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Return of Comic Morality

World War II and especially the following Cold War saw a dramatic rise in the popularity of comic book heroes like Superman, Batman, Captain America and dozens of others. It was a time of tension and uncertainty, so it was comforting to have heroes who were on our side, even looking out for us, and doing the right thing even when we weren’t sure what the right thing to do might be. Superheroes gave us hope, and the comics gave us simple morality tales about good and evil.

So it is somewhat interesting to watch the huge number of movies now being created based on these same superheroes. The superheroes may be the same, but the enemies are now terrorists rather than communists or Nazis. I guess we need our superheroes again in this time of tension and uncertainty.

But it is instructive to look at these movies:

Some movies, like the popular Transformers series, present a jaw-droppingly clear and simple morality. There is never any doubt who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. I mean, what kind of creatures (even bad guys) would name themselves the Decepticons? And human collaborators with the bad guys never have even the slightest regrets, nor do they redeem themselves at the end. They just die (and presumably burn in hell). Is this a reflection of how we have dehumanized terrorists (and Islamists)?

The same thing could be said of movies like the Lord of the Rings (another franchise returning from the same period of history). There may be arguments between the good guys, but they are all good guys, and we instantly know who the bad guys are. Like, does anyone feel sorry for the orcs?

In both of these examples – Transformers, LotR, and in others like Spider-man – the hero is a bit of an “everyman”, flawed but manages to save the day despite his weakness. Does that represent us?

I also noticed something fascinating about the new Star Trek reboot. The second (recent) installment eliminated the first installment’s conflict between the heroes (Kirk and Spock). But in an interesting twist, the person who started out as the terrorist at the beginning of the movie was not the main bad guy after all. Instead, it was the Admiral — someone who was supposedly a good guy, the government representative who had awoken the terrorist and used him. Sound familiar? Even so, once the evil Admiral was exposed, he never had any regrets. He was unblinkingly willing to kill our heroes just to cover up his mistakes. And the real good guys (Kirk and Spock) discover the real bad guy (the Admiral) … by disobeying orders! Sound even more familiar?

This is taken a step further in movies like Serenity (yeah, I know, that was a few years ago, but it was the most recent example I could think of). In Serenity (and Firefly) the good guys are … actually bad guys. In case you haven’t seen that movie, they really are good guys, but they constantly act like bad guys. Breaking the law and doing things that they shouldn’t do, like exposing government lies and corruption. Are these our whistleblowers?

What are other ways current movies reflect our politics?

UPDATE: Really good article in The Atlantic about movies reflecting our politics. But the enemy in these films (Iron Man 3, White House Down, and The Lone Ranger) is corporate greed and war profiteering.

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16 Comments

  1. Chelsey wrote:

    Interesting piece, but the superheroes you’ve listed were actually created around 1939 and 1940.

    Tuesday, August 6, 2013 at 4:22 am | Permalink
  2. Tyler wrote:

    You brought up Lord of the Rings, so what is your take on A Game of Thrones. I have only watched the first season, but am much further in the novels. I feel that there are “good guys” (The Starks and Tullys), in the sense that they are the ones that we are rooting for. But in the end many of them die, often by the hand of the “bad guys” (The Lanisters). Also, many of the “bad guys” begin to have transformations and start to act like the “good guys.”

    Tuesday, August 6, 2013 at 5:36 am | Permalink
  3. Iron Knee wrote:

    Chelsey, you’re right. I’ll fix it. I was trying to say that they were really popular during the time of the cold war. [edit done, hopefully that is better]

    Tyler, I have not watched Game of Thrones. Maybe someone else has an insight.

    Tuesday, August 6, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  4. Thatguy wrote:

    Game of Thrones is great because of the character development. Yes, there are some you will always root for and some you will likely always hate, but even these do thing that either slightly damn or redeem them, respectively. For the most part, characters you like will become characters you don’t, and characters you hated will become some of your favorites. The author of the book series, George RR Martin, has a habit of frustrating the typical good guys win, bad guys lose paradigm in part by doing horrible things to good characters but more by blurring the lines between good and evil.

    There are hints of an overall struggle of absolute good vs. Absolute evil, but even through 5 of 7 books, a reader can’t be absolutely sure that this storyline is going to play out. Now I’ll finish my gushing, and suggest that everyone give the series or the books (or both) a shot.

