What does Obama’s commencement speech at West Point have in common with X-Men: Days of Future Past? More than you think. Despite his protestations, Obama’s speech has been cast by his critics as a push for isolationism. “[A]ccording to self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve,” he said. “Not surprisingly, after costly wars and continuing challenges here at home, that view is shared by many Americans.”
If isolationism is in fact a view shared by many Americans, some of the responsibility for its popularity surely lies in our pop culture. A culture’s values can be determined by who it chooses to vilify, and since 9/11, Hollywood has largely avoided depictions of international conflict and instead focused on internal enemies. You won’t find Superman or Iron Man battling the Russians, as they did in the comics. The next Captain America movie won’t depict him rescuing a kidnapped victim from Mexican banditos, as he once did on the page. Instead, we will see superheroes battling aliens (The Avengers), antiquated villains like Nazis or Richard Nixon (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men Days of Future Past), or their own ambivalence (Batman, Spider-Man).
Many critics and pundits have cast this series of inward-looking superheroes as a reflection of America’s character in the post-9/11 era: tentative and unsure of the consequences of its power. As Batman has questioned whether his crime-fighting creates more crime than it stops, so have we questioned whether our foreign policy is in some way provoking acts of terrorism. But what if the isolationism present in Hollywood’s most successful genre – and one of our chief cultural exports – is not an artistic choice at all? What if it’s an economic one? And what if that choice, dictated by the global marketplace, is turning us all into isolationists?
Like most industries, Hollywood has quickly become reliant on international support. According to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), 70 percent of the studios’ annual revenue now comes from overseas. Superhero movies in particular are an easy sell to the foreign markets, because they often deal in archetypes that transcend cultural boundaries.
Look at last year’s hits: Iron Man 3 grossed $409 million in the U.S. but $806 million internationally. Man of Steel had a similar, though less pronounced split, grossing $291 million domestically and $377 million overseas. Even The Wolverine, one of the least popular superhero movies last year, grossed $282 million overseas to a mere $132 million on U.S. soil. In some cases, these efforts to appeal to the international community are transparent; The Wolverine was actually set in Japan and featured two famous Japanese actresses, while Days of Future Past jumps to three continents in just its first few minutes.
With international ticket sales such a huge part of Hollywood’s profit margin, the studios can’t run the risk of offending an entire nation or their allies, or even projecting a jingoistic or xenophobic image of America by pitting superheroes against foreign enemies. This is a major shift since the last great era of action movies – the 1980s – when the Cold War was ramping up again and depicting the Soviets as villains was good business. Movies like Red Dawn, Red Heat, and even Die Hard pitted their good ol’ American heroes against menaces from the Soviet Bloc. Nowadays, movies that feature foreign villains are a bad box office bet. The remake of Red Dawn, which changed the Russians to North Koreans, was a bomb, and Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher – which featured Werner Herzog as a vaguely Eastern European baddie – was his worst-performing movie (particularly in the international market) in years.
Instead, we have a crew of superheroes who are more interested in fighting the war at home. The ambivalence of Tony Stark, Peter Parker, and Bruce Wayne over their crime-fighting duties is an apt metaphor for America’s complicated feelings over its role as global enforcer. Some of these movies have even gone further, pointing its critical gaze at defense contractors for driving the War on Terror (Iron Man 3) or the U.S. government for going too far in its defense of order (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). But they all go down smoothly in the foreign markets because they cast their critical gaze at anyone but a foreign power.
The few times our superheroes have taken up arms against a foreign enemy, it is almost always in self-defense. In those cases, the enemy in question is usually an alien, which is really just a more palatable way of representing foreign terrorists on screen. Like “terrorists,” aliens are an easy enemy to rouse public opinion against: they have little in common with us, are loosely defined, and hard to sympathize with. Consider the climactic sequence of The Avengers, for example, in which an elite team of superheroes (basically, a Special Forces unit) defends New York City from an alien invasion from above. The alien Chitauri that Loki sends to destroy New York are never identified, but we know we want them dead; it is a rallying cry to pick up arms and defend ourselves from terror.
Perhaps the best example of how Hollywood avoids offending the foreign market is what writer/director Shane Black did with The Mandarin in Iron Man 3. One of the most revered comic book villains of all time, The Mandarin was written as a wealthy Chinese villain (a descendant of Genghis Khan) who fought Tony Stark in his quest for world domination. The film released in 2013, however, paints a very different portrait. Black sets up the character just as he was in the comics, except for one crucial difference: He is never identified as Chinese. Instead, he is a vaguely Osama bin Laden-like terrorist.
