5 CBM's With Real-World Themes

5 CBM's With Real-World Themes

Some CBMs, more than others, use the genre as a platform to address very real ethical, social and political issues. Here are five that present such themes vividly and accessibly.

The best Comic Book Movies, at least from my perspective, are those that include strong, clearly-articulated themes. They do not have to be all about large-scale ideas -- the most important thing is that the characters are portrayed in an interesting way, with heart and humanity or at least with complexity (in the case of deliberately heartless characters). Sometimes, an internal emotional journey is all the coherence that a film needs.

In other cases, though, characters are strongly driven by external forces, and in the best stories, those external forces represent relatable concepts that parallel what's going on in our real world. Social, political or otherwise, a film is often more powerful when it not only entertains, but really hits home as well.

With that in mind, here is some brief commentary on five films that I feel exemplify the incorporation of "real world themes" into comics-based stories. It goes without saying that the original source material (when such a thing exists) is to credit for much of the thematic complexity that finds its way into these films.

Note: This is not an attempt to pick "the best" single CBM with real-world themes. I've simply organized these alphabetically, as opposed to ranking them against each other.

So, here goes...

1. The Dark Knight Rises – Anyone Can Be a Hero, Socioeconomic Inequality

As a film, it may be the weakest link of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, but The Dark Knight Rises presents some ideas that, arguably, are more clearly-applicable to “real life” than those of its two predecessors. Of course, the Bane/League of Shadows/Talia plot is directly connected to the Ra’s al Ghul plot in Batman Begins. But here, it involves (however deceptively and manipulatively) the people of Gotham in the crusade to cleanse the city.

There are obvious connections to the Occupy movement, and the long-term implications of the rich minority getting richer at the expense of the economically disadvantaged majority are certainly worth considering. The masses may not be given much of a choice in this case, but it is certainly not lost on Bane/Talia in their planning that the disenfranchised will be willing to embrace a new social order that involves retribution against perceived-as-parasitical upper class.

The other major theme in TDKR is the idea that anyone can be the hero. Personal responsibility and initiative are crucial, as diffusion of responsibility tends to lock society into the status quo, an unhealthy and sometimes vicious cycle in which the pursuit of wealth and the corruption of those who possess it is unchecked by better interests.

The John Blake character epitomizes this theme as he, deeply driven and encouraged by both Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne, steps up to the plate. Matthew Modine’s police officer Foley struggles with personal versus public responsibility. And of course, Wayne himself must reconcile his own duality and figure out how to best help Gotham considering both the current situation and the state of his own life at that point. Ultimately, though, it isn’t just about the Batman. Everyone has a role to play, and if the symbolism personified by one man is inspiration enough, the heavy lifting requires a group effort.

2. Hancock – Collateral Damage, Society and the Superhero

What if there was a super-powered individual who could take a bite out of crime, enact miraculous rescues and generally perform feats of awe and power…but who also left a trail of collateral damage in his/her wake? Are the heroics worth the peripheral chaos? (And for whatever its worth, no, I do not think that Man of Steel is an example of the same thing.)

Those questions can apply to any situation in which the use of force or exceptional action has the potential to solve a problem “quickly and easily.” If every action has an equal and opposite reaction, then taking a shortcut or superseding social norms or standard procedures usually brings some unintended or unwanted consequences along with the desired result. Does the end justify the means? Is society willing to tolerate those means? (Does it even have a choice?)

I am not necessarily a huge fan of this film, but it does very effectively ask some relevant questions about how real-life super-heroism would play out. Other post-superhero films such as Watchmen and The Incredibles have raised similar questions (and addressed the legal ramifications of collateral damage) but Hancock presents them in a very direct, accessible way.

3. Iron Man – Profiting from War, Applications of Scientific Research

In addition to a sharp script, great casting and audio-visual thrills, Iron Man addresses some timely ethical questions. The arms-supply industry is great business for a tech prodigy like Tony Stark. There are plenty of characters in fiction in the mold of the scientist who does not realize or approve of his/her work being used as weapons (to some extent Zola from Captain America: The First Avenger, Wayne Enterprises in The Dark Knight Rises), but Stark is well aware that his talents create weapons and very much enjoys the lifestyle that being a part of the military-industrial complex affords him. Of course, a little firsthand experience on the wrong end of the gun-barrel shakes him up and gets him thinking about the ground-level ramifications of his work.

