction to our doors was clearly not the intended message of Man of Steel but it’s an idea that is present nonetheless. It is these more inquisitive themes I get the most out of from DC more than any other franchise because, for all their faults, they actually bother. The reticence seems to be that superhero movies are not the place for this. Audiences require affirmation, a return to the status quo. So it’s depressing to me that this kind of deconstructive analysis of some really important ideas has been abandoned by DC/Warner Bros. These are big films seen by millions that should have prompted some thought and discussion but for a myriad of reasons (again, better complained about elsewhere) they were not accepted, which I feel is a shame. In the meantime, the world is changing, violently, and insistence on maintaining a – now long dead – image of what the world should be, seems painfully short sighted. History will probably view the Snyder movies as curios, a lens through which to view a strange time as capitalism went through its ending stages, but will view the Marvel movies as grotesque, desperate appeals to an era already past.
That is assuming that future generations are still able to survive in the toxic atmosphere of Earth with no Superpowers to save them…