Superhero politics, read between the lines

Bhaskar Chawla

May 24, 2019 14:55:06 IST

The success of the Avengers series is attributed to the fact that it is the biggest and most popular comicbook film franchise to have existed. Avengers: Endgame represents a culmination of an 11-year-old story, and one would see this as the primary reason of its record-breaking run. The universal passion that the franchise elicits, however, owes more to what it really stands for: a fight against fascism.

The idea of a team of superheroes fighting a powerful supervillain who craves absolute power is inherently anti-fascist. Marvel, creators of the Avengers saga, have a history of making such political comment. One of the first supervillains in Marvel Comics was Red Skull, a confidante of Adolf Hitler. During the peak of World War II, the conflict between Captain America and Red Skull symbolised the fight between the Allied Forces and the Nazis.

Superhero politics, read between the lines


Thanos of the comicbooks is a nihilist obsessed with death. He falls in love with Mistress Death, and then collects the infinity stones and kills half of all living creatures to impress her. Mistress Death, however, does not appear in the films. Instead, Thanos’ motive in Infinity War and Endgame is portrayed as “fixing” the population problem by randomly killing half of all life.

This seems like a conscious effort on the part of the filmmakers to make Thanos a symbol for fascism, in sync with today’s world. The last decade saw a rise of the Far Right globally, and a resurgence of fascism in many countries. Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime in Russia is based on a cult of personality, much like the blind faith Thanos’ followers — the Children of Thanos — have in him. Thanos’ “snap solution” for a complex problem would allude to Donald Trump’s building the Wall between the United States and Mexico or Narendra Modi’s demonetisation —simplistic ideas of an individual being considered more valuable than a consensus arrived at out of discussion with experts.

The resonance of the entire Avengers series, in fact, can be traced to how they symbolised real-world issues. The first Avengers film was a metaphor for a fight against colonialism. Loki, an alien, believed he was a “superior being” and deserved to rule earth because humans weren’t capable of governing themselves.

Loki’s plan succeeded initially because the Avengers were divided by petty squabbling and Loki used the divide-and-rule tactic to gain advantage. The message was that unity, despite ideological differences, was the only thing that could defeat bigger threats.

Age Of Ultron, second film in the series, was a metaphor for the US in modern politics. The film dealt with the Avengers creating an entity that could destroy the planet, and then being forced to fight it. All through history — especially in the 21st century — the US is known to act on a ‘one-percent doctrine’, whereby even the hint of a threat is seen as a full-blown one. Acting out of paranoia, the country often takes extreme security measures that end up creating bigger threats. For instance, the US backed dictatorships in West Asia and supported insurgent groups to gain allies in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, in the process creating the single-biggest foreign threat to itself today.

Related Marvel efforts, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, focussed on the dangers of corruption and malice in governments and bureaucracy. The criminal group, Hydra, infiltrating the law enforcement agency, S.H.I.E.L.D, in The Winter Soldier could be interpreted as symbolism for the American “deep state” and its influence over the country’s policies.

Civil War saw the Avengers splitting up due to conflicts. The idea tied with Infinity War, where the Avengers divided could not face the new threat of fascism. Infinity War saw the Avengers fighting Thanos’ armies on different fronts and losing — an allegory for how divisions among liberals in real life are weakening them in their war against fascism.

The Avengers come together despite differences in Endgame, ultimately developing mutual respect. They put aside disputes to fight the biggest threat to a way of life they cherish. When the moment of reckoning comes, even the most self-centred of them knows that defeating fascism requires personal sacrifice.

The politics of fascism has always fascinated filmmakers over the years. In Hollywood, Frank Capra’s subversive classic Mr. Smith Goes To Washington was banned in parts on release in 1939, and is now considered a definitive effort in the genre. Stanley Kubrick’s satire classic of 1964, Dr. Strangelove, explore the subject from the perspective of Cold War paranoia. The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933), Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971) and Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator (2012) are among evergreen hits that used humour to comment on the subject.

With the Avengers series, Hollywood added a comicbook spin to the cinematic discussion on fascism.


Updated Date: May 27, 2019 16:07:02 IST