How Superhero Movies Can Get Political Without Getting Silly

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.

It’s not the most subtle moment, sure. But consider that when the movie came out in 2003, it was still months before Massachusetts’ landmark case on same-sex marriage was issued, and the MPAA is still regularly accused of penalizing films with gay content. Singer plays the whole scene for laughs, as a breather in between action scenes, but he’s explained the very real pain it’s rooted in:

That was always something very specific about the X-Men, which related to the LGBT community. You’re born into a family or a neighborhood which you do not identify with… But an LGBT person is born into a world — to use the example that X-Men uses — like a mutant. And of course the parents aren’t mutants, the brothers and sisters might not be mutants. And they feel a unique kind of aloneness.

Actions Need To Have Consequences

One of the ongoing themes of the Iron Man movies has been Tony Stark’s struggles with guilt. The first movie opens with Tony discovering that not only are terrorists using his weapons, his company is selling them to anybody with the cash. Tony has never processed this well: In the first movie he flies into a village and kills a bunch of members of the Ten Rings, only to nearly get shot down by the U.S. government since he has no authority to fly into a sovereign nation and kill a bunch of its citizens, terrorists or not.

Ever since, every time Tony has appeared, his past has come back to haunt him in some way. He fought fellow arms dealers in Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3 showed pre-Iron Man Tony turning a fellow scientist evil by cruelly mistreating him, and in Avengers: Age Of Ultron, the Sokovian people hate Tony Stark for selling arms to both sides of their civil war. By the time Captain America: Civil War arrives, you understand why Tony believes in the Sokovia Accords and tries mightily to make them work. If anybody knows the suffering caused by unchecked power, it’s him.

This can all go wrong, of course. Superman IV, for example, had a very noble message about nuclear weapons that it delivered in a way so absurd it helped kill the franchise. Still, as thrilling as fistfights are, superhero movies should work to deliver something more than just action. A movie that’s both thoughtful and thrilling is one of the best experiences you can have in a theater, and superheroes can easily deliver both.