In an earlier post I compared the political economy of superheroes in the DC and Marvel universes. And today I have a piece up at The Stream examining the figure of Lex Luthor, the crony capitalist villain featured in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
This year will deliver major superhero ensemble films that provide alternative views of the limitations and proper exercise of power. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice premiered this spring to uneven reviews, and Captain America: Civil War is due out later this summer. As Charlie Jane Anders has observed, these films offer a noteworthy message to our contemporary situation. “These films are all about a man with superpowers and colorful clothes, and the question of whether he (and his friends, in Civil War) have too much power and too little accountability,” writes Anders.
The differences that promise to be on offer between the DC and Marvel explorations of power and its limits have something to teach us about the vigilance required of those in power. In the DC universe, Batman worries about the corruption of Superman and the dangers represented abuse of superpowers. If there is even the slightest chance that Superman might be corrupted and turn evil, opines the Dark Knight, then we have to assume that as an absolute certainty and take steps, however harsh, to mitigate the threat and neutralize the risk.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” is the most famous quote by the English Catholic historian Sir John Dalberg-Acton. It also appears to be the overriding theme of the recent teaser-trailer for the movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The quote is even stated directly in the trailer in a voiceover (by actress Holly Hunter). Is it applicable in this context? Would Lord Acton agree that absolute power has corrupted Superman? I think he would.
That particular quote comes from a letter to Bishop Creighton in which Lord Acton explains that historians should condemn murder, theft, and violence whether committed by an individual, the state, or the Church. Here is the context:
In the new movie Man of Steel, Superman engages in a fight with his fellow aliens from Krypton that causes significant damage to Metropolis. Disaster expert Charles Watson estimates the costs of the physical damage done to the city to be about $2 trillion. To put that in context, 9/11’s physical damage cost $55 billion, with a further economic impact of $123 billion.
What would be the impact of Superman’s fight on the economy? According to some liberal economists, it would lead to a economic boom. In defending President Obama’s stimulus proposal in 2011, Paul Krugman proposed a peculiar solution for economic recovery that mimics the one in Man of Steel: prepare for an alien invasion.
“If we discovered that, you know, space aliens were planning to attack and we needed a massive buildup to counter the space alien threat and really inflation and budget deficits took secondary place to that, this slump would be over in 18 months,” he declared, arguing in favor of the president’s stimulus package. “And then if we discovered, oops, we made a mistake, there aren’t any aliens, we’d be better [off].”
Man of Steel must be Krugman’s favorite movie: you not only get an alien invasion (Kal-El, General Zod and his soldiers) but you get alien destruction on a massive scale. Just think of all the economic benefit Metropolis gained!
Last time the Superman franchise was rebooted, I reacted pretty negatively to the messiah-lite qualities of Clark Kent’s alter ego. In this fine piece over at Big Think, Peter Lawler analyzes the nature of this tension in the context of the new film quite aptly:
The film also has all kinds of Christian New-Agey imagery that you can grab onto if you’re not much of a reader. Superman is compared in some ways to Jesus; he begins his mission at age 33, for example. But that kind of comparison doesn’t really hold up that well. Superman is only here to help us, not redeem us, certainly not to save us from our sins or from death. And he doesn’t have any deep insight into the meaning of life or love. His life, like each of ours, is shaped by choice and chance. He has extraordinary power that falls way short of omnipotence. He’s a man born to love and die—not a god. Superman’s Kryptonian father predicts that the people of our planet would regard his only begotten son as a god, but that we did not do. We’ve never become so Nietzschean or whatever that we’ve come to think a merely Superman can replace our need for God himself.
I haven’t yet seen Man of Steel, but Lawler’s examination has roused my hopes for the reboot. The imperial dynamics of Kryptonian technocracy look to be a fruitful vehicle for examining salient dimensions of our own experience today.
As Lawler concludes, “Krypton’s inevitable decline and fall is a victory of natural evolution over the effort to provide a conscious and volitional replacement for it. It’s not true that human liberty is defeated by evolution; the truth is that we are ‘hardwired’ for choice and chance and can’t flourish without them” (emphasis added; HT: Prufock).