There’ll Be No Shelter Here! Part I of II
The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises, and Class Struggle.
“There’ll be no shelter here! The frontline is everywhere!” screams Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de le Rocha in the single “No Shelter.” The song, featured on the 1998 Godzilla movie soundtrack, is a stinging critique of American cultural imperialism in general and the influence of popular media like Hollywood films in particular. Even the movie that “No Shelter” was used to promote is not safe from attack: “Godzilla, pure motherfuckin’ filler/Get your eyes off the real killer.” Indeed, Rage contends that major movie blockbusters are “distractions” that “numb” working class folks to the pain of everyday life: “Empty ya pockets son, they got you thinkin’ that/What ya need is what they sellin’/Make you think that buyin’ is rebellin’/From the theaters to malls on every shore/[there’s only a] thin line between entertainment and war.” Rage’s song, like much of the work from the Frankfurt school, is quite heavy handed and attributes very little agency to audiences; however, it rightly reminds us that in capitalist societies it is difficult to ignore the “now hidden, now open” reality of class struggle, even while we’re at the movies.
And yet every summer millions of working class kids, teens, and adults (including those of us on the left) flock to movie multiplexes for reprieve from hot weather and to escape, momentarily, the pressures of daily life in the (imagined!) safety of cozy corporate theatres. In addition to our overpriced buttery popcorn, cold soft drinks, and sugary candy, we pay $10.50 or $13.50 for 3-D (more than the average hourly minimum wage in most places!) for a two hour break from the “real world.”
And increasingly it is comic book movies that are people’s summer films of choice. Whether it is the campy Batman series of the 1990s or more recent films like Spider Man (2002) Spider Man 2 (2004), Batman Begins (2005), Superman (2006), Spider Man 3 (2007), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Avengers (2012), summer superhero flicks have taken the box-office by storm by breaking attendance and revenue records every summer. This year two highly anticipated superhero films in the Spider Man and Batman franchises were released that warrant critical attention, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises. As arguably two of the most popular and successful movies of the summer, perhaps of the year, it is important for those of us on the left to have something to say about them, not because we value their financial success but because millions of people are watching, re-watching, and, potentially, talking about these films.
Indeed, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises are receiving a lot of media attention. Overall the reviews of The Amazing Spider-Man have been favourable. The review website Rotten Tomatoes reported 74% approval rate for the film with an audience rating of 84%. Many reviewers claimed that the film is one of the smarter superhero films to be released to date. The reception of The Dark Knight Rises has been something else entirely. Rotten Tomatoes reported 87% approval for the film with an audience rating of 93%. But it is the popular buzz around the film, even before it was released, that has people talking. Prominent film critic Marshall Fine even received death threats from Batman fans—many of whom hadn’t even seen the film—for simply offering up an early review that labeled the movie “grandiose, not grand.”
Conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh started the onslaught and author David Sirota highlighted early the anti-Occupy Wall Street style and feel of the film, arguing that “Batman Hates the 99 Percent.” Similarly, comedian Reginald D. Hunter recently explained his lack of “respect” for the Batman story: “rich dude owns corporation, has state of the art equipment and uses this to beat up on street level crime?…He doesn’t mess with industrialists, or super-capitalists….Batman is a conservative’s wet dream; fuck Batman!” In Canada, recent articles by Michael Romandel and Megean Kinch of the Toronto Media Co-op and Jesse Zimmerman for Rabble.ca have done better jobs of focusing on the counter-revolutionary aspects of the film. It must also be mentioned that the film is now also inseperable from the media storm around the “batman killing” on 20 July 2012 in Aurora Colorado where James E. Holmes entered a showing of the film and senselessly shot at movie watchers, killing 12 and wounding 58 others.
In short, a lot has been said about The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises. However, there have been no reviews directly comparing the two films, their different conceptions of justice, and their subsequent messaging about politics and class struggle. Thus, I want to dig deeper into the politics of The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises. The rest of this review will focus on the representations of justice, class, and class struggle in The Amazing Spider-Man and Part 2 will specifically review the politics of The Dark Knight Rises. The goal of this two part review essay is to determine if these films are, as Rage would have us believe, simply weapons of mass distraction or whether we can critically engage with them as opportunities to discuss and debate popular representations of class and the politics of class struggle in the twenty-first century.
Spider-Man: Working Class (Super) Hero?
- “We all have secrets: the ones we keep… and the ones that are kept from us.” —Peter Parker
*Warning: this review contains multiple plot spoilers.
The Amazing Spider-Man tells the familiar origin story of how Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) becomes Spider-Man. The film begins with a young Parker being dropped off by his parents at his Aunt May’s (Sally Fields) and Uncle Ben’s (Martin Sheen) under duress after the Parker household is broken into under suspicious circumstances. Parker’s parents then mysteriously disappear and are presumed dead. Years later, when Parker is in high school and still living with his aunt and uncle in Queens, he finds his father’s old brief case containing secret documents that lead him to scientist Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) at Oscorp Industries. Connors is being pressured to complete a top-secret project to save the life of company CEO, Norman Osborn. Suspecting that Connors knows something about his father’s disappearance Parker sneaks into Oscorp and enters a secret lab where he is bitten by a genetically modified spider. Parker quickly discovers he has special, spider-like, powers.
