After the Cold War, superhero movies were about exploring identity. Under George W Bush, they were about the use and abuse of power. And under Obama? They’ll be about confusion and nostalgia, if Iron Man 2 is anything to go by
The rise of the superhero movie as a tentpole genre staple and studio cash cow more or less overlapped with the war on terror. Broadly speaking, superhero titles of the 90s used costumed crimefighting to explore identity: the Batman movies, Spawn, Unbreakable and especially the X-Men cycle that began as the decade ended were concerned with how superpowers set their bearers apart from society. Following the Batman franchise’s descent into bloated farce, the genre was reanimated and propelled to a whole new level of success by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man reboot, over which the shadow of 9/11 obliquely fell when its trailer, prominently featuring the World Trade Centre, had to be withdrawn. Undoubtedly alert to the social hassles of superheroics, Raimi’s Spider-Man also set the template for the genre under George W Bush: the superhero movie as a fantasy arena for exploring the uses of power. This time, it ain’t personal.
With great power, Peter Parker learned, comes great responsibility. It’s a theme that resonates throughout the decade’s superhero blockbusters (identity-based exceptions such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine notwithstanding). Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are a prime example: Batman Begins was an essay on the tactical and strategic uses of fear while The Dark Knight showed how pre-emptive strikes on conventional threats (in this case organised crime) could have unintended, wildly asymmetrical consequences (the Joker). Superman Returns was framed as an abdication-crisis story, as in some ways was Hancock, in which Will Smith played a superhero who uses his powers more or less for good, but is indifferent to the collateral damage they cause and baffled as to why he is so disliked; at the climax of a plot that is more or less a 12-step rehab programme, he learns that sometimes the responsible thing to do is walk away. Similarly, in the reboot of The Incredible Hulk, the big green one realised his power must be restrained for his and everyone else’s good, concentrating not on fighting the good fight but on keeping his own aggression in check and learning to withstand provocation.
There was a sense here of the superhero – and, by extension, America – as Frankenstein. It’s not just that the Hulk looks like Mary Shelley’s monster or that Will Smith’s Hancock went to see the Boris Karloff movie: these films were concerned with the idea that massive physical power can be destructive as well as redemptive. One conspicuous exception was 2008’s Iron Man. The only such film to take the war on terror as its explicit backdrop, it was also the most purely escapist blockbuster of the genre. Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark had a fraction of the self-doubt that tormented other such heroes and he managed to tame the world’s conflicts through the old-school method of deterrence through superior firepower – in this case, Iron Man himself.
The film’s sequel, out this week, opens from that position of wish-fulfilment: “Iron Man Stabilizes East-West Relations”, one headline blares, and there are glimpses of the hero on posters in the style of Shepard Fairey’s iconic blue-and-red image of Obama. Is this, then, the first superhero movie of the Obama era? Perhaps – but it’s probably more accurate to say it’s the first post-Bush superhero movie. One of its storylines is about finding a bright, clean replacement for something rotten at the heart of power, but rather than a new sense of bipartisanship or pragmatism, its power politics are a confused echo chamber, a mish-mash of “USA! USA!” patriotism and love-hate attitudes towards aggression (peace is good, gun porn is better) and entrepreneurialism (“I successfully privatised world peace,” Stark crows). Its sniggering at the incompetence of Iran or North Korea is undercut by anxiety about the US military machine run amok and rogue foes motivated by personal animus.
Perhaps most strikingly, much of the movie plays like a throwback to a Cold War sensibility that long predates even 9/11. This is a film about arms races and the military-industrial complex, a world where the Monaco Grand Prix is the epitome of glamour, the 1964 World’s Fair the apex of development and dastardly Russians are out for revenge. The superhero movies of the Bush era showed America grappling with the limits of power. Iron Man 2 suggests a country anxious and uncertain about what lies at its core and beyond its reach, and with a taste for the comforts of nostalgia.