Superheroes in the Obama age

Now that the American presidential elections are upon us, I am suddenly inundated by requests to comment on the state of popular culture during the Obama presidency. Strange as it sounds, I must admit that I am perpetually befuddled by this all-too-obvious question. After all, wasn’t I the guy who wrote his dissertation on superheroes during the Bush era, in which I argue that superheroes movies have assisted in the mythologization of neoliberal values? A similar question therefore relates to the genre during the Obama presidency, and to what extent the popular culture that supposedly augments and legitimizes it is any different from the previous era.

But the question remains weird to me, especially because it seems all too obvious that superheroes haven’t changed very much over the past four years. If anything, it’s been more of the same, with as little change as possible. The Dark Knight Rises made passing reference to the Occupy movement, but in the same superficial way that the two previous Batman films made reactionary comments about similar contemporary issues. Iron Man 2 continued the flagrant legitimization of celebrity, capital, neoliberal politics, and a radically privatized military. The Amazing Spider-Man was just like Spider-Man, but with more pointless emo soul-searching, and without any idea on how to tell a familiar story or stage an action sequence. And The Avengers was the inoffensive but also instantly-forgotten pre-modern superhero epic nobody minded sitting through all the way to the end.

The depressing conclusion this evidence presents, especially on the eve of another terrifying election, is that not much has changed during the Obama presidency. The charismatic president’s attempts to develop a form of neoliberal capitalism with a human face (at least as far as national and European policy is concerned) has only taken him so far, and none of it has moved us beyond Thatcher’s 1980s “There is no alternative” capitalist Leitmotiv. In spite of his positive public image across Europe and his frankly insane Nobel Peace Prize, Obama remains an arch-conservative American politician who can hardly even have done as much soul-searching as Tony Stark, another immensely likable public figure whose policies are similarly unable to withstand close scrutiny.

None of which is to say that the outcome of these elections is irrelevant. With the Republican party in the shape it is currently in, and with a candidate as completely offensive as Mitt ‘the Robot’ Romney –who reminds me of nothing so much as Laurence Harvey’s brainwashed assassin character in The Manchurian Candidate–, it is hard to fathom how much is riding on tomorrow’s results. Part of me even wants to believe that Obama will actually be able to effect change during his (dare I say it?) second term as president. But the other part of me fears that the problem is in fact that he is too much like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, and will remain unable to operate outside of the restrictive confines of destructive capitalism.

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