    I think it’s really hard to separate movies from politics, as even in cases where a movie has no interest in being political it can be made to seem political. Bane, from the most recent Batman film, has been compared to an Occupy Wallstreet protester. I didn’t get that when I watched it, but there you go. 300 was considered an allegory for conflict between the US and Iran, which also seems a little silly to me in terms of the underdogs made of the Spartans.

    I also don’t think it’s a very new device having the evil turn out to be or come from the good guys. Star Wars did that, and in Serenity I’m not sure the Alliance was ever supposed to be seen as a force for good. The Bourne series is pretty apt for an out-of-control intelligence apparatus though.

    Tuesday, August 6, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  5. Joe wrote:

    I was thinking of game of thrones as well while reading your post, IK, and I think you’ve hit on one of the elements that make it stand out. There really are no true good guys and bad guys. I suppose we can take the Starks as heroes, but they have their fair share of faults, and I only really like one of the Tullys. At the same time, there are heroes amongst the Lannisters and other families once you get to know them a little better.

    Getting back to your original point though. Even though there are a ton of superhero movies lately, largely with guerrilla-fighter type antagonists, I think Game of Thrones is immensely popular because it embraces the moral uncertainties we see in the world and doesn’t tell you who to cheer for, for the most part. We see these huge figures in contest with each other making decisions based on a variety of reasons, whether it be betrayal, power, money, religion, outright efficacy, or to claim a moral high ground, and both the show and the novels beg the question: which is best? I think that’s an issue that we’re in the midst of dealing with, especially with respect to terrorism and other threats to power. But that’s just my opinion. Keep with the books Tyler. They’re something special.

    Tuesday, August 6, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  6. Chris wrote:

    Just going to pop in and say that I, at least, sympathized with the orcs. I read this passage from RotK:

    ‘No, I don’t know,’ said Gorbag’s voice. ‘The messages go through quicker than anything could fly, as a rule. But I don’t enquire how it’s done. Safest not to. Grr! Those Nazgûl give me the creeps. And they skin the body off you as soon as look at you, and leave you all cold in the dark on the other side. But He likes ‘em; they’re His favourites nowadays, so it’s no use grumbling. I tell you, it’s no game serving down in the city.’

    ‘You should try being up here with Shelob for company,’ said Shagrat.

    ‘I’d like to try somewhere where there’s none of ‘em. But the war’s on now, and when that’s over things may be easier.’

    ‘It’s going well, they say.’

    ‘They would.’ grunted Gorbag. ‘We’ll see. But anyway, if it does go well, there should be a lot more room. What d’you say? – if we get a chance, you and me’ll slip off and set up somewhere on our own with a few trusty lads, somewhere where there’s good loot nice and handy, and no big bosses.’

    ‘Ah!’ said Shagrat. ‘Like old times.’

    And thought to myself, “These guys aren’t fanatics or psychophaths. They’re just doing the only thing they’ve ever known, and even from there they’re trying to reach out and find something better to be.” Orcs have a lot in common with RL child soldiers, it seems to me–brainwashed and vicious, but no more inherently immoral than anyone else.

    Tuesday, August 6, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink
  7. Iron Knee wrote:

    Great passage, Chris. Unfortunately, nothing like that made it into the movies, which is kinda my point.

    Tuesday, August 6, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  8. Michael wrote:

    Since you’ve included LotR (which were released in 2001-2003), I’m going to include two HUGE counterexamples from a few years ago: Watchmen (2009) and V for Vendetta (2005). Both stories are intentionally subversive of the clear-cut morality typical of the genre. Mass murder, rape, torture…not quite the actions you would associate with “heroes.”

    A Song of Fire and Ice (aka Game of Thrones…I’m using the book title because the books add considerably more depth and complexity to the characters…) also undercuts the narrative in the long-run. I’ve finished through book 4, and I can assure you that it is no longer clear that the Starks really count as the good guys. Self-righteous and judgmental would be more accurate. As for the Lannisters, it’s interesting to think about someone like the Mountain. He’s probably as close to pure evil as I can think, because he is just a force of brutality and destruction. But his brutality is restricted to times of war. As such, it would be interesting to compare him to the atomic bomb. Although the bombs were horrific for the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the consensus is that they shortened WWII by at least two years, thus yielding *fewer* total deaths. Perhaps the Mountain’s embrace of total, unflinching war shortened the original rebellion that put Robert on the throne. As others above have noted, the characters–and especially their evolutions–really make this story interesting and nuanced.