Treading this sort of thematic ground can draw divisive reactions. Certainly, it’s important to possess sophisticated, effective national defense measures. The threat of the use of force can indeed be an effective deterrent, and thusly create a safer environment…in some cases, for some period of time. Bottom line, someone has to develop arms technology. At the same time, though, there is no guarantee that it will be used appropriately, or as Tony Stark learns, that it is even getting into the “right” hands. Powerful economic forces can connect all points, and the complexity of politics and the flow of money bears a sober perspective, if nothing else.

Tony Stark finds himself driven to at least attempt a change of course. To use his resources to address the world’s problems through methods other than direct violence/force/threat. That is an ambitious goal for science and industry, but worth striving for.

4. Watchmen – End/Means, Society and the Superhero

When people talk about “comic books as serious literature,” Watchmen is the most often-referenced example. Much has been said about it, and there are many themes present in the pages. While the central “concept” present in the story is probably the exercise of presenting superheroes in an (imagined) realistic context, the theme that I would isolate for discussion here is the question of whether the end justifies the means.

The familiar Spider-Man proverb “with great power comes great responsibility” applies here, as to most superhero stories, but in the case of Watchmen, the use of great power -- both if and how -- is a matter of ethical debate. This comes across in various ways. Dr. Manhattan’s wide perspective and out-of-body separation from humanity distorts his sense of responsibility. He could help, but given his perspective, would it really be worthwhile?

On a far smaller scale, Rorschach is a deeply entrenched compulsive,  a solitary figure who will not stop using his abilities to effect his version of justice. There is also a certain enjoyment that can be had from using power, as some of the Nite Owl/Silk Spectre scenes show. All of those characters, however, are dealing primarily with if  they should use their powers.

However, Ozymandias' story examines how he uses his powers, and is the most relevant to this discussion. He has great ability, resources and celebrity. It is commendable that he is committed to using those resources for the good of humanity. He may be able to make the world a better place in the end. But at what cost? How much do individual lives matter in the big picture? Life is everything, of course, most of us would argue. On the other hand, the needs of the many do outweigh the needs of the few. Those questions loom in Watchmen. Responsibility is not just a heavy, but a complex thing. Just because you can and it will technically achieve the desired result, should you?

5. X2: X-Men United – Social Prejudice/Persecution, Fear of the Unknown

From the beginning, the themes of the X-Men franchise presented themselves very clearly, starting onscreen with the first scene of X-Men. X2: X-Men United is arguably the best film in the franchise, and not coincidentally, the most thematically powerful. Mutants can be stand-ins for any number of social groups that have been ostracized, discriminated against, viewed with fear, etc.

The scene at Bobby Drake (Iceman)’s parents’ house is in my estimation the most effective of this film. On the run from Stryker’s forces with Wolverine, Rogue, and Pyro, Bobby finds his family struggling to understand and accept his mutant status even though they know him. The psychological toll of this relationship divide is heavy, and this whole part of the film is ironically but not accidentally one of the most human sequences in any CBM.

Of course, the scene at the house ends with a display of violence from Pyro, who destroys several police cars. There are two thematic takeaways from that. One is the cautionary tale of what predictably happens when a person or group is pushed too far and/or denied a peaceable avenue of coexistence.

The other takeaway goes back to the tagline for the first X-Men film – “Trust a Few; Fear the Rest.” That can be taken multiple ways, one being that viewing a group as simply inherently “good” or “bad” tends to be an inaccurate oversimplification either way (of course, there are exceptions). Not all mutants are bad; not all mutants are good. They’re people, and each has a unique perspective comprised of nature and nurture and varied experience, often with complex motivations driving actions.

