Capitalism and the caped crusader

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The success of movies based on iconic "costumed heroes" can hardly have escaped the notice of anybody who has been awake in the past ten years.

As such the endless "rebooting" of these characters is easy to understand. Christopher Nolan may have been excited by Batman's reinvention as the Dark Knight, but not as excited as Warner Bros by the return of at least $372 million for the first movie alone.

The popularity of these film franchises is more difficult to explain, but the sheer overabundance of chiselled vigilantes battering their way through Nazi supervillains and colourful outcasts ought to make us question why the appeal of these films is growing, and what they say about the world that is churning them out.

There's no doubt that the superhero genre is riding a more general wave of enthusiasm for "fantasy" narratives. Escapism has a potent appeal when in real life neoliberalism has failed to trickle down anything apart from toxic debt and smashed expectations.

Two things emerge consistently from the last decade of masked crusaders - a pining for a more innocent age, and an appeal for society to unite behind an incorruptible hero. We see this in the SpiderMan movies (2002-4) with their post-9/11 "don't mess with Noo Yoik" sentiment, in the retro 20s look and capitalist paternalism of Batman Begins (