[Note: This piece contains mild spoilers about Captain America: Civil War]
There's a moment in Captain America: Civil War when Vision, the very red superhero portrayed by Paul Bettany, surveys the damage wrought by the film's latest hero-on-hero mega-brawl and suggests, perceptively, that some of it might be the heroes' fault. I don't have the exact text of the speech he delivers, because I was eating popcorn and not taking notes, because I am not a communist. But it goes something like this:
Hark! [Author's note: Just like Paul Bettany in real life, Vision is forever saying things like "Hark!"] Becalm yourselves and heed me, for though you be but mortal folk, you are my allies and have shown me friendship, even though my origin story basically seems to have been "we ran Shaquille O'Neal through a ‘Consider the Lobster' simulator and came out with a Tilda Swinton parody of Orlando Bloom." Hark again! Our strength invites challenge, and challenge invites conflict, and just going by recent developments here, conflict seems to invite kind of a ton of wrecked airports and knocked-over skyscrapers, and I wonder, O my friends, if some of that is -- ahem -- on us?
Watching this scene, I couldn't help but flash back to a similar moment in last month's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, when Batman and Superman stage an extended debate over issues of power, oversight, and responsibility, conducted in director Zack Snyder's trademark style of rapid-fire dialogue.
SUPERMAN: [rapidly fires punches into Batman's kidneys]
BATMAN: [groans in slow motion for 90 seconds while dreaming of 1,000 doves that catch on fire in a rain that is made of oil for some reason]
OK, I'm kidding -- only 800 doves catch on fire. But Civil War and Batman v Superman, though they are very different films in crucial ways -- the primary one being that Civil War is good -- do have some important themes in common. I don't just mean the obvious one, i.e., that they both revolve around super friends learning the vital kindergarten-class life lesson that you can't process angry feelings by hitting your buddies with SUVs. They're also both windows into the strangely self-conscious politics of the modern comic-book movie. And they're both unusually lucid examples of a narrative archetype that resonates deeply in American culture right now, even outside the arena of magic shields and formfitting latex pectorals.
To understand what that narrative might be, it helps to think about all the ways in which superhero movies have become vehicles for talking about larger social issues. I hope it's clear that I'm not saying that just to be fancy. For the last several years, superhero movies have been practically beating us over the head with all the larger social issues they want to be about. Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy rasped its way through a meditation on the tensions of the post-9/11 security state. The X-Men films use the uneasy relationship between mutants and non-mutants to examine the dangers of intolerance. The films in the Avengers-verse run through a whole gamut of big contemporary anxieties, ranging from surveillance-state paranoia (Captain America: Winter Soldier) to the trauma felt by survivors of terrorism and war (Avengers: Age of Ultron, as well as Civil War and pretty much every "serious" Marvel product since the gang went out for shawarma in a still-smoldering New York).
Some of these movies are more coherent than others. Some of them are more proto-fascist than others. What they have in common is that they are obsessed with the problem of power -- its legitimacy, its limits, how it should be deployed and restrained in a world suddenly full of existential threats that the established social order is not equipped to handle. And where the comic-book films of the ‘80s and ‘90s mostly focused on the heroes' own perspectives and on their inner lives (compared to Christian Bale's crypto-authoritarian cipher, Michael Keaton's Batman was just a weird dude gaming out a fetish), post-9/11 comic-book movies have been astonishingly preoccupied with how their protagonists have been perceived by other people and by society in general.
Statues are built for them; statues are pulled down. They're credited with saving the world; they're blamed for not saving it carefully enough. They're on MSNBC crawls. They're dragged in front of congressional subcommittees. The truly weird proliferation of congressional subcommittee scenes in comic-book films, it seems to me, is an eloquent testimony to the destabilizing uncertainty of contemporary American political life; hey, democracy may be collapsing, but at least we can use its remaining instruments to interrogate the Flash. But if the heroes aren't being grilled by Congress, they're dealing with politicians in other ways. The Secretary of State is giving them a treaty meant to curtail the exercise of their powers. Important heads of state are frowning at them on hovering holo-video-y links. African kings are putting on rad unitards and acrobatically scratching them in highway tunnels.
I said before that the world the characters in these films inhabit is "suddenly" full of existential threats. That suddenness is interesting, because it marks a big way in which comic-book movies -- which are now often praised for sticking closer to the style and tone of actual comic books -- pretty dramatically deviate from their source material. Actual comic books depend on a sense of timelessness, one in which an endless series of earth-shattering plot developments only rarely changes the basic assumptions of the narrative. There are and always will be superheroes and supervillains; you have seen the Joker lose before, because the Joker has been losing and coming back for decades. The Joker is immortal, and when you see him go down again this week you know he'll be back in two months or in six months or in a year.
