2016 promises to be, if nothing else, a very interesting year for superhero movies. Whether by accident or design, Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. will be releasing two films in quick succession that are both based around the theme of superheroes being held accountable for their vigilante actions, symbolized by hero-on-hero violence. Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will introduce the DC Extended Universe’s version of Batman for the first time as a wrathful force seeking to bring Superman to justice for the events of Man of Steel. Meanwhile, Iron Man and Captain America will come to blows – forcing the rest of the Avengers to take sides – over the topic of superhero supervision in Captain America: Civil War, which was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo.
This generation of superhero movies has frequently butted up against the idea of authority. Between the vigilante antics of characters like Spider-Man and Batman, and the terrifyingly powerful nature of characters like Superman and Thor, the genre’s collision with the question of whether these characters should be above the law seems inevitable in hindsight. Though comic books and superheroes were once thought of as being for kids, these movies are largely marketed towards adults, and these are the kinds of questions that adults like to ask.
The turn of the 21st century brought with it the arrival of Bryan Singer’s X-Men, the first entry in what has since become a sprawling cinematic universe with multiple timelines. The film also began a conversation that has continued, in one form or another, for 15 years and is set to be a prominent entity in next year’s slate of superhero movies.
X-Men opens with three scenes, in succession: a young Magneto trudging through the mud at Auschwitz, staring at the numbers branded on people’s skin and the yellow stars sewn on their clothes, before being permanently ripped from his family; a teenage Rogue kissing a boy for the first time and screaming hysterically for her parents as she accidentally puts him in a coma; and Jean Grey debating the morality of the proposed Mutant Registration Act with Senator Kelly. The threads of that opening triptych can be traced through the franchise all the way up to last year’s release, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and the same themes have emerged in Warner Bros. and Marvel Studios’ superhero properties as well.
Citing the case of Kitty Pryde, who can walk through walls, Kelly asks, “What’s to stop her from walking into a bank vault, or into the White House?” In his view, the very fact of mutants’ abilities makes them inherently dangerous – to paraphrase Lex Luthor in the latest Batman v Superman trailer, Kelly believes that such power can never be innocent. When Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man burst onto the scene a couple of years later, irascible Editor-in-Chief J. Jonah Jameson had similar concerns (if different motives). Like Kelly, he saw superhero anonymity as not only dangerous, but suspicious. “Why does he wear a mask?” Jameson demands. “What’s he got to hide?”
Neither Kelly nor Jameson are outright villains, but their beliefs that superheroes should be unmasked, tagged and registered are firmly framed as antagonistic. This makes it all the more interesting that in Captain America: Civil War, Tony Stark will apparently be making this same argument as a superhero himself, and as a character that audiences have come to love.
When it comes to the matter of vigilantism – whether it’s Spider-Man taking out bad guys or the X-Men going after Magneto – the most common in-universe justification is that the existing law enforcement is either incompetent or underpowered (this is also the most common justification in our universe). In Spider-Man the police are portrayed as a kind of bumbling comic relief, scratching their heads as they stare up at thieves caught in spider-webs or trying in vain to arrest Green Goblin while Spider-Man says “oh boy” indulgently. In X2, their impotence is considerably less cute. They are frightened by anti-mutant rhetoric and out of their league, shooting Wolverine in the head when he fails to put down his ‘knives’ and subsequently getting (nearly) roasted alive by Pyro.
The arrival of Batman Begins in 2005 threw the relationship between superheroes and the law into sharper relief. When a young and angry Bruce Wayne confronts Carmine Falcone, the mob boss points out that his restaurant’s current clientele includes “two councilmen, a union official, a couple of off-duty cops and a judge,” and claims he could shoot Bruce in front of them all without any fear of repercussion. It’s a scene that could have been the building block for a superhero trilogy about how vigilantism is a superior alternative to the corruptible criminal justice system, but Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy would ultimately go on to portray anarchy as the villain, and Batman’s relationship with the government, police, and Gotham society as complex rather than strictly adversarial.
Nowhere do the Dark Knight trilogy’s feelings about cops and authority figures get more complex than in The Dark Knight Rises. In a skewed precursor to next year’s dawn of superhero accountability, The Dark Knight Rises saw Batman held accountable for the one crime he did not commit, and the scapegoating of this vigilante bogeyman lends Commissioner Gordon the political drive he needs to throw Gotham’s organized crime gangs in prison and keep them there with no hope of parole. John Blake, after discovering this lie and witnessing his fellow police officers’ willingness to sacrifice the lives of children, loses faith in the system and turns in his badge at the end of the film. Yet The Dark Knight Rises also shows an army of policemen cheering as Batman joins them in the fight against Bane and his men. From the film’s start to its finish we see a Batman is allied with the law and its goals, but not ruled by its process or ethics.
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