For most people, the thought that superheroes and popular blockbusters can be discussed within an analytical framework of capitalism and political philosophy doesn’t cross their mind. They seem antithetical, in all fairness. Superheroes are for children and feature (allegedly) vacuous stories which can be boiled down to a series of punches, kicks and dubious internal logic. But the important thing to remember is that superhero stories are not made by children, but rather adults with their own artistic needs and interests and capacity for unconscious influence. We are all induced to think and feel certain ways by our environment and other exterior forces which filter through to our actions, and in the case of storytellers, the most pertinent action is to create.
The academic Dan Hassler-Forest has made a career out of pop culture and media criticism through his political lens, with Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age emerging from his PhD thesis. Hassler-Forest is chiefly concerned with that unlikely intersection of entertainment and politics, where popular fiction becomes parable and space to understand how ingrained neoliberal ideology, masterminded throughout the late 20th Century by right-wing economists and, later, leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, has become within the western psyche. While neoliberalism gets the most mentions, it’s typically an umbrella term covering numerous concepts of right-wing and postmodern thought: Foucalt’s Panopticon, a structure wherein one guard can survey all their prisoners at once, gets written about extensively in essays on superheroes and the surveillance state, for example, with the book also tackling apocalyptic cinema and the shape of the modern capitalist city.
For Hassler-Forest, the superhero resurgence can be linked directly to 9/11 and America’s attempts to work through its “post-9/11 national trauma.” Correlation doesn’t always equal causation, but it is notable how the box office grosses and cultural relevance of superhero movies increased dramatically post-9/11; 2000’s X-Men made just $296m worldwide ($441m in today’s money, still on the lower end of Hollywood success) while 2002’s Spider-Man brought home $821m – or $1.17b adjusted for inflation, which would place it amongst the highest-grossing films of all time.
The author succinctly articulates how superhero popularity was an inevitability given long-term historical trends and the short-term travesty of 9/11. Recognisable superheroes are a 20th Century invention: Superman was created by Jewish writers on the eve of World War II, and the cover of the first Captain America comic features Steve Rogers punching Hitler. Capitalism grew ever more dominant once the war was won and became a supranational philosophy to unite around, gradually displacing organised religion as a governing principle of day-to-day life but not filling the spiritual hole. “Without any gods left to appeal to, the postmodern myths of superheroes offer re-articulations of religious myths, but from the explicit framework of secularised popular culture,” he argues. Directly after 9/11, America engaged in national mourning and soul-searching, mythologising its first responders as heroes and hoping for more to follow – somebody to protect the people and stop an attack like that from ever happening again. Consciously or unconsciously, this is adapted literally in Batman Begins and Superman Returns; the former necessitates Batman halt the Gotham Monorail from crashing into Wayne Tower, an emblem of the city in the same way the Two Towers were, and the latter featuring Superman literally save a crashing plane.
It’s a book of meticulously researched, fascinating essays, drawing on the works of Fredric Jameson, Mark Fisher, Slavoj Žižek and more to illustrate the key points about superheroes. They are not just popular, now more than ever before, because of their exciting special effects and fun characters but also because they fulfil a subconscious need to believe in something bigger than oneself. And, as Fisher wrote, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism – and, as I wrote, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of superhero cinema.
So, will the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes only fall when our economic system does too? I am uncertain of when capitalism will fall and equally unsure of what could disinterest people in superheroes. However, as the book outlines in its conclusion, “the dominant narrative of American identity remains that of the traumatized victim.” Despite being published in 2011, the story is the same in 2019: the election of Trump appears an outward show of strength in ‘traditional American ideals,’ but is really an indication of fear and weakness – fear of alienation, irrelevance and displacement in a racial, mythological and political sense with faith placed in strong men to save the day. So long as that political context remains true, superheroes will be here too.
For anybody keen on academic literature, superheroes, media criticism and the symbiotic relationship between art and the politics of its time, Dan Hassler-Forest’s Capitalist Superheroes is a must-read.