Homepage > Joss Whedon Off Topic > X-Meta : An Outsider’s Guide to Symbolism in Superhero Cinema (wonder (...)
Cinematical.comX-Meta : An Outsider’s Guide to Symbolism in Superhero Cinema (wonder woman mention)
Friday 19 May 2006, by Webmaster
With Hollywood milking more and more money out of comic-book adaptations — with X-Men: The Last Stand the most recent cash-grab to come down the pike — any non-comics fan may very well be left scratching their head: What’s all the fuss about? Why should they care about spandex-clad uber-humans with bizarre abilities? Well, when superhero cinema works, it’s because those characters aren’t just power fantasies for kids and adolescents; it’s because they’re great ways to explore archetypes, allegories and cultural signifiers. If you’re wondering why you should care about the X-Men — or any of superhero cinema’s successes and failures — here’s a handy cheat sheet to guide you through the symbolism and secret meanings of seven superhero cinema sagas past, present and (in one case) future. 1) The X-Men
What it’s About: Genetic mutations have granted some individuals abilities — some of which are almost like deformities or diseases, some of which are like next steps in human ability — which lead to regular humanity hating and fearing them.
What it’s Really About: Racism, homophobia, fear of the other — Stan Lee himself has said that the battle between the good Professor Xavier and the more militant mutant Magneto is a stand-in for the differences between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and it’s no coincidence that The X-Men’s comic book popularity soared in the ’80s, just in time for a wave of identity-based politics to hit college campuses as kids realized it was okay to be "different" from the norm.
What it’s About: Sent from a dying planet to safety on Earth, the last son of Krypton fights for truth, justice and the American way, defending his adopted home from all threats.
What it’s Really About: Again, file under ’N’ for ’Not a Coincidence’: Supes was created by two Jewish newspapermen — who knew what it was like to try and live up to the ideas of a culture that they could feel like outsiders from. Aside from the obvious Jesus parallels — Superman is, after all, Jor-El’s only begotten son, sent to save us — Superman also reads as the ultimate immigrant saga: He may not be from here, but that just makes him strive all the harder to embody and defend the values of his adopted home.
3) The Hulk
What it’s About: Bruce Banner’s scientific work goes terribly amok, turning him into a rage-fueled behemoth, devoid of intellect but possessed of colossal strength.
What it’s Really About (and how Ang Lee screwed it up): Jekyll and Hyde, Freud’s Id — The Hulk represents all of the worst fears about nuclear science embodied in one man. It’s worth noting that in the original comics iteration, Bruce Banner was a nuclear weapons maker, whose accidental exposure to his own ’Gamma-bomb’ unleashed The Hulk — and turned him into an engine of destruction as unstoppable and nightmarish as the weapons he created. In Lee and James Schamus’s screenplay, it was revealed that Banner (Eric Bana) became The Hulk in part due to exposure to radiation — and in part thanks to experiments performed by his scientist father Nick Nolte; this had the story-killing and symbolism-neutering effect of making The Hulk a pathetic figure, as opposed to a tragic, ironic demonstration of hubris gone awry.
What it’s About: Young Bruce Wayne’s parents are gunned down by a petty criminal; heartbroken and longing for revenge, Wayne uses his wealth and resources to train and equip himself as Batman, a vigilante detective who hopes to stop crime.
What it’s Really About: Batman isn’t just a bridge character between detective fiction and the more colorful, caped creations of the superhero genre; he’s also a wounded, haunted victim of circumstance who longs to try and put the world right. Batman also manages to represent anger and altruism — while he punishes the guilty with blows and brains, his refusal to carry a gun means that he’s more of an idealist than a thug — and taps into our desire to kick ass from a moral high ground.
5) The Fantastic Four
What it’s About: An extended family of friends, siblings and associates make a pioneering trip into space — and, bombarded by cosmic rays, come back with freakish, powerful super-abilities.
What it’s Really About (and how Tim Story blew It): Camelot-era scientific optimism and space exploration meets soap opera, with a little bit of ancient elemental mysticism mixed in. In the comics, the Four were headed for the moon to beat the Commies; the kind of can-do, pioneer spirit that made America great, resulting in constant battles with the threats of a complex universe. With their bickering and feuding, the Four also add a super-powered spin to Tolstoy’s famous observation that happy families are all alike, yet every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Finally, the super-powers on display also nicely correlate to the alchemical elements of earth, wind, fire and water; it’s too bad that Fantastic Four director Tim Story didn’t actually incorporate any of these concepts in the FF film, choosing instead to focus on hokey jokes and endless talk — and, you know, when I think ’cosmic action,’ I can’t think of a better choice than the guy who directed Barbershop.
6) Wonder Woman
What it’s About: An Amazonian Princess comes to Washington, D.C. to help America fight fascism and other enemies, armed with strength, skill and a lasso that can makes anyone in its bonds unable to lie; regrettably, if herself bound, Wonder Woman loses all her powers.
What it’s Really About: On one level, it’s full of feminist assertion and power; on the other, Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, a psychiatrist who (along with his wife Elizabeth) dreamed up the Amazonian heroine. Marston has been credited with inventing an early version of the lie detector; add in his penchant for saying things like "The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound. ..." and it’s fairly obvious Marston had some tie me up/tie me down issues. Good luck getting that in the script, Joss Whedon!
What it’s About: Teenage science buff Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider — and gains proportionate strength and speed, along with other abilities.
What it’s Really About: Much as Superman might be construed as the ultimate immigrant, Spider-Man is the ultimate teenager — harried, poor, clumsy with chicks. Add in the fact that, like most teenagers, Parker’s concerns have to do with dating, juggling his time and always being short of money, and you have a superhero any teen can sympathize with.