Wednesday, November 23, 2016
"Magneto Was Right": Recalibrating the Comic Book Movie for the Trump Age
I won't pretend that the outcome of this election was easily foreseen. I was as wrong about this election as I've ever been about anything and I am not alone. But hindsight is 20/20, and one of the indicators that we were in for a Trump victory are the comic book movies of 2016.
I've pointed out many times to friends, colleagues, and students that the 2016 crop of CBM featured an interesting trend. This was the year of the anti-hero and also the year of heroes fighting heroes. "Maybe an asshole is what we need" could've been the tagline for Deadpool or Suicide Squad. This was the year where supervillains got a chance to act heroic or erased the line between hero and villain altogether.
It might be a stretch to say that Batman v Superman also presaged a Trump win but nevertheless the argument can be made. Superman, both an immigrant alien and a member of the media (two of Trump's favorite betes noires), is portrayed by Zack Snyder as cold, self-centered, and not at all living up to the values of truth, justice, and the American Way. And worse than all of that, he's smug about his own omnipotence and imperviousness. In short, Superman is a stand-in for one of those coastal elites that have been ruining a once proud nation (the Last Son of Krypton is a well-documented metaphor for Jewishness so there's that too). And of course, you can almost understand Trump supporters if you attempt to see Trump as a Bruce Wayne figure: a man of wealth who is using his vast resources to help the common man (we might also pin Trump's success on comic books that all too often equate wealth with heroism). It's certainly clear that Trump's fans see his defeat of Hillary Clinton as a satisfying humbling of someone thought to be unbeatable, just like Superman, incredulous as a mere mortal blocks his punch.
The President of the United States is a fixture of the comic book movie and makes many appearances in comic books. As a kid I remember reading a Superboy comic where he stopped by the White House to give JFK a pager to summon the lad of steel whenever he needed to. Of course, superheroes and presidents are natural allies. Both are our protectors. They reflect the best of our values and the potential we all have to become great leaders and serve our fellow man. Or at least that held true until two weeks ago.
Whether you revile Trump or applaud his victory, one thing that cannot be denied is that he is a break with every thing that has come before in the Oval Office. There have been crooks and charlatans atop the executive branch before, but none have so proudly embraced their shadow self like the next president. As his follower said "maybe an asshole is what we need". We shall see.
[Side note: in January 2009 Marvel published a Spider-Man comic in which Peter Parker, covering the Obama inauguration for the Daily Bugle, has to don his tights and save the president-elect from a supervillain. The bad guy, Chameleon, shape shifts into Obama and Spidey has to figure out which one is the real Obama and which is the imposter. Fascinating.]
One thing that's clear is that the comic book movie will have to adjust for this new kind of president. Already the implications of the Trump election cast a harsh and unfavorable light on some of the best comic book movies of the post-Iron Man era. I keep thinking about Heath Ledger's Joker whose idee fixe is that "good people" will become monsters with the slightest nudge. Batman disagrees and Nolan does too. As the Trump era dawns and we watch Americans perform the Nazi salute, dismiss bigotry as trivial and generally give themselves over to their reptile brain, The Dark Knight feels like a lie. Of course the nameless self-righteous prick would've detonated the bomb on the prison ferry. I don't even think anyone would stop him today. Ledger's Joker would view this election cycle with the glee of a child waking up on Christmas morning.
One cannot discuss comic book heroes and the presidency without mentioning the jaw-dropping "Secret Empire" Captain America storyline of 1974. You can read about it here, but to summarize writer Steve Englehart had Cap take on President Richard Nixon and bring him down. Cap is so disgusted with what America has become at the end of the tale he drops the Captain America mantle and becomes "Nomad" (a man without a country), a character without any patriotic/nationalist identification.
