Years ago, Superman won over a generation of fans by spouting his iconic “truth, justice, and the American way” slogan, but in a climate divided by political extremes and a partisan news media, no one can agree on what the American way actually is any more. For decades, superheroes stayed out of these political debates, save for the occasional haymaker thrown in Hitler’s direction courtesy of Captain America. But in recent years, explicitly political overtones have found their way into superhero tales, most notably in their onscreen exploits.
In a recent article on Salon, columnist Richard Cooper wrote that all superheroes, from Superman to Iron Man, are essentially fascists. His main argument revolves around the authoritarian power that they wield and how they impose their moral views on society through force. That argument might be a stretch for some, but when you dig deeper into the most successful superhero movies of the past few years, there are strong political themes to be found—and whether you like it or not, they’re mostly conservative. And the two most prominent examples of this also happen to be the two money-making mascots of the entire industry: Batman and Iron Man.
For this evidence, you need look no further than the opening scenes of Iron Man 2, when a bumbling Congress attempts to force Tony Stark to hand over his Iron Man technology to the government in the interest of national security. Stark, who was originally modeled after lifelong conservative Howard Hughes, fires back by saying about his technology, “I'm your nuclear deterrent. It's working. We're safe. America is secure. You want my property? You can't have it.”
On paper this reads like something that could have come from the pen of any G.O.P. speechwriter straight out of Harvard. Stark screams for private industry and a small government, which is a philosophy that helped him make billions as a war profiteer. More recently, in Iron Man 3, War Machine is transformed into The Iron Patriot by the U.S. government and is decked out in a modified suit that came straight from the wallets of taxpayers everywhere. Instead of being a national hero, though, he's instantly played for laughs, as opposed to Stark, who is almost infallible at points. (The politics are a little muddled, if you hadn't guessed.)
The only time Rhodes really saves the day is when he ditches his star-spangled armor and fights on his own. These right-wing shades weren’t always necessarily a trait Stark had in the comic books—during Civil War he actually fought for government regulation of superheroes—but the movies have transformed him into a capitalist icon for the burgeoning entrepreneur generation.
While Stark’s conservative leanings seem to mainly revolve around business, which could make him more of a Libertarian than anything, Batman’s recent onscreen adventures push things even further towards the right. Even if you don’t try to look too deep into superhero movies, it’s almost impossible to miss the political messages in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. In these films, Batman is the ultimate self-made white man, fighting against a sea of corrupt bureaucrats, government officials, and law enforcement agents.
In The Dark Knight, Batman wages a war on crime that spits in the face of established law and international boundaries that echoes a post-9/11 world. He even has a gadget that allows him to employ citywide surveillance based off of cell phone technology in order to catch the Joker. Sound familiar? This justice-at-all-costs mentality was a hallmark of the Bush Administration and it fits Batman’s character like a razor-edged glove.
While The Dark Knight raised a few eyebrows over its perceived political messages, 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises was a full-on assault on the left in many ways—and it all starts with Bane. At first, Bane’s entire plan is reminiscent of the Occupy Wall Street movement. He attacks the financial centers of the city, bludgeons its millionaires, and rallies the downtrodden citizens of Gotham to rise up and take back what is theirs. Of course this is all a sadistic ruse; his real motivation for organizing this socialist movement is to weaken the city’s police force and lull the city’s middle and lower class citizens into a false sense of security so the League of Shadows could set off a nuke and destroy everything. Bane's real motivations call into question the motivations of all socialist revolutionists, and Nolan goes to great lengths to portray any organized movement like this as wholly evil. (To put a cherry on top, there's a scene where we, the viewers, are asked to root for an army of cops. Yeah, okay.)
Unlike Captain America, who needed a government program to give him super powers, Batman is a hero born from private industry and self-reliance who swoops in and brings down this false idol of the unwashed masses. From Batman Begins all the way through Rises, the private war waged by Batman, and the benevolence of Bruce Wayne, are continuously shown to be more effective tools against crime and poverty than any organized state police or government body. There is no better display of this than the rise and fall of Gotham's greatest social advocate, Harvey Dent, who starts out as the newly-elected hope for the future, but winds up falling prey to the madness of Gotham. Meanwhile it's Batman who remains incorruptible throughout.
To understand the message behind these movies, it's important to note that director Christopher Nolan was born in London in 1970, and it’s not impossible to assume that he would have grown up influenced by Margaret Thatcher’s conservative England. To this day he denies any political motivation in these movies, which is a smart thing to say to avoid alienating an audience that will include many left-wing voters. But it’s obvious that there are political beliefs up there on the screen. However, as with anything, you can read Iron Man and the Dark Knight movies closely, or you can just kick back and enjoy a blockbuster.
While these conservative touches might have made their way into these movies, this isn’t a trend that has taken over the entire comic book industry, especially with left wing heroes like Spider-Man, Daredevil, Professor Xavier, and Green Arrow, most of whom are starring in successful movies and TV shows at the moment.
And remember, no matter which way you vote, it’s never wise to take too much political inspiration from grown men who spend their nights decked out in spandex; well, unless you’re talking about Jesse "The Body" Ventura.
Written by Jason Serafino (@Serafinoj1)