How Superhero Movies Can Get Political Without Getting Silly

Senior Contributor
05.13.16 7 Comments

Warner Bros. / Marvel

Comic books have been political ever since Jack Kirby and Joe Simon introduced Captain America by having him punch out Hitler on the cover. Nonetheless, it’s still relatively rare that superheroes deal with political issues, at least on screen. While Captain America defying the U.N. will no doubt inspire thinkpieces, it’s hard to see it as an instance of Marvel taking any sort of a stand on geopolitical issues. Still, superheroes and their actions are unusually powerful metaphors, and, used right, can deliver some genuinely thoughtful takes on real-world problems.

In Politics, There Are Few Supervillains

One of the best things about Captain America: Civil War is the main villain, Helmut Zemo. He’s profoundly dangerous, in part because his motives remain so unclear. In the end, it turns out he’s not looking to consolidate power or advance a dark conspiracy. He’s got a much rawer, more emotional reason to go after the Avengers, and one that casts the rest of the movie in a different light.

The best antagonist in any movie believes they’re doing the right thing, but when you get political, that becomes especially important. Often in politics who the bad guys and good guys are is a matter of perspective. Writer Tom King and artist Barnaby Bagenda recently reinvented DC’s space heroes The Omega Men along this principle to explore why terrorists choose violence over diplomacy. Even the book’s most ruthless villains have moments where we learn they view themselves as doing something out of necessity or where they justify a moral breakdown as a matter of survival. Even something as simple as giving the villain personal stakes, like a family to save or an authority they answer to, can give them more dimension.

You Can Talk About Real World Politics Without Going Into The Real World

In the early 2000s, Mark Waid sent the Fantastic Four to a small nation, formerly under the rule of an oppressive, violent dictator, to disassemble its war machine and build a democracy. Sound familiar? The small nation in question happened to be Latveria, the stomping grounds of Doctor Doom, but it’s no coincidence Waid wrote this story during the Iraq War. Both The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier dealt with fears of a surveillance state gone wrong.

But the best example is X-Men 2, where Bryan Singer explores a more personal kind of politics. In a scene about halfway through the movie, Iceman reveals to his parents he’s a mutant. The whole thing plays out almost exactly as if he’d just came out as gay, and his parents can’t deal with it.

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