Unlike his movie counterpart, the Cap of the comic books came out of the ice in 1964 to a nation still grieving a slain president. He also watched his beloved homeland nearly rend itself asunder over race and imperialism. Englehart and other writers shrewdly knew Cap couldn't become a fossilized avatar of a nation's best intentions. They turned Captain America instead into the nagging conscience of a superpower. That take on Captain America has been adopted by the recent spate of Marvel-based films known to aficianados as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. Though he's never come face to face with the president (played by William Sadler in Iron Man 3 and Agents of SHIELD), Captain America has spent much of his trilogy defying the will of corrupt organs of the state. The trilogy takes on a prescience as a lead up to a Trump presidency. It begins in America's great test (World War II, a time presumably when -according to Trump- America was great) before jumping to a modern day where the mythology of Captain America: The First Avenger has been used to hide a cancer that becomes exposed in the sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In this year's Captain America: Civil War our hero once again becomes an outlaw when he disobeys what he sees as governmental overreach. And now Cap's point, (that you cannot cede too much power to the state because if you like the leader today, what about the next one) is driven home by Trump's ascendancy. If you doubt that Steve Rogers would refuse to answer to President Trump, take a look at Chris Evans' Twitter feed. His passionate plea for basic decency could be written by Cap himself.
Part of me almost needs to see the fictional American avatar slug out Trump as he once did another nation's dictator, but the Captain America trilogy has already warned us of a worst case Trump scenario. The other comic book franchise obsessed with government overreach is the X-Men series. The second X-Men film began with a teleporting mutant nearly assassinating the president and subsequent films have featured the head of state, including Tricky Dick himself.
I've thought a lot about the X-Men since Trump won. He shamelessly vilified different minority groups and has touched off a tidal wave of bigoted bile in our country. Once, when we were a more gentle nation we had to create metaphors for the kind of hate that can be seen in earnest on social media today. Mutants (characters born with their superpowers who sometimes have an unusual appearance that marks them for mob violence) were a stand-in for all these despised groups that once again many Americans feel safe to deride openly.
Trump pretty much validates the entire ideology of the X-Men's great antagonist, Magneto. A child of the Shoah, he uses his vast powers to protect mutantkind from the kind of bigotry Trump has trafficked in. Magneto knows war between humans and mutants is inevitable and has vowed to meet it head on. "Never again", indeed. In an interview Sir Ian McKellen once shared that Black males had become his biggest fans since he took on the role of Magneto. His character has been positioned as the Malcolm X to the X-Men's MLK, and the fact that there's truth in his worldview has made him one of Marvel's most compelling villains. Since Trump's election, I've thought of this t-shirt and considered buying it.
We could really use a great X-Men film now. Specifically one where the antagonist is anti-mutant hysteria itself. Sadly the current custodians of the property are lost in the past, have forsaken the present and have thereby betrayed what made the X-Men essential reading for so many of us who grew up feeling different from those around us. The X-Men should be a bulwark against Trumpism.
So where do comic book movies go from here? Do they comment on Trump's break with traditional leadership and American values? Interestingly the MCU won't have to deal with this question for some time as the storyline is set to take the films out of America and bring to the narrative an extraterrestrial warlord seeking omnipotence. It is interesting that two of the MCU's grand gestures to diversity, Black Panther and Captain Marvel are set to shoot in the next two years. The push to get these heroes on screen now seems at odds with the times and more's the pity.
I suspect the producers at Marvel are relieved they can steer clear of the Oval Office for some time and focus on deep space, the multiverse, or Wakanda instead. The presidency was once a part of the superhero genre, but it will be take some time to see how Trump handles the office for that to become true again. Some brave soul may try to have their fictional hero take on the next president. If Trump succeeds (not even sure what that means but let's say he delivers a booming economy, keeps us out of war, and doesn't strip too many civil liberties away) perhaps the superhero will drift towards him. But if he isn't a success, if it turns out that in fact an asshole is never what you need, then we may need the superhero to remind us of those values lost in the name of moral shortcuts and political gamesmanship.