The superhero genre is an American creation, like jazz and stripper poles, exemplifying American ideals, American know-how, and American might, a mating of magical thinking and the right stuff. (May Vanity Fair)
After Barack Obama was elected in November 2008, Hollywood saw the trend: This man would save America, from the economy, from foreign opinion, from war, from the Bush era. He would bring America back to its former glory.
After a decade of sorted superheroes flying across green screens with the greatest of ease, in 2009 and 2010 only two films from the superhero genre were released, Iron Man 2 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Both films were sequels; America didn’t need any new superheroes, we had Obama.
Now over two years into Obama’s term and things are changing. If you needed any other signs that summer is finally (almost, kind of) here, you only need to look at the swell of blockbusters hitting the screens. Johnny Depp with his raven locks and guyliner, took over the box office last weekend with the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, but two weeks ago it was America’s superheroes who officially launched their summer tour. Thor, which has grossed over $145 million in the US since its May 6 release, is the first of four big-budget superhero films set for theaters this summer (X-Men First Class, June 3, Green Lantern, June 17, Captain America: The First Avenger, July 22).
Even more capes will be flashing across the big screen in 2012 with The Avengers, Superman: Man of Steel, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Amazing Spider-Man.
So what’s going on?
In almost every year since 2000, at least one film from the superhero genre has cracked the top 20 list of domestic box office grossers. The X-Men and Spider-Man franchises alone have grossed over $1.9 billion domestically, spanning across seven films.
Comparatively, however, the 2000’s were unable to capture a tone befitting the era, as the genre has done in the past. Superman ruled at the box office from 1978 until 1988, releasing four films in the franchise. The escalating Cold War and an economic crisis encouraged a country in distress to embrace the nationalistic timbre that defined Ronald Reagan’s presidency; Superman, with his ability to withstand bullets and leap tall buildings in a single bound, was an ideal guardian for America during the turbulent 1980’s.
As the last great enemy of the United States vanished with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, America became the world’s only remaining superpower, and in turn with the tide in 1989, Tim Burton would reboot Batman. A superhero who lacked any superhuman abilities, save perhaps his high intelligence, Batman a.k.a. Bruce Wayne, was a wealthy businessman-turned-vigilante fighting crime at night dressed as a bat, using an array of highly developed, tech-savvy weapons. Batman was symbolic of the abundant wealth and economic dominance of Wall Street and Silicon Valley throughout much of the 1990’s. In addition to America’s dark knight, Hollywood also created film versions of dark, morally ambiguous superheroes in The Punisher (1989), Spawn (1997), and Blade (1998).
But the post 9/11 America never found itself a consistent superhero; along with the X-Men and Spider-Man, Hollywood also gave us Hellboy, The Fantastic Four, Hulk, Ghost Rider, Chris Nolen’s take on Batman, another Superman, and Iron Man.
What makes 2011/2012 different is that, contrary to previous years when we saw the same characters over several films, only two of the upcoming superhero flicks are sequels, The Dark Knight Rises and Ghost Rider. The remainder are either brand new franchises or reboots, such as Captain America and Superman: Man of Steel.
In 2008, America thought it had found its hero. Now, however, it seems the “honeymoon” is over. Obama’s campaign of “hope” and “change” were stalled by reality, and despite the achievements he has made thus far — passing health care legislation, over-turning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and now the death of Osama bin Laden — people still can at most times only talk of his failures, such as the slow economic recovery, high unemployment, and unforthcoming closing of Guantanamo.
Obama couldn’t perform miracles or walk on water, and he couldn’t instantly pull America out of the hole it had dug for itself since 9/11, as so many had expected him to after they built him up during the campaign.
Perhaps the words of Commissioner Jim Gordon closing lines of The Dark Knight best describe the decline of Super-Obama: “he’s the hero Gotham deserves. But not the one it needs right now. And so we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A dark knight.”
Following the success of the film M*A*S*H (1970), the war parody depicting life during the Korean War for a group of drafted doctors, was adapted for TV. When the show ended in 1983 after it’s eleven-year run, it was the most watched season finale of all time. M*A*S*H not only satirized the military and the American government, but various American personalities. Best example: Major Frank Burns. A wealthy, patriotic gun lover, the conservative doctor constantly bragged about having his own practice “back in the States,” quoted from the Bible, and quipped about his strict wife while having an affair with another major.
In the second season episode titled “The Chosen People,” the following exchange takes place in the operating room:
HAWKEYE: Frank, by a strange coincidence, the inhabitants of Korea communicate in Korean. It wouldn’t hurt us to speak their language.
FRANK: I speak American. And I can go any place in the world.
TRAPPER: We can have you packed in 20 minutes.
HAWKEYE: We’re living in Korea, Frank.
FRANK: Not me, fella! I’m part of the American military establishment. I eat in an American mess, I shop in an American Px. All I want to do is save these people and go home.
DR PAC: And we thank you from the bottom of our bomb craters.
Twenty three years after the last M*A*S*H aired, from the minds behind Saturday Night Live blossomed 30 Rock. Quirkier than M*A*S*H was ever allowed to be, 30 Rock not only pokes fun at the American conservative, but the American liberal as well. Like Frank Burns, the portrayal of characters on 30 Rock skirt the line between reality and fiction. Yes, some wealthy conservatives said President Obama could actually be from Kenya, but none have an invisible AMEX card or “whip pennies at the drum circle” in Central Park.
But what do these political portrayals accomplish?
The depiction of the extremes for comedic reasons makes the stereotypes all the more apparent to the viewer. In one of the most brilliant episodes of 30 Rock, “Brooklyn Without Limits,” we see Liz Lemon obsessing over how socially conscious her new jeans company is, only to discover it’s owned by Halliburton, while Jack tries to aid a conservative Tea-Party-esque politician, he realizes that someone who wants to put casino’s on the moon should not actually be elected to Congress.
Plus, we learn that Che Guevara’s great grandfather was Domingo Halliburton and liberals should really find someone else to wear ironically on t-shirts.