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April 12, 2017

JEONG | Politicizing Our Superheroes

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Americans love their superhero blockbusters — and what’s not to love? It’s two hours of CGI explosions, men with objectively perfect bodies and feel-good endings reaffirming that good always triumphs over evil. Just as the Ancient Greeks had Hector and Achilles, we have Batman and Superman. They are flawed and often complicated characters, but ultimately they represent a higher societal virtue that can be universally admired. For Odysseus, it was his tremendous intellect and unparalleled wit; for Captain America, his dedication to country and perfectly linear abdominal muscles.

However, it is because these superheroes represent the greater values of our society that they can become symbols of our politics. It is interesting that superhero movies have become modern political allegories. Most people don’t go to the movie theaters for profound philosophical discussion on Locke and the social contract. Rather, most summer flicks are a few hours of escapism in the form of uncomplicated Hollywood drama. When I spend $10 to watch Ride Along 2, I don’t necessarily want to see Kevin Hart and Ice Cube delve into deep debates over how we should fix the gender wage gap or the two-state solution in the Middle East (on that note, I don’t particularly want to see Kendall Jenner tackle police brutality in a commercial for soft drinks either).  However, superhero films can be the perfect medium for philosophical examination. There is usually a clear delineation between the good and the bad guy. But once you break this binary, it presents fundamental questions on age-old moral dilemmas: what is good, what is bad; who gets to decide what is good or bad?

Take the most recent installation in the Marvel series, Captain America: Civil War. After the catastrophic destruction wrought by Earth’s mightiest heroes  in The Avengers, the U.S. government and the United Nations pass legislation to register and regulate the actions of the Avengers. As a result, the Avengers splinter into  two teams: Team A is led by Iron Man, Team B by Captain America. Tony Stark believes that government and civilian oversight is necessary for the future of the Avengers, while Captain America asserts that his own convictions and loyalties trump the ever-changing agendas of institutions. Such division raises basic political and philosophical questions on the social contract and civil liberties. Tony Stark’s logic follows that of Thomas Hobbes — he rejects Captain America’s staunch adherence to his moral compass, arguing that a central authority is necessary to regulate and monitor all people from their brutish disposition. Therefore, he binds to this idea of moral subjectivism and of a Hobbesian social contract, in which all people sacrifice individual rights for the sake of the state. Captain America finds himself aligning with consequentialist libertarian and Kantian deontologist thought — that our individual liberties are greater than the state itself, especially when the actions of the state contradict our individual notions of moral correctness. More specifically, he finds that despite the potential political and civilian ramifications, it is his good will that is more important than the consequences of his actions.

Furthermore, these movies can also become pertinent political statements on more contemporary issues in American political discourse. Civil War directly harkens back to the Bush administration — a time in which the freshly signed PATRIOT Act sought to surveil citizens for the sake of national security and when public opinion on the Iraq War deviated from Washington’s actions. Similarly, the recent release of Logan is particularly cogent in these early days of the Trump administration. The film, which takes place on the Southwest border of the United States, traces a very similar parallel between the treatment of mutants and Trump’s rhetoric against undocumented immigrants from Mexico. Though the director and actors have commented that Logan was not meant to be an overtly political movie, even they could not deny the germaneness to today’s political climate.
And perhaps that is the point. From a reader-response critical perspective, it is the audience’s reactions and emotions that imbue the work with meaning. We actively seek meaning and relevance in a work of art; by extension, our understanding is indivisible from the message of the movie itself. As the political climate becomes more heated, and the maligned “Hollywood elite” invest more and more money into activist causes and campaigns, you should expect to see more thought-provoking movies in a theater near you. Personally, I am very much looking forward to the new Thor movie, an epic saga in which the Norse god struggles to find his way from Asgard back to the United States after President Trump’s immigration ban.

 

Jason Jeong is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jj357@cornell.edu. Jeongo Unchained appears alternating Wednesdays this semester.