Much as the Star Trek franchise has used the guise of science-fiction to explore social issues, X-Men and other comic properties, at their best, manage to address difficult matters in a way that is digestible and entertaining, reaching a greater audience than literal lecturing or preaching would. When the right combination of elements coalesces, it can work remarkably well as a thematic vehicle.


At the same time that all of those heavy, provoking thoughts are worth being confronted with, sometimes what we really need is just a frame like this:

...simply because man, that's awesome. The great thing about Comic Book Movies is that they can combine serious themes with pure exhileration, humor and escapism. There is value in all of those things.
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BatmanHeisenberg - 3/29/2014, 5:01 PM
Well done. I love all the Nolan films.
sikwon - 3/29/2014, 5:04 PM
Destined - 3/29/2014, 5:13 PM
Great topic spotlight and well conceived article!
kong - 3/29/2014, 5:20 PM
Great article! Great points. These are some of the best parts of each of the movies mentioned.
Wolf38 - 3/29/2014, 5:20 PM
Thanks. :)
marvel72 - 3/29/2014, 5:39 PM
@ wolf38

i agree,it certainly is the weakest link of the nolan trilogy.
gamecreatorjj - 3/29/2014, 5:48 PM
@marvel 72
i also agree,it certainly is the weakest link of the nolan trilogy.
marvel72 - 3/29/2014, 6:14 PM
@ mrblackjack

its the best comic book movie trilogy thus far,i just think the dark knight rises is the weakest part.but a certain someone on this thread doesn't like other peoples opinions.

batman begins 5/5
the dark knight 5/5
the dark knight rises 2.5/5

the dark knight trilogy 4/5
Abary - 3/29/2014, 6:21 PM
Great job. I agree with practically all of this.
Tainted87 - 3/29/2014, 6:37 PM
It is the weakest, even though AnnoDomini disagrees ;)

There are TONS of real-world messages in the X-Men movies.
X2 begins and ends with the idea that there is greatness and darkness in all of us (the Once and Future King) which is why Wolverine is fit into the center of the story. Even the mightiest can fall, even the most sworn enemy can be a hero, and even the "meek" can be giants.

The Last Stand goes into the use or misuse of power, from the creation of the mutant cure, to its weaponization, to its provocation of a full-on war (based poetically at Alcatraz). There are different reactions to it. Some are offended by it's very existence, some feel threatened, some feel relieved by it. This "cure" is seen by Magneto as inventive and lethal, a new way to fight and possibly eradicate mutantkind. By Rogue, it is a means of allowing her to be free, to not be cursed every day, to be ideally normal. For Storm and most of the X-Men, it's an affront: arrogantly presuming that their mutation is both a disease and wrong. Their viewpoints are strongly influenced by the nature of their powers, and how they've lived by them.
Wolf38 - 3/29/2014, 7:12 PM
@AnnoDomini, do you mean that you do not feel that Rises is the weakest of the Dark Knight Trilogy?

For whatever it's worth, I said weakest meaning that the other two, in my opinion, are better films overall. Nothing insinuated about how whether Rises is good or bad on its own terms.
Wolf38 - 3/29/2014, 7:15 PM
@marvel72, that "(5 + 5 + 2.5)/3 = 4" breakdown is very close to how I see it. I might give Rises a 3, and round the whole thing up to a 5, but Rises is one of those films that I enjoy less each time I watch it, so my initial impression was better than what I hold now, I guess. I think that there are some great ideas in the mix, though.
Wolf38 - 3/29/2014, 7:17 PM
Thanks for the clarification, @AD.
Wolf38 - 3/29/2014, 7:19 PM
Anyway, though, that line about which film was best in that trilogy was not intended to be a hard statement or controversial.

Just goes to show that it takes a lot of self-editing to remove one's opinions, and I may not have gone far enough. *laughs*
Reasonnnn - 3/29/2014, 7:27 PM
TDKR is clearly the weakest of the three. You really felt the runtime while watching it. Still a pretty solid film, along with some of my favorite lines (thanks Bane) from the entire trilogy!

