Recent articles about the political leanings of popular comic book characters got me thinking about the uncanny valley between fictional and real-world ideologies. We’re happy to have characters speak in broad terms — “With great power comes great responsibility” — but the minute they start referring to specific issues, we become very uncomfortable.
How does The Flash feel about immigration? Is Wolverine pro-choice? Does Black Canary support the First Amendment rights of hate groups? We don’t know, and really don’t want to know.
To be certain, comics sometimes do have their characters take specific, controversial political stands. Famously, Frank Miller’s Superman in The Dark Knight Returns is literally working for Reagan. But more often, we get placeholders and parallels to soften the blow.
Wonder Woman’s homeland of Themiscyra is isolationist, as the U.S has been at times. The Green Lanterns police the universe, like U.N. peacekeepers writ large. And X-Men are mutants who fight prejudice, discrimination and mutant-phobia.
Sometimes the analogies are transparent. Black Adam rules Kahndaq with an iron fist — he’s literally a weapon of mass destruction, and a danger to the free world. But the facile Iraq/Al-Qaeda parallels only go so far. Yes, he’s a tyrant, but there’s no religion or oil at stake, no greater cause beyond his own ego. If Black Adam were to get sucked into a magic scarab, or sent to the farthest reaches of the universe, there would be no more “Kahndaq crisis.” 1
And this is probably a good thing. I’d argue that the thematic success of comic book characters, and comic book storylines, comes from how closely they can approach the line separating Real from Too Real, without crossing it.
For example, this summer’s The Dark Knight is set in the most realistic Gotham City yet, but its characters still speak in broad philosophical proclamations. Just listen to Batman:
Sometimes, truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.
Sometimes, dialogue should only be spoken while wearing a mask. His statement makes sense in abstract, but you wouldn’t want it applied to, say, the invasion of a sovereign nation based on false evidence. Even Commissioner Gordon seems to understand that Batman is better suited to villain-thumping than leadership. His improbable answer to his young son’s question about why Batman is running:
Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now…and so we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector…a dark knight.
Efforts to place TDK’s Batman on a real-world political spectrum are doomed. Sure, he’s tough on crime, but he’s also anti-gun. He holds himself outside the law, but destroys his own phone-tapping technology. Is he a Conservative? A Liberal?2 A Libertarian?
Nope, he’s just Batman. And as a comic book character, he’s allowed to hold simultaneous incompatible philosophies.
I think fans are responding to this latest wave of superhero movies not because they’re more realistic, but because they safely insulate us from reality, letting us address epic themes without uncomfortable details. Law versus Chaos is entertaining in TDK, but messy when you look at Iraq. The military-industrial complex is, well, less complex when Tony Stark can simply stop making weapons. And become a weapon. Or something. (The important thing is, he beat up Jeff Bridges, who was visibly evil and bald.)
The episode of Heroes: Origins I was set to write and direct last year deliberately crossed that line between “somewhat believable” and “far too realistic.” It was structured as an installment of A&E’s great documentary series Intervention, and followed two addicts with superpowers. We never shot it — the whole series got shelved — but I’m not sure it would have worked. And the producers were certainly nervous. In Iron Man, Tony Stark’s alcoholism is fundamental but non-threatening; real addiction is too real, too uncomfortable.
On some level, we want to keep our heroes just pure enough to fight the bad guys without encumbrance.