The Breitbart doctrine states that politics is downstream from culture: change the culture, and you change the politics. If you agree, you will also agree that modern cinema was a gift to Donald Trump and his white supremacists. He began in television — he was, I joke, the apprentice — but his possibilities were cinematic.
Cinema is America’s native culture. It was glorious, but not recently; it has been eroded to a series of franchises, particularly Marvel’s the Avengers, which has, over 23 films, raised $23 billion. Avengers Endgame is the highest-grossing film in history and, apart from the fact that it features an alien enemy and brightly-coloured superheroes, I couldn’t tell you anything about it, and I watched it. Except that I suspect the American neo-Nazi Richard Spencer loved it.
The modern superhero film was born from the disaster film. This is important. America loves disaster films, which play out its endings, like a child imagining itself dead for the pleasure of knowing it isn’t. It is a game it plays with itself, and it’s an old game: space aliens in the 1950s; animals and technology in the 1970s; climate disaster in the 1990s, before it became too imminent to enjoy.
Then the disaster film became the superhero film. The semi-ordinary protagonist — the American everyman, flawed, generic but essentially sane — retired. He was too adult for the infantilised viewer to identify with. He was replaced by a relic from the mid 20th century — the superhero. Now there is nothing else to admire on screen, except wizards perhaps, but they are old, and Jedi knights, and they are space aliens. Modern cinematic heroes are defiantly inhuman. If that feels self-hating, and incurious — there is no finding here, there is not even any seeking — it is.
But there is always peril. That is the first principle of disaster cinema. You are in danger from vast, uncontrollable events that require vast and violent solutions because searching for your real enemy — yourself — is less exciting. The second principle is more important still: the protector in this time of peril will not be, in any terms you would recognise, a heroic man. He will probably be an idiot. I wonder if cinema persuaded the credulous in America that it needed Donald Trump, and if it also persuaded the less credulous in America that it needn’t really fear him. The threat on the screen isn’t real. Perhaps Trump isn’t either.
The superhero is made exceptional by tragedy: Batman (bereavement and trauma), Iron Man (the same), Hulk (an accident at work) and Magneto, the mutant survivor of Auschwitz. The scene where Magneto raises the barbed wire of Auschwitz is typical of the genre, because it is emotionally and intellectually deadening. You feel nothing. It is nothing. I couldn’t watch the X-Men after that.
Or he is made exceptional by powers: Batman, who battled the ever-disgusting poor of Gotham, a city wracked by crime wave, where socialists and even environmentalists — Poison Ivy? — are deadly; Iron Man and Hulk again; multiple X-Men; Thor and his fascinating hammer. Then there is Captain America, made heroic by patriotic serum. It can happen to anyone.
Under the super-heroism, though, is misery. Iron Man calls himself a “genius, billionaire playboy, philanthropist”. Those are not the words of a hero, who must have self-knowledge, but a narcissist in the shadow of his father. (That is not unusual. Thor — about whom his father Odin essentially said the same — and Batman are likewise afflicted.) The superhero is often depressive. He cannot form stable relationships. He may inherit a great fortune, which either contributes to, or is the entire sum of, his heroism. They do not read books because anti-intellectualism is essential; readers are weak. The only intellectual superhero in cinema is Professor X of X-Men, and he is punished for his doctoral thesis by confinement to a wheelchair; and Dr Strange, and he is strange.
The modern superhero, then, is a wealthy, angry narcissist who is haunted by his father, doesn’t read books and dreams of control: I was disappointed to learn that Avengers Assemble isn’t a film about a support group because, if it were, Donald Trump could be in it. There are a few women (the penitent Black Widow, which is a sucker punch) and minorities (Black Panther) but this is opportunism, if briefly consoling.
Diversity is laughable in superhero culture, because the idea of a politically functional, or even politically aware, superhero, is ludicrous. There are no social democratic superheroes. They are, rather, a strain of super-policeman protecting — or “dominating” to use Trump’s phrase — a world in danger. The superhero does not work with the failing agents of democracy. They may be well-meaning, these pitiful agents of democracy, but they cannot save us. Something else must rise.
Alan Moore, the creator of Watchmen, believes the popularity of the superhero film is rooted in infantilism and cowardice: “Mass-market superhero movies seem to be abetting an audience who do not wish to relinquish their grip on (a) their relatively reassuring childhoods, or (b) the relatively reassuring 20th century. The continuing popularity of these movies to me suggests some kind of deliberate, self-imposed state of emotional arrest. The superheroes themselves would seem to be largely employed as cowardice compensators, perhaps a bit like the handgun on the nightstand”. He says that the explicitly racist The Birth of a Nation (1915) was the first superhero film and calls the genre, “the white supremacist dream of the master race”.
If the superhero culture twinned perfectly with the early age of Trump, narcissist to narcissist, perhaps pandemic and crisis — where peril is real, and the saviour must be human — will end it. We will see how the up-coming Marvel films perform. It will be telling. I suspect they will fall out of the sky.