Following this, we see Parker learning to harness his powers to fight crime in New York City. One night Parker forgets to escort his Aunt May home from work because he was too busy helping Connors in the Oscorp lab by giving him his father’s decay rate algorithm, the missing piece to Connors’s top-secret project of regenerating missing limbs based on lizard DNA. When Parker returns home he is confronted by his uncle for neglecting his aunt. A confrontation ensues and Parker leaves. In searching for his nephew, Uncle Ben happens to stop a thief in the street and is shot and killed. Parker feels deeply responsible for his uncle’s death and commits himself to the Spider-Man identity to locate his uncle’s killer, fighting crime along the way. Parker’s crime fighting leads him onto the trail of Connors who, after being fired from Oscorp for not being willing to rush the top-secret genetic project and perform human trails, uses the lizard DNA himself in a selfish attempt to regrow his own missing arm. But the project is not ready for humans and the injections turn him into an evil giant lizard bent on turning all humans into similar lizard-like creatures by releasing a chemical cloud from Oscorp Tower. Luckily, Spider-Man, through his heroics and the help of his love interest Gwyn Stacy (Emma Stone), is able to release an antidote cloud, defeating “The Lizard” and saving New York City. On the surface, The Amazing-Spider Man is a clean-cut superhero comedy about an outcast, Parker, trying to find his way and fight for (liberal!) justice in the world. Upon closer inspection, however, we can detect more political themes that are embedded in the film. For example, The Amazing Spider-Man depicts corporations in a negative light. Indeed, the film’s villain, Dr. Connors, is portrayed as a selfish character corrupted by corporate pressure. Connors desperately wants to cure his own perceived limitation (i.e., his missing arm) and when he is fired from Oscorp on orders of CEO Norman Osborn, he is pushed to the brink. In this way, Connors is represented as an individual driven to make bad decisions by corporate greed. This depiction creates a space for viewers to critique the corporate nature of some scientific research and the corruptible influence of greedy CEOs.
Even more encouraging are the many pro-working-class and pro-union sequences and symbols of The Amazing-Spider Man. Unlike billionaire superhero characters like Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Bruce Wayne (Batman), Parker is simply an average, nerdy, working-class teenager from Queens wanting to make the world a safer place. In fact, Parker shares many allegorical similarities to the working class. He is ridiculed and beat-up every day at school and it is through his daily humiliation and abuse that he learns to fight for justice. Spider-Man is, in some ways, the working-class (super) hero of the comic book world and proves it in this film by taking on mutated corporate greed represented by The Lizard character.
While Spider-Man chooses to fight crime on his own (a kind of liberal justice), his ability to defeat The Lizard is aided by a surprising ally: the United Steelworkers. Thus, a form of socialist justice protrudes, intentionally or not, from the film. Earlier in the movie, Spider-Man saves a boy from a car plummeting into a river and the boy’s father is deeply appreciative of the mysterious masked hero who doesn’t stick around long enough for him to say thank you. That father turns out to be a unionized crane operator who, in the climax of the film, gives an order to his fellow (male) workers to use their cranes to provide a clear path to help Parker get quickly to Oscorp Tower to defeat The Lizard. Moreover, once Spider-Man has saved the day, he returns home to have a heartwarming talk with Aunt May who is wearing a “United Steelworkers” shirt. The symbolism of Aunt May (Sally Fields a.k.a. Norma Rae!) wearing a United Steelworkers shirt after the steelworkers’ demonstration of union solidarity confirms The Amazing Spider-Man’s more progressive class politics.
However, despite its pro-labour sympathies, The Amazing Spider-Man is not necessarily a film about inspiring the working class to mass participatory action. It upholds, in the end, a form of liberal justice. It is true that the steelworkers demonstrate working class agency by deciding to use their labour power not to make profit, but for the purpose of solidarity to help out a fellow worker. Alternatively, though, one could argue that the United Steelworker’s cameo in the film is intended to convey the message that in order to help defend society workers need simply to “do their job.” Indeed, the vast majority of people in New York in the film are largely clueless and agentless and have no role to play in fighting to make the world a better place. Perhaps, then, Spider-Man is best interpreted as a working class’ tribune, their chosen representative, and this may in fact be where the following films of the franchise are going.
Nevertheless, The Amazing Spider-Man is thus a defense of individual liberty and the capitalist status quo. Spider-Man is not worried about cracking down on corporate criminals who rob the working class daily by exploiting their labour power to make their profits. Nor is Spider-Man interested in using his powers to help fight off abusive police that enforce and defend the exploitative status quo. Instead, Spider-Man allies himself with the NYPD! Moreover, while corporations and CEO’s like Norman Osborn are portrayed unfavourably, the film largely affirms the “bad apple” theory of capitalism where corrupt capitalists are represented only as “mutations” or abnormalities in an otherwise acceptable system. In addition, the film can be critiqued for representing a very white, masculine working-class. Women and racialized peoples are virtually absent in The Amazing Spider-Man and the film largely reinforces the heteronormative patriarchal family, a bedrock of capitalist society. In the end, then, The Amazing Spider-Man may have somewhat progressive class politics, but there is still plenty to question, challenge, and dispute.
Part II of this review moves away from The Amazing Spider-Man to explore how the new Batman film The Dark Knight Rises similarly wrestles with the issues of social change and justice. However, as I will show, the politics of The Dark Knight Rises and its representations of class struggle are much more problematic for those of us fighting for socialist justice and thus need to be challenged.
- Sean Carleton is a PhD student in the Frost Centre for Canadian and Indigenous Studies at Trent University. He is a founding member of the Graphic History Collective and an author of May Day: A Graphic History of Protest.