But at the film’s midpoint, Black further revises the character by revealing him to be a decoy, a fake terrorist played by a pathetic British actor (Ben Kingsley) who is being used by a scientist to instigate a War on Terror in order to sell his weapons. Black has confirmed that he was trying to create a Mandarin who was more relevant to our era. There is “a lot of fear that’s generated towards very available and obvious targets,” he said during the press tour, “which could perhaps be directed more intelligently at what’s behind them.” But it was a smart economic choice, too, depicting the War on Terror as being driven by domestic interests and avoiding offending the all-important Chinese market.
It starts to look like a cookie-cutter approach to commercial filmmaking, but you can’t blame the industry for latching onto this trend: the evidence is clear that American movies depicting foreign enemies have become box-office poison, and those that criticize the U.S. government or its citizens perform far better overseas. Consider the fates of White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen, which were both released in 2013 and tell nearly identical stories about a foreign attack on the White House. The only difference is in who each film chooses to villainize.
White House Down ultimately depicts corrupt members of Congress and greedy defense contractors as the drivers of our wars, while Olympus Has Fallen only blames the terrorists. Now, studios and industry press have determined that Olympus was a success and WHD was not, but that’s not the whole story. White House Down actually grossed more than Olympus Has Fallen ($205 to $156 million), largely because of its overseas haul ($132 to $62 million). While some of this disparity might be due to star power (the Jamie Foxx-Channing Tatum tandem might be a bigger box office draw than Gerard Butler), it seems fair to assume, at the very least, that the rah-rah patriotic tone of Olympus did not play well internationally.
The recent trend towards historical fiction in superhero movies shows that studio executives are learning these lessons. It is easier and safer for Captain America: The Winter Solder to use Nazis as the film’s symbol of evil than to point fingers at contemporary villains (even domestic ones) and risk alienating a portion of the audience. X-Men: First Class revised the Cuban Missile Crisis as a revolution led by an evil mutant (who was also a Nazi), which had the impact of placing the Soviets and the Americans on equal footing in the story, both of them wishing to avoid war. A safe choice, indeed. Days of Future Past taps into our general mistrust of politicians by offering us a government-sponsored defense contractor as its villain, but it cleverly places its story in the context of the Nixon administration as an easily-understood embodiment of government corruption. The superhero genre may offer filmmakers a terrific vehicle for addressing the issues of our time, but more and more they are smothering their commentary under layers of nostalgia and antiquated morality.
Still, with this trend in its early phase, some big questions remain. Are these films sanitizing the most atrocious events of the 20th century for a mainstream audience? The movies may represent the first time some young moviegoers will hear about Nazism or the Vietnam War, and it’s disconcerting to see these real-world atrocities treated as mere plot points.
But perhaps the more important question is this one: what is the impact of this shift in American cinema towards isolationism and criticism of the American state? It is worth considering if some of the general ardor the American public feels towards its government is being driven – or at least supported – by our entertainments. Every summer, we are confronted by these mythical figures who often end up pointing their instruments of justice inward. Those of us in the audience cheer along and leave the theater talking about the special effects, but it’s possible that we are absorbing their perspective, as well. It is also worth considering, of course, what impact these films – which could be read as apologies for the War on Terror – have on the millions of Chinese citizens who buy tickets to see Iron Man or Superman’s latest adventure.
Of course, determining whether pop culture reflects or affects society at large is a bit like trying to guess whether the chicken or the egg came first. Did Red Dawn reflect renewed tensions between the Soviet Union and the U.S., or did it rile up American patriotism to help Reagan get us there? For that matter, did In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? reflect society’s acceptance of civil rights, or did they nudge us in that direction? Today, we can ask whether our superhero movies are reflecting a society that has lost faith in its government’s ability to function in the new global order, or whether the financial realities of the global marketplace are pushing us there. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, and that’s why we can spend hours (days, months) thinking about pop culture and politics – because for both, the meaning is subjective, fluid, and always just out of our grasp. But with movies like X-Men: Days of Future Past racking up hundreds of millions of dollars in the international market with its mutated take on the most popular American genre, the picture is starting to come into focus.