Well, we made it. The 2016 presidential election is just a few short days away, and it’s time to decide what we want the next four years of our lives to look like. There have been some ups, a lot more downs, but it was fun while it lasted. Those three debates played out like a trilogy of Super Bowls and Hunger Games midnight premieres all rolled into one, with an average of 84 million people tuning into each of the three showdowns, aired on twelve different channels, making them amongst the most widely watched television events in history.
At the movies, it was the year of heroes. The list of 2016’s ten highest grossing films is populated by four superhero films, two from Marvel and two from DC. Two of those films, however – DC’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War – feature suspiciously similar plots, and share themes of division, regulation, and the political application to these merry band of crimefighters who have, until now, operated with impunity.
Regardless of which film you prefer, there’s an undeniable connection between them that, in a year that also brought us one of the most turbulent election cycles in American history, it’s no coincidence. BvS deals with this concept of domestic terrorism, repurposing the Caped Crusader as a Dick Cheney-inspired neo-con billionaire who uses his wealth as a way to restore order in a city that’s been undone by violent crime and the man (or God, depending on who you ask) that’s decided to fight it. Civil War, on the other hand, concerns itself with a regulatory shift, imposing a restrictive set of guidelines called the Sokovia Accords, which was drafted after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron left a city in shambles – because of the Avengers themselves, and not the forces of evil they were fighting against.
These parallels extend beyond Batfleck’s paraphrasing of Cheney’s “One Percent Doctrine,” and into the realm of feeding this distinctly American preoccupation with the 2016 election, that has the potential to translate into bigger profits. Whether or not any of us are willing to admit it, we make connections to the things we see and the lives we live. What better way to appeal to an entire nation than by feeding them the same narrative that’s been plastered for 24 hours a day on every news channel in the US?
Furthermore, and here’s what I think is the most difficult question to answer, is any of this good business? Not in terms of profit margins; those numbers pretty much speak for themselves. I mean more, you know, morally. Regardless of where you stand politically, this election has done more harm than good, resulting in a nation that hasn’t been this divided (not publicly, anyway) since pre-9/11, another go-to metaphor in both the MCU and DCEU. Is it really doing the country any good then, by reinforcing that divide with films that manage to be both politically ambiguous and undeniably political?
If it sounds like I’m overreacting, I probably am. In the long run, I don’t think the box office performance of a Marvel movie will influence the presidential election all that much, but it is alarming how young the median age of comic book fans are, and how the filmmakers who bring these stories to life are giving the parents a reason to watch the movies and subtly asking their children to view the world as a win-lose, black and white binary. That’s the mentality that got us to where we are in the first place, and as we’ve seen these last few months, it isn’t doing our country any favors.
And if we look at this in the context of the last three elections, this phenomenon only seems to be getting worse. 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises was littered with commentary about the Occupy movement, regardless of how many times Christopher Nolan denies it, and I think there’s a reason the last three live-action Batman films have been released during election years. Furthermore, if we go back even further, we’ll find that some superhero comics were originally created to instill young Americans with values that would compel them to fight in World War II, during what is known as “The Golden Age” of comics.
There’s a reason why comic sales declined heavily after World War II, but that original group of heroes – Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America, amongst others – still carry the burden of their creation, and I refuse to believe that coincidence has led to these heroes being some of the most adapted across all mediums. On some level, Batman is still a beacon of late capitalism; Superman is still a religious figure; Wonder Woman represents the birth of WWII-era feminism; and Captain America still exists to remind young men what it means to be an upstanding citizen. But are the various implementations of these ideas so jarringly out-of-date in 2016, or have we collectively regressed as a nation to the point where we now need these heroes more than ever?
Images: Marvel Studios, Warner Bros.