    By the way, That Guy, my understanding is that the current plan is for 12 books, not 7 any more. Books 4 and 5 were not part of the original 7-book plan, which was 3 books covering the Stark/Lannister war, 2 books covering the Targaryen conquest, and 2 covering the supernatural war. The original plan, from what I’ve heard, was that there would be a 5-year gap between book 3 and what was to be book 4, but he felt that there were too many interesting story lines that would be missed.

    There are also elements of LotR that don’t quite fit purely into a good vs. evil discussion. There certainly are such elements, but I would argue that the theme is better described as pure vs. corrupt. The Nazgul, Smeagol, Saruman…they are not necessarily evil by nature. Rather, they become evil through corruption due to the love of power. Hence, the attempt by Boromir to steal the ring. This theme is very strongly presented in a few conversations that the movies nicely highlighted, such as when Gandalf tells Frodo (just before they enter Moria) that Bilbo had the power to kill Gollum, but pity stopped him.

    And need I even mention the new Kick Ass movie?

    Tuesday, August 6, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  9. Iron Knee wrote:

    There is no “consensus” that use of the atomic bomb shortened WWII and saved lives. It is a popular justification, but there is little evidence to support it.

    On July 13, 1945, weeks before the bombs were dropped, Japan sent a telegram to the Soviets saying they wanted to surrender and end the war. The US had broken Japan’s codes and had read the telegram. Truman referred to the telegram in his diary.

    According to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Admiral William D Leahy): “The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.”

    Fighting continued for weeks after the bombs were used, before the Japanese surrendered. The main reason the Japanese surrendered seems to be because after we used the bomb, we changed our previous stance and agreed that Japan could keep their emperor.

    Tuesday, August 6, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  10. ThatGuy wrote:

    Weeks after the bombs were dropped? Hirohito accepted the Potsdam agreement six days after Nagasaki was bombed. Many Japanese scholars submit that Soviet entrance into the war was a bigger incentive to surrender than the atomic bombs, but I would not downplay the ability of the United States to annihilate cities without risking more than a handful of American lives in shortening the war (with US air superiority, even a handful is being generous to the Japanese). You may be confusing the ceremonial surrender on September 2nd with the announcement by Hirohito, which was August 15. It’s also notable that the Soviets declared war on Japan the same day Nagasaki was bombed.

    I’d have to do a bit more digging, but I don’t think Japan was willing to surrender unconditionally as of July 1945. As I recall, unconditional surrender was required by the Allies as of the beginning of August (at Potsdam). The Japanese likely believed they would receive more lenient terms from the Soviets, whom they had never fought against or committed war crimes against. Though once the Soviets actually declared war on them, the Japanese may have realized they faced the same prospects as Eastern Europe and Germany facing Soviet invasion.

    I’ve already showed my hand, but I really think the atomic bombs were necessary in ending the war. Japan had millions of soldiers in East Asia that might have slowed any conventional assault on mainland Japan to a brutal slog on the level of Okinawa or Iwo Jima, only on a much larger scale. The Japanese citizenry was preparing to fight with the same suicidal tactics that brought the Pacific Theater the horror of the Banzai human wave attacks and kamikazes.

    Completely disregarding the deaths that would have resulted on both sides from conventional ground warfare, the allied air campaign in support of such an invasion would have wrought more destruction on Japan than both atomic bombs combined. The conventional fire bombing of Dresden and Tokyo killed more people than either individual atom bomb.

    Now, full disclosure, I say all this as someone who really, truly, and honestly believes that I would not be here had an invasion of Japan taken place (my grandfather had already fought at Bouganville and Guam). I really don’t think the war would have ended when it did without those bombs. If the Japanese were ready to surrender nearly a month before… why didn’t they? Why did they wait even a week after two cities had been decimated (more if you count conventional bombing)? I know that allied prosecution of the war, on all fronts, was brutal. But let’s not get lost in the horror of two bombs when the horror of thousands would have been far, far worse.

    On a way, way, way lighter note: Michael, I’d love to tear through another 7 Ice and Fire novels, but I’m worried enough about Martin living to finish another two at his glacial pace (he’s also very unfriendly to the idea of anyone else writing for him). With regard to the Mountain, he is certainly the Lannister’s weapon of mass destruction, but he himself certainly takes pleasure in brutality (melting his brother’s face and attacking Loras at the tourney of the Hand). There are also certainly questionable Starks. Though I’d say Ned and his kids are all good eggs.

    Well, now that I’ve ranted on WWII policy and a popular fantasy series, I’d like to get started on my economic views….

