In today’s gritty landscape of post-cyberpunk superhero movies, how does one modernize an antiquated hero who wears his underwear on the outside of his skin-tight pants?
Clearly, the answer is to take off the underpants:
Zach Snyder’s newest film has not won over Eileen Jones of Jacobin magazine. Her analysis of grit-loving Zach Synder’s Batman v. Superman is a hilarious read. Following up on her review of Gotham’s favorite plutocrat slugging it out with godlike neoliberal vigilante Superman, Jones writes, “I’m sick of all superheroes, along with their friends and foes, and I wish they were all dead and buried together in one mass grave. If I thought there could be an absolutely final sequel called Superhero Slaughterhouse: No One Is Spared, I’d be there opening day in the front row to see it.”
In some ways, Eileen’s review, and her well-aimed witticisms, are spot on, but in lamenting the over-abundance of superhero films these days, she doesn’t interrogate exactly why American cinema has become so overcrowded with the stuff of fantastical vigilantism. The cynical answer is, of course, that the bar has been set so low that Hollywood grabs the lowest of the low-hanging fruit, and comics, with their rich histories and ready-made epics, definitely fit the bill. But this doesn’t address the ideological significance of attempting to recuperate underwear-on-the-outside heroes for the modern world.
Zach Snyder has been in the business of super-vigilante modernization at least since Watchmen (2009), the dark comic book film in which burnt-out, fat, and out-of-fashion superheroes must get back in the business to take down their erstwhile comrade in the classic format of the retired badass taking on “one last job.” This is a story that knows how ridiculous superheroes are, with their goofy costumes and absurdly superhuman premises. They come from a shared ideological universe, after all, in which the famously over-the-top Fallout series’ Vault Boy fits in perfectly with a Wolverine who wears those absurd black ears on his stretchy yellow hat. Even the Wolverine comics have struggled, at least since the late ’70’s (just a few years after his creation), with taking the hat off and offering some kind of explanation for its peculiar existence (it’s to maintain his hairdo, of course).
Snyder’s co-conspirator and Executive Producer Christopher Nolan has likewise been largely responsible for resuscitating Batman from his last stint in cheese fondue display Batman & Robin (1997)–with all of 11% on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to Batman Begins (2005) at 85%. So what gives?
According to Jones, via scholar Dan Hassler-Forest,
Superman is the fantasy embodiment of committed liberal idealism, his godlike alien status allowing him to represent good governance in action with no taint of vigilantism about him. He becomes a figure of nostalgia as the possibility of such unifying idealism falls apart and Batman supersedes him as the fantasy embodiment of the violent contradictions of neoliberalism.
…[In Man of Steel] Superman is humanized and thus brought closer to Batman in his earthbound struggle with chaos and contingency, signaling the loss of “transcendent” values Superman once embodied.
Indeed, it is precisely this loss of “transcendent values” that audiences relish in the modern superhero film, hence the increasingly darkening of the tone and moral trajectory of the genre. The ambit of the superhero holds up a mirror to the ridiculous values that nationalist public education systems impart to young and impressionable pupils, who either spend the rest of their lives totally oblivious to that yoke (think fans of 300 without a shred of irony), or who carry around the loss of the “transcendent values” of a moral nation with innocent beginnings like a chip on their shoulders. Hence the popular nationalist origin myth of a “free” United States with Christian values that has only lately fallen into moral ruin and chaos, thanks to the confusion of our postmodern times.
This context explains precisely why, if our superheroes wear underwear or otherwise preposterous costumes, it must be ironic (Watchmen), or else reserved for children’s cartoons. Mature adults whose coming of age dosed them with a healthy measure of reality require the underwear to come off.
But how many superhero films does it take to satiate all of that audible, ironic back-patting? Apparently, as many as it takes for the superhero narrative framework, and concomitant audience feedback loop, to accept that real suits of armor in the modern world look like your typical U.S. shock trooper, locked cocked and ready to rock the faces off of Afghan babies. Indeed, the ludicrous suits that Batman, et al. wear in their fights against “evil” (or at least, in a morally ambiguous slugfest, the other side), exist solely to cover up the banal nakedness of fascism and wealth-worship that creeps just beneath the surface in most superhero narratives (with the exception of The Dark Knight Rises: Batman v. Occupy, in which there isn’t much creeping at all).
With Marvel’s relatively recent Civil War (2006-7) event, in which the internal contradictions of righteous vigilantism versus superhero as the embodiment of ruling-class, Übermensch values, literally erupt in a mutually devastating civil war, superhero fiction writers are already cluing in. Indeed, the war concludes when our rebel Captain America is shot to death and the forces of fascism win. Lest DC be shown up, they too have caught the wiff of their putrifying narrative forms, at least since The Death of Superman (1992), which incidentally spawned possibly one of the best Sega Genesis / SNES games ever.
Civil War releases on May 6 of this year. Perhaps Eileen Jones will approve of this alternately titled Superhero Slaughterhouse?