That is not how things work in contemporary superhero dramas. In the world of these films, there were no mutants or "enhanced humans" or benevolent alien overseers within living memory. Society was more or less just like our society. Then superheroes arrived. A line was crossed. Things changed. There is always, in these movies, a sense that the world has gone a little crazy, that we are dealing with a new order whose rules no one really knows. And that newness partly explains the extreme focus on the problem of whether and how the abilities of the heroes can be accommodated within the existing framework of governments and laws and the popular will.
The other explanation for that focus is an irony that, when you start to lay it out, is kind of gobsmacking, and that gets at an almost Greek-tragic dimension of recent comic-book movies. (Let's say Norse-tragic, because Thor.) The irony is this: The superheroes in superhero movies are always the only force capable of saving humanity from the threats it faces. But with astounding regularity in post-9/11 comic-book films, the threats mankind has to be saved from were either unleashed by the heroes themselves, came into being simultaneously with the heroes, or both. In other words, the chaos from which the heroes are required to save the world is implicit in the heroes' being in the world in the first place; even when the protagonists aren't actually the authors of the crisis they are fighting against -- something that, again, happens with startling frequency -- they are manifestations of the same fundamental shift. Hark!
By this point -- and in the Avengers series especially -- this basic plot seed has unfurled a whole dramatic poison flower of bloodshed and regret. Thor's arrival on Earth leads to Loki's attempted conquest of the planet, which leads to much of Manhattan being wiped out by Chitauri warships, which prompts Tony Stark to create the protective AI Ultron, who turns out to be a horrifying supervillain (whoops) who destroys a vast chunk of the nation of Sokovia, guilt over which motivates Stark to support the diplomatic accords that lead to the ruinous civil war with Captain America, which is furthered by the villainous scheming of Helmut Zemo, who is, in turn, motivated by personal loss incurred in the battle over Sokovia, which is, again, pretty much directly the Avengers' fault. The DC Universe is not nearly so baroque at this point. But it's pretty much the same deal. Superman's whole beef with Batman is prompted by fallout from Superman's battle royal with General Zod's terraforming platform at the end of Man of Steel, and the slavering whatever-beast Lex Luthor unleashes around the 15-hour mark of Batman v Superman is created by the Kryptonian scout ship whose presence on Earth is deeply linked to Superman's own. The scout ship also (accidentally) summoned General Zod in the first place. Earth needs Superman to save it from the perils it faces because Superman lives there. What a ... great deal for us Earthlings, I guess?
As fucked-up cultural projections go, I'd argue that this runs way deeper than the idea that since skyscrapers get so prominently totaled in comic-book cinema, the movies represent a mass-cultural response to the fear of terrorism. I mean, they do, but in 2016, they are also about the ways in which responsibility warps into anarchy and security warps into threat. They are trying, on some level, to articulate the paradox of living in a society in which danger has become curiously hard to differentiate from the safeguards danger generates, and in which the only powers capable of preserving order are apparently the same powers that threaten it. Maybe they're not articulating it well, maybe they're not saying it convincingly, but they're trying with more energy and directness than most contemporary art films I can think of.
And yes, I'm talking about military force here, obviously, which is the uppermost superhero-movie point of reference. (Civil War gives a prominent role to a drone!) But the logic permeates. Remember when Wall Street torpedoed the economy, then we more or less looked to Wall Street to save it? When Silicon Valley wipes out a whole segment of industry, or pops up on some random Tuesday to disrupt all previously established forms of human relationship, where do we look for a solution but Silicon Valley itself?
The glaring problem with viewing superhero movies as a venue for processing cultural anxieties about power is that superhero movies have to sell tickets, which means that Captain America is only ever going to be so wrong. The little guy's perspective is never really going to matter, because the little guy's CGI isn't expensive enough. We're not paying for peace in the third act. We want to see skylines leveled, and we want it again and again and again. Since we also want to identify with our protagonists, the heroes, almost all the time, are going to prove both right and necessary. The world really will end if they don't lash out with maximum force. Nice try, UN! Tell it to the encroaching wall of fiery death, Mr. Secretary! Civil War, which at least flirts with the idea that it was really all for nothing, is the rare exception to this imperative. But I don't think we can expect it to start a trend. Comic-book movies are going to continue to incorporate the pervading ambiguity of contemporary power, and the demands of the box office are going to continue to resolve those ambiguities in kinda fascist ways -- even if the deepest instincts of the film run the other direction, even if the worship of power is tempered by all sorts of unease and hesitation and brooding–Robert Downey Jr. regret.
Which also says something about American culture, probably, but I guess we'll have to wait until Infinity War to find out.