The trouble with superheroes taking on terrorism..

I love superhero comics and they’ve never been handled with more love than by writers and filmmakers who grew up on them too. And yet.. And yet.. In the latest Captain America Civil War film, when a terrorist bomb goes off outside a UN meeting leaving a scene of devastation I feel an increasingly familiar unease.

Superman II: Presidential humilation in the Oval office

There seem to be coach loads of superheroes clogging up our multiplexes in different bombastic combinations with ludicrous outfits that materialise out of a wristwatch or fold away. Why are you trying to be “realistic” about terrorism? The old Christopher Reeve Superman films offered a less pretentious escapism. And somehow Superman II, which came out during the humiliation of the Iranian US embassy hostage crisis, had some resonance in portraying a superhero and a superpower who find themselves suddenly impotent and humiliated by a cruel enemy. (Kneel before Zod).

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 15.01.51

I put it to Zak Snyder, director of Batman V Superman. Snyder is at least out and out proud that he takes superheroes very seriously. The Lucifer/Messiah imagery is rather stylishly shot. Don’t like his 18-rated version of Watchmen? Tough. THIS IS SPARTA! (He made that, too.) Batman V Superman uses a great deal of 9/11 imagery to depict how reckless superheroes can recklessly kill thousands in their skyscraper-toppling planet-saving battles. Lois Lane goes off to the desert to interview an Osama Bin Laden figure and has to be rescued by a Messianic-Man of Steel. “To have them [the films] be just fun is not ok with me,” Snyder says. “To me the mythology only plays if it’s played against the backdrop of the rules we understand. We could easily make the baddie an alien and have it be an abstract evil. But does that really mean anything to anyone?”

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 15.05.24

Critics panned Batman V Superman for taking itself far too seriously which seems unfair, given that Captain America Civil War has an almost identical plot premise: The UN wants to put superheroes on a register to stop this reckless endangerment of entire cities. My main objection to Batman V Superman was that it ended up with the same kind of entire-city-destroyed-with-nukes battle the film started off denouncing.

To its credit Captain America:Civil War starts with mega destruction and ends with a very personal fight between 3 people. But it still plays with a stylised fantasy version of real-world terrorist imagery and brainwashed soldiers – a terrible trauma visited on POWs in the early Cold War. Iron Man even drops a crack about The Manchurian Candidate.

The directors of Captain America Civil War, Alex and Joe Russo, are a delightfully cerebral duo. They grew up on great dark comedies like M*A*S*H – set in Korea but made while the Vietnam War was raging. So I ask them: Are there places where superhero films shouldn’t tread?

“Absolutely, but our intent is to reflect reality as much as we can,” says Joe Russo. ” The reason that these movies are so popular is because they are once removed from reality. It allows people to deal with issues that are painful in a way that is not like looking at reality. It gives you a window ..without your emotions and your fears feeling too exposed.”

For the Russos superhero films now are what Westerns were to American audiences in the 1950s. Good versus Evil in a cathartic, simplistic way for troubled times, even though Westerns often had very ambiguous messages encoded within their black hat versus white hat dynamics. And certainly many of the comic books that provided source material for these block busters, like Mark Millar’s Civil War original, have far more intriguing dark political ideas than the screen versions.

But in the end superheroes’ only solution – however many classy actors they bring in to add some political allegory (Holly Hunter in Batman V Superman, William Hurt in Civil War – I  salute you) is to thump the hell out of everyone and everything. With not even a chipped tooth at the end of it. And the fundamental concern I have about these films is that they totally misunderstand the reality of evil in our world; its hive-mind. Thousands of ordinary young men and some women, are going off from our cities to join ISIS’s playground for torturing-psychopaths.

Even closer to home in recent days how angry have you felt at realising the scale of reckless endangerment by our officials and executives from Hillsborough to BHS and its eleven thousand employees? Sometimes I just want to say, OK, Captain America and that ludicrous army of yours. Take your pick and solve one of these. These are strange days when corporate entertainment is playing with the imagery of terrorism. Because I’m sure of one thing – they couldn’t be more wrong about the agents of misery in our world.

 A version of this article first appeared in The Big Issue magazine – on sale from UK street vendors. Journalism worth paying for. Subscriptions available here

Further listening

My interview with the Russo Brothers (BBC Front Row April 2016)

My interview with Zack Snyder (BBC Front Row April 2016)

My Interview with Bryan Singer on X-Men Apocalypse is on BBC Front Row next Monday May 16th at 715pm or iplayer after 

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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10 Responses to The trouble with superheroes taking on terrorism..

  1. Xavier Golden says:

    Interesting thoughts, but I have to say I disagree with you on a couple of things, the most prominent being your idea that “they totally misunderstand the reality of evil in our world”. Evil isn’t a “hive mind”. Evil is not strictly a “playground for torturing psychopaths”. Evil is very much an individual thing. There’s no evil oversoul that persuades specific people to join specific groups. Evil is represented in superhero films; whether it be tyrannical dictators or revenge-driven narcissists. Among those different types of evil represented are extremists who will let nothing stop them from accomplishing their goal. You can’t complain about the Russos and Zack Snyder using terrorists as villains when they use fascists and bigots. You’re being picky.

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