May 04 2009

How to Handle Politics & Messages Without Infuriating Readers

Published by at 3:55 am under Politics and Comic Books,Superhero Movies

Jesse Walker of Reason Magazine did an article on the role of politics in superhero stories.


It describes an interesting phenomenon: how superhero stories can brazenly delve into political issues without turning off at least half of the audience.   For example, The Dark Knight and Ironman and Team America all brought up political issues without infuriating either conservatives or liberals.  In contrast, political polemicists like Michael Moore and Ann Coulter can’t even blink without angering the other side.


How is it that superhero stories can do what political writers can’t?  Here are some explanations.

1.  These superhero stories leave the moral judgments to the viewers. When Batman decides to use an extremely intrusive form of surveillance to break a case in The Dark Knight, the story doesn’t push us to think “Batman’s a tyrant!” or “he’s a real hero!”  Either are plausible interpretations.  The movie respects that reasonable people can disagree and leaves it at that.


2.  The superhero movies are not trying to persuade you. The political conflict between Lucius and Batman in TDK mainly serves to develop their characters rather than advance a political agenda. This is really important because political messages usually imply that “you should agree with me because I am smarter than you.”  Ick.


3.  The stories treat political disagreements in a even-handed and courteous manner. Both Batman and Lucius are treated as well-meaning and rational individuals.  In contrast, if Ann Coulter wrote this movie, Lucius’ refusal to go along with Batman would probably be a sign of total cowardice and/or hidden sympathy for the enemy.  If Michael Moore wrote TDK, Batman would probably be a fascist and a racist.  (Hey, Lucius is black).

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “How to Handle Politics & Messages Without Infuriating Readers”

  1. Tom Ingramon 04 May 2009 at 1:43 pm

    I’ve seen two major exceptions to this: The Dark Knight Returns treats both sides like they’re hyped up on crack, and Watchmen is extremely unkind to conservatives. Both of them are almost universally regarded as masterpieces.

  2. B. Macon 04 May 2009 at 4:39 pm

    I know that Rorschach is an exceedingly creepy figure, but he’s the only one of the “heroes” that comes remotely close to doing the right thing at the end of the series. I think the audience is meant to sympathize with his stand for principle over pragmatism.

    Also, the group that actually does do the right thing is a ridiculously conservative newspaper that is, I think, meant to come off as Nazi-ish.

    That said, the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan are a dystopian portrayal of the U.S. military* and (U.S.?) science. But I thought those were balanced with Adrian/Ozymandias, who is probably meant to be a slap at liberal social engineers. (His goals trump individual lives, the ends justify vast individual sacrifices, a complete disregard for the costs–“I did it!”, etc).

    *Nominally a CIA agent.

  3. ikaruson 04 May 2009 at 4:54 pm

    Superheros have a profound effect on politics. In 1939 Captain America debuted by punching Hitler in the kisser. Not long later, America joined the war and defeated the Axis of Evil.

  4. B. Macon 04 May 2009 at 5:10 pm

    That’s definitely one of my favorite covers, but I’m not sure if it would work today. If the hero were punching Osama bin Laden or something, it might come off as tacky. There are excellent ways to work hawkish and/or patriotic elements into a cover, but I think it might help to do so more subtly.

  5. Tom Ingramon 04 May 2009 at 7:02 pm

    I realize that Rorschach is the only one who does the right thing, but he’s also completely batshit insane. His ultra-violence is due in no small part to his us-vs-them mentality, which Alan Moore sees as related to his conservative leanings. Anyway, there’s also the Comedian, who doesn’t believe much politically, but he’s very militaristic (which is usually associated with conservatives), and of course the US government. The gov’t may not count, though, because nearly everyone, liberal or conservative, hates Nixon.

    By the way, the balancing factor of Ozymandias occurred to me just after I hit the post button, and I have no idea how I missed it.

  6. Beccaon 04 May 2009 at 8:38 pm

    Another work, although fictional, that kind of pushes ikarus’ point, is Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, where the made-up comic book hero The Escapist is depicted as punching Hitler in the face on a comic book cover. I guess Chabon got that from Captain America. But Kavalier and Clay is an excellent portrayal of how comic books can influence political events. Plus it’s an amazing novel.

  7. B. Macon 04 May 2009 at 8:46 pm

    “The government may not count, though, because nearly everyone, liberal or conservative, hates Nixon.” That is quite accurate. Among the many things he did to anger conservatives…
    –he gave Taiwan’s UN seat (and Security Council veto) to China.
    –he instituted affirmative action.
    –he set wage and price controls.
    –he was aggressive on environmental regulation (the EPA and Clean Air Act).
    –he was a creepy, creepy fellow with major power issues and a strong statist streak.
    –he pretty much laughed off the rule of law and other important checks on governmental power.

    I notice that Ozymandias reflects several of these conservative objections to Nixon. He has grand visions and will torch anyone who gets in the way, even his pet. And he’s totally blind to the moral implications of his work. (“I did it!”)

  8. ikaruson 04 May 2009 at 8:52 pm

    Considering the escapist nature of comics, it’s kinda unfair to weasel political commentary into them.

  9. B. Macon 04 May 2009 at 11:21 pm

    Ikarus said: “Considering the escapist nature of comics, it’s kinda unfair to weasel political commentary into them.”

    I mostly agree. Even though I’m into political science, I think that adding politics almost always makes a story less entertaining and harder to sell. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say “the author should have made this more political.”

    That said, there is a fine line between political commentary and political propaganda. A few superhero blockbusters have succeeded even though they included political commentary. The ones that are political propaganda (trying to persuade people to change their minds), like V for Vendetta, almost always crash and burn.

  10. Tom Ingramon 05 May 2009 at 7:50 pm

    I thought the success of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns* was actually because of the political commentary. They were seen as elevating comics above escapism by using a slightly more realistic take on things, which included bringing politics into it. If they hadn’t brought in the politics, I don’t know if they’d be as successful.

    * But not The Dark Knight Strikes Again.

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