    Tuesday, August 6, 2013 at 8:55 pm | Permalink
  11. Iron Knee wrote:

    Thatguy, I already answered your question (and you almost did yourself). Before the atom bombs were dropped, the US was insisting on unconditional surrender, which was unacceptable to the Japanese because they wanted the condition that they could keep their Emperor. After the bombing, we gave them that condition, and they surrendered (conditionally). The Russians entering the war also helped, but you have to realize how significant the emperor was to them. It doesn’t matter if it was days or weeks.

    In addition, the Emperor was able to end the suicide attacks by personally taking the dishonor for the surrender. Otherwise, surrender would have been dishonorable and unthinkable to the Japanese soldiers.

    Tuesday, August 6, 2013 at 10:45 pm | Permalink
  12. Thatguy wrote:

    I don’t think Potsdam said anything about removing the Emperor. The unconditional surrender mentioned only the armed forces. The allies were pretty vague about which government officials, if any, would be held responsible for the war criminally. Douglass MacArthur was a big reason the Emperor received no punishment, but this was after the surrender had happened.

    Plenty of Imperial soldiers still found the surrender dishonorable and either killed themselves, their POWs, or both.

    To turn the tables a bit, I think the pardoning of the Emperor was more of an American Cold War move to ensure an avenue for a friendly government in Japan and limit Soviet influence in the Pacific. Pardoning Hirohito was a lot like pardoning Nazi scientists and spy masters in Europe. More opening moves to gain Cold War leverage than necessary for ending WW2.

    Also I realize my previous post came off rather harsh and I apologize for that. I’m a big WW2 history buff so it can get me fired up. No disrespect was intended!

    Wednesday, August 7, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink
  13. Patrick Müller wrote:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/07/-i-the-lone-ranger-i-seals-it-americas-new-favorite-villain-is-a-rich-guy/277601/

    Wednesday, August 7, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  14. Iron Knee wrote:

    Patrick, that’s an awesome link. I’ll post it in the original article.

    Thatguy, no disrespect felt! At the very least, you know way more about WWII than I do.

    I’m just sensitive to the rewriting of history. Everybody does it, and it doesn’t even have to be intentional. So of course we are going to say that dropping the atomic bomb (twice) was necessary to end the war and save lives.

    Rewriting history was really brought home when I visited Egypt during their revolution. All the news media here kept repeating that Mubarak was originally a good guy, but eventually turned bad. But when I talked to people in Egypt, that view was denounced as a popular fiction (i.e., a rewriting of history), used to justify American support for Mubarak, so the US would not look bad.

    Wednesday, August 7, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Permalink
  15. Michael wrote:

    Wow, I didn’t mean to start a firestorm with the atom bomb reference. So it’s a “popular theory” rather than a “consensus.” Okay…

    That Guy @10, yeah, I’ve been concerned about Martin’s longevity, too. He’s not exactly a spring chicken. As for the Mountain as a bomb, there’s always a place where analogies break down. We can’t exactly say how a bomb feels about its destructive power. ;-) And I certainly don’t mean to imply that he’s not a sadistic bastard, because he is. I was primarily trying to focus on the ethical implications of the Lannisters using him as a weapon of war. Should we apply guilt by association to damn the Lannisters? In between times of war, they managed to *mostly* keep his violence in check.

    As for Ned and his kids (I noticed you didn’t mention Cat ;-) ), yes and no. The only book where we really got to see Ned was mostly told from his perspective or that of someone close to him. It was also before the war. Given his reputation for piety, how would he have reacted to Robb breaking his oath to the Freys? If we want to damn the Lannisters for the Cleganes, why can we not damn the Starks for the Boltons? Arya ordered assassinations and wanted to learn how to do more. And Sansa… I’m convinced she is going to evolve into Littlefinger’s accomplice and put Cersei’s conniving to shame.

    Basically, I think the purpose of the pro-Stark slant of the first few books is so that we don’t feel as bad when Daenerys comes through to wipe out the Lannisters. I’m not convinced that either house is as squeaky clean or utterly vile as we are initially led to believe.

    Wednesday, August 7, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  16. Solid Muldoon wrote:

    I’ve been reading comics for fifty years, and the most important moral lesson I know, I learned from them: “No, Batman! If you kill the Joker then you will be just like him! And he wins!”

    Sadly, that lesson has been forgotten in America today.

    Wednesday, August 7, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Permalink