- Oh, you think darkness is your ally. But you merely adopted the dark; I was born in it, molded by it. I didn't see the light until I was already a man, by then it was nothing to me but BLINDING!
- The shadows betray you, because they belong to me!
- Theatricality and deception are powerful agents to the uninitiated... but we are initiated, aren't we Bruce? Members of the League of Shadows!
- Ah, yes... I was wondering what would break first... Your spirit, or your body?
Wolf38 - 3/29/2014, 7:28 PM
The GIFs are cool. Although Ray Liotta does kind of creep me out.
Tainted87 - 3/29/2014, 8:02 PM
Nah, I think we're interpreting your gifs just the way you want them. You're whoring for attention. We're not discussing TDKR. No one's interested in getting into a religious debate with you about it.

I think it is funny, but mostly sad, how you're constantly seeking attention, trying to even play victim at times, as if your obvious elephant in the room status makes you a martyr because you have a different opinion and stick to it.

AND THEN, you try and validate your own opinion (something not needed in the first place) by saying that you're not alone. It's like you're trying to create drama, you poke, you prod, and when you get some slight response, you act like an ass.

I wish I could be nice about it like Wolf38, but I'm just done.
marvel72 - 3/29/2014, 8:10 PM
@ AnnoDomini

i'm not butt hurt over your gifs,i made a comment that you found funny hence the gif,you're the one that comes across butt hurt that i & others have claimed the dark knight rises is the weakest but its your favorite & you must defend it because you don't want anyone putting any doubt in your mind.
DaVinci31 - 3/29/2014, 8:24 PM

TDKR was dogsh*t.
DaVinci31 - 3/29/2014, 8:35 PM

Nice editorial. Even though I don't love all of these CBM's, I certainly see how you saw these themes throughout all of them.
Platinum - 3/29/2014, 9:54 PM
Yup can't disagree with any of this. Nice.

TDKR did feel like the weakest though. Tried to do too much and please way too many people.
Wolf38 - 3/29/2014, 9:59 PM
@DaVinci31, Thanks. I don't love all of these films, either.
CharlesLord - 3/29/2014, 10:34 PM
Really good write up man. Thumbed from me
feedonatreefrog - 3/30/2014, 1:56 AM
All movies have 'real world themes'. Courage, sacrifice, etc, are in fact things that we deal with in the real world.
QuestionDAnswer - 3/30/2014, 2:58 AM
5 cbm's with real world themes

1. The Dark Knight Trilogy

2. Watchmen

3. Man of Steel (eugenics, what would we do if an alien lived among us, free will and destiny etc.)

4. V for Vendetta

5. X-Men
Wolf38 - 3/30/2014, 11:56 AM
@feedonatreefrog, Very true.

@MarkOfTheDemon, Man of Steel and V for Vendetta, definitely.
SauronsBANE - 3/30/2014, 12:06 PM
Fantastic article!

The Dark Knight Trilogy is definitely up there in terms of themes that actually apply to us in real life. I love The Dark Knight Rises, but I sincerely wish it gave us a little more window into the class structure in Gotham. Yeah, obviously the rich keep getting richer (which makes it somewhat poetic justice that Bruce loses all his money after Bane's hit on the stock exchange) while the poor get poorer, like Selina. But man, it could've been so much more exciting to see even more riots, even more citizens buying into Bane's garbage about social uprising...we could've had another French Revolution on our hands!

And despite the hate for Iron Man 2 and 3, the entire trilogy works pretty well with their themes. It hits on a lot of areas, like the roles that big, powerful corporations should have on the economy, terrorism, arms dealership, foreign threats vs domestic...this trilogy doesn't get nearly enough credit, IMO.

Again, great read, thumbs up from me.
SauronsBANE - 3/30/2014, 12:08 PM
I'm not entirely sure how Man of Steel would fit in here though.

Eugenics is certainly not a very pressing issue at the moment (although that will almost certainly change in the future), I don't think any rational people are really all that worried about aliens living among us and how we'd react if that were the case, and free will vs destiny has literally zero place in our everyday lives, unless you're especially religious (although to it's credit, MoS does touch on the religious aspect a little bit).

MoS certainly has interesting themes, but none you can really apply in the real-world IMO, which is the point of this article.
Bryanferryfan - 3/30/2014, 3:17 PM
Road to Perdition wasn't mentioned. It highlights the disappointment of youth and how those we look up to,often lead complicated and subversive lives.
Wolf38 - 3/30/2014, 3:59 PM
@SauronsBANE1, that's a good point about Man of Steel, which really is very much sci-fi or "speculative fiction" film. A lot of the ideas in it are theoretically, not huge issues in the real world at the moment.

There was an interview with Cavill that I read last year (cannot recall where) and he said some very interesting things about the psychology of his character, but that was more about internal struggles...which are very relevant to anyone who's alive, but not quite what I was going for with all of this.

Anyway, though, I think that the fact that Man of Steel represents a clear effort to set a superhero story in the "real world" counts for something. Even if it wasn't completely successful (I love the film, but don't think that it's perfect) it felt different from the average CBM in a good way.
Wolf38 - 3/30/2014, 4:00 PM
MightyZeus - 3/30/2014, 5:02 PM
I've noticed most of these successful comic book films you've placed on your list revolve or include real world themes. Maybe more comic book films should be adapting it.

I actually love The Dark Knight trilogy and it's themes. I love how it's grounded and in terms of Batman's mythos it has a sense of realism with out offending anyone who loves Batman. I know it can be overrated at times but is it well deserved? For a successful and the best comic book trilogy of all time i say why not.

The Iron Man trilogy could have been something special especially since the first Iron Man movie. It's themes where perfect for revolving and surrounding a character who is the head of a company that distributes and sells weapons. Iron Man 2 i dont mind but it wasnt that great as a film same can be said with Iron man 3, a stronger villain would have been suited for the film and a better actor to portray the character. Although all three films do work well with it's themes of terrorism, foreign threats and domestic as well as corporations going against each other.
ComradeGrey - 3/30/2014, 5:03 PM
None of these movies actually go very much into depth on the issues they raise...I mean, yeah, they 'bring them up' in a roundabout way, but nowhere near where MiracleMan did. These movies don't portray real-world themes, they portray a hollow standee of a real-world theme to create the illusion of grounded depth. Show me the side of Tony Stark that actually uses his StarkTech to help create cheap, effective medical treatments. [frick], Bruce Banner does more with his bare hands and scientific knowhow than Stark does with his science magic to help anyone that isn't himself. They allude to the issues, but even TDKR doesn't really say anything about the problem of wealth inequality beyond the fact that it exists. I want to see a superhero that operates in a thoughtful representation of the real world, not just a super-world with a few 'realistic themes' thrown in to make him seem grounded. MOS kept talking about how it would change everyone's perception of themselves, whether they were alone in the universe, etc, but the only thing the movie actually explored was what a Millenial version of superman could look like. The themes you talk about here are a mirage of the real world and ignore the most important aspect of true realism: the long-term consequences of actions and inactions.
ComradeGrey - 3/30/2014, 5:06 PM
These stories always occur on such an individual, small scale. It's one person with superpowers fighting another person with superpowers who has a grudge. Show me a superhero who actually goes to Washington and starts asking them why the [frick] they're acting like a bunch of corrupt oligarchs. That's a real-world theme.
TheOneAboveAll - 3/30/2014, 5:35 PM
Mr. Wayne Goes to Washington or Mr. Rogers Goes to Washington would make for a great movie... I think Steve Rogers doing that would be the best though becuase he is such a patriot.
Wolf38 - 3/30/2014, 7:27 PM
It's a legitimate criticism that the phrase "real world themes" is kind of incorrect. I can see that. Of course these films are fiction (wildly fictional fiction) and the themes/ideas are presented usually as metaphors, or using fictional scenarios, not actual real-world events. Point.


"Show me a superhero who actually goes to Washington and starts asking them why the [frick] they're acting like a bunch of corrupt oligarchs."

In X2 Xavier and his people do go to Washington. The issue that they address is their own fictional circumstance, not the corrupt oligarch angle, per se. But interaction with government figures is not an unheard of thing in CBMs. Granted, again, this is all fiction for the purpose of entertainment, which precludes some things.

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