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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