Reality as a Greater Fiction: Capitalist Superheroes Post-9/11

“The very concept of ideology implies a kind of basic, constitutive naivete: the misrecognition of its own presuppositions, of its own effective conditions, distance, a divergence between so-called social reality and our distorted representation, our false consciousness of it. . . .The Mask is not simply hiding the real state of things; the ideological distortion is written into its very essence.”  – Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 24-5.  

I am currently trying to think through visual representations of the 9/11 attacks, especially those in comic books, and the problem of when our fantasies (comic books and movies) become more real, or less fantastic, than reality (actual 9/11 attacks, etc.). In response, comic book creators began to make their characters more real and the events that took place in the fictional worlds more consequential. However, by creating these real-world scenarios and characters, they created a greater fiction around ordinary heroism and American masculinity. By dulling the fantastic aspect of comic books to make them more realistic, characters took on a grander fiction, that is, the fiction of American capitalistic dreams gone haywire.

Marvel bringing its heroes to the big screen in the last decade is most definitely a product of this turn to realism in comics and superhero fiction.  We see this evidently in Marvel’s 2008 film Iron Man, in that a realistic representation of the Armored Avenger sets Tony Stark over and against Muslim terrorists who are attempting to take over the world. In the film, Tony Stark is kidnapped by these terrorists, escapes, and then, in a seemingly anti-American way, denounces the production of deadly weapons and builds an Iron Man suit to atone for his past mistakes. Although this “realistic” version of the fantasy character attempts to break out of the mold of Americanized characters and superheroes as soldiers of war, Iron Man perpetuates an even more American mode of being than what is in reality. For example, Iron man, in his attempt to thwart government control, becomes a rogue who uses his own brain and brawn to overcome the enemy when the powers that be stand idle, or, as the movie Iron Man 2 depicts, are themselves part of the problem. Iron Man, in his attempt to shed the American way, actually embodies the American values of a step-up-when-no-one-else-will mentality paired with an above-the-law nature. Tony Stark is sarcastic, rich, and rebellious, all of which meld closely with the upper-echelon on the political elite, or, shall we say, similar to George W. Bush. This grandeur fiction is taken to the extreme when Tony Stark attempts to spy on the American government by planting a bug on S.H.I.E.L.D’s computer system in 2012’s Avengers. Here, the hero who embodies America’s core values of rebellion and self-autonomy spies on the very thing he represents – America is effectively spying on itself, and it’s OK, even celebrated! America can’t even escape from America, this scene says. Tony Stark becomes an Edward Snowden style character in this instance, but in a world where Tony Stark is the archetype of America and S.H.I.E.L.D stands as the liars, the ones who necessitate spying. To carry the connection even deeper, Iron Man 3 meets Tony Stark a the pinnacle of his brilliance with his Iron Man suits in that Tony can now control his suits remotely. There is a telling scene in Iron Man 3 where, after saving the day, Iron Man is suddenly hit by a semi-truck and his suit disassembles into a hundred pieces all over the road. With a blow like that certainty fatal, the scene reveals that Tony was unharmed controlling the suit from a distant boat the entire sequence. Whether intended or not, the remotely controlled Iron Man suit certainly mimics the use of unmanned, military drones by the United States government. Even odder is that fact that Tony creates and utilizes these drones after Iron Man 2 has the villain, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), creating and using “Hammer Drones,” to enact revenge. Like America, Iron Man often creates his own villains – Vanko was wronged by Tony’s father – while also employing tactics and ideologies that they try to act so adamantly against.  I can see it now: President Obama sitting comfortably in his chair deep in a bunker as he directs drones all over the world, easily ordering strikes and fly overs and reaping none of the fear of being shot down. Maybe Iron Man 3‘s popular advertising catch phrase, “does the man make the suit or is it the suit who makes the man?,” should be asked of President Obama, as well.

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy similarly attempts to make the mystifying Batman into a plausible and grounded reality. Although Batman is portrayed as the one who acts when no else will, he also embodies a purely American ideal of fixing our problems with our gadgets and by our own authority (not very different from Iron Man). It’s not until Nolan’s second installment of the Batman franchise, The Dark Knight, that Batman meets his match in the truly anarchic Joker, portrayed brilliantly by Health Ledger. Yet again, the film has stark similarities to the paradigm of America and its enemies. On the one side you have the Joker, the evident terrorist, the one who comes out nowhere to blow up hospitals and wreak havoc on the innocent, and on the other side you have Batman, the hero that has to fight for the people and stop what seems like an uncontrollable force. That is what terror(ism) is, right? An undefinable and uncontrollable, yet omnipresent threat to the very fabric of the religio-moral, economic, and psychological structure of America, upon all of which the Joker dances and tries to burn. The terrorist could be anyone, and consequentially, no one at the same time. Thus, terrorism is an idea as much as it is anything else. And that is exactly what Heath Ledger embodies: an idea of pure chaos, undeniable terror. Some of Joker’s last words in the movie are especially telling to the insurmountable war against the specter that is terrorism. As the Joker hangs suspended after Batman saves him from a free fall to his death, Joker says, “I guess this is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. . . . I think you and I are destined to do this forever” (watch the whole scene here). It seems this sentence describes America’s politics of war more closely than we would like to admit.

The Obama Joker Socialism Poster

The Obama Joker Socialism Poster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the end of the Dark Knight faithfully resounds, America again revels in being the anti-hero that inevitably become sublimated into the right notion of heroism. After taking the fall for Two-Face’s murders, Batman runs from the police, leaving Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) to proclaim, “[Batman] is the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he is not our hero . . . he’s a silent guardian . . . a watchful protector . . . a dark knight.” (Watch it here). However, as the movie undoubtedly wants to portray, Batman is the hero that Gotham needs, whether they want it or not, or agree with his tactics, or know the whole truth behind his actions. Like Batman, America can take the punches, can endure the criticism of bombing innocent people and spying on its own citizens because America is doing what we really want, passing out justice that is rightly deserved, whether we think it’s needed to or not. In this scene, we realize the fine line between Batman and the Joker that hinges upon the notion of the idea. Batman is not a man, but an idea, an idea of justice that bested Joker’s idea of chaos. Like Batman and the Joker, America creates its own ideology, choosing what “actually” happened to the Harvey Dents and creating a social warping of the idea apart from what it actually represents. (There is much more to be said on this subject, especially in dealing with The Dark Knight Rises. I would urge you to go back and watch the third movie with Bane as the villain, and act as if Batman represents America and Bane the terrorist. Bane offers stunning critique of the ambiguity between the good and the bad, the right and wrong of American ideology – namely, the idea that, to be able to defeat the evil that lurks, you must crawl out of the same deep, dark hole from which the evil itself emerged).

As Zizek points out in the opening quote, there is a serious divergence happening in the realistic adaptations of superhero movies post-9/11. Through the attempt to make superheroes more grounded in reality, we actually create an artifice that is a greater fiction than anything we could ever dream up in our fantasies.

Thus, there is a certain double consciousness that shows itself at the heart of American narrative when comic books turn to realism post-9/11, of which Batman and Iron Man are a constitutive part. America should attend to this double consciousness very cautiously, that is to say, there is no happy ending to a story that allows the main character to be both the hero and the villain – that may be the greatest fiction of all.

1. Quotes taken from the Dark Knight were pulled from

2. A great article to check out that compared Obama’s 2008 political campaign to the Joker is Gerry Canavan’s “Person of the Year: Obama, Joker, Capitalism, Schizophrenia.”