Friday, July 18, 2008
New York’s alter ego, Gotham City, is under attack. Bombs kill civilians indiscriminately. Panic spreads like wildfire. The perpetrator, a mysterious self-styled “agent of chaos”, has no apparent motive. Holy terror! Has the new Batman flick plundered its plot from 9/11? The imagery here is blatant: firefighters framed in tableau against the smouldering rubble of Downtown; politicians cashing in on the paranoia; bound hostages used to relay demands on television; the extraordinary rendition of a foreign suspect; a crusade against an “evildoer” that turns more personal vendetta than reasoned response. Then there is the film’s poster, which shows a flaming, wing-shaped hole punched through a smoking office tower. You can’t disavow gratuity here — there is no such scene in the actual film.
When it comes to the movies, the attack on New York is hardly fresh inspiration. Until now, however, even feature films had retained a respectful feel: patriotic, conspiratorial or otherwise. Then, last year, came Cloverfield, a monsters-take-Manhattan movie that models its shaky handheld visuals on the video footage of Ground Zero witnesses. The Dark Knight, the second in the latest cycle of Batman films, is even less restrained.
“As we looked through the comics, there was this fascinating idea that Batman’s presence actually attracts criminals to Gotham, attracts lunacy,” the film’s director, Christopher Nolan, has said. If his new movie feels like a full-on action thriller rather than anything remotely cartoonish, then his antihero, the Joker, is a straight-up screen terrorist. “Some men can’t be negotiated with,” as one character puts it. “Some just want the whole world to burn.”
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Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that it is a superhero who has swung cape first into the fray — and we don’t mean those Fathers for Justice protesters in Britain or Lucha Libre wrestlers. In times of crisis, these modern American demigods (and, by association, global ones) are the first to go sprinting for the phone booth.
In the 1940s, Marvel and DC Comics yanked Superman and Batman away from their quotidian baddie-bashing and retooled them as patriots sticking it to the Nazis. Their buddy, Captain America, even landed a punch on Hitler’s jaw, dragging the isolationist USA into the war several months ahead of Pearl Harbor. And so it continued through the cold war, with Stalin substituting in as the new bête noire.
Such is the supes’ tradition that, immediately post-9/11, some Americans wondered why their avengers had gone Awol. “There was that thing of ‘Why didn’t Superman save us? Why didn’t he come along and stop the planes?’,” says Paul Gravett, Britain’s leading comic-book expert, whose The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics is out this month. “There was a brief debate about whether superheroes were relevant any more. In a strange way, though, they’ve become more relevant.”
Yes, sir. After a mourning period for the leading comic-book publishers, who put out commemorative issues showing their principal players humbled by the ordinary-Joe heroism of the emergency services, came the full-on counter-offensive. These days, the silver screen has supplanted the printed page as the superheroes’ stamping ground, but just look at them go.
In recent months, we have had Iron Man and Hancock. In the past few years have swooped in Spider-Man, the X-Men, two Hulks, Superman, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, the Incredibles and more. Hellboy II will be with us shortly, and two rival Superman sequels are shaping up, one penned by the Scottish graphic artist Mark Millar, whose vigilante yarn Wanted, starring Angelina Jolie, has made him hot property in Hollywood.
Such popularity has not been lost on the powers that be. In 2005, Marvel published salutatory editions of its superhero comics for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, launched in a special ceremony by Donald Rumsfeld. The tendency for government rhetoric to be cloaked in the superhero argot has been noted by John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett, co-authors of The Myth of the American Superhero, and of Captain America and the Crusade against Evil. “Bush is the first leader who has promised world transformation,” Lawrence says. Indeed, in 2002, when Der Spiegel ran a satirical cover portraying Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell as Rambo, the Terminator, Xena and Batman, a visit from the US ambassador was not to protest, but to report that the president was “flattered”, Jewett says. “He ordered 33 poster-size renditions to be conveyed to the White House.”
This article was posted: Sunday, July 20, 2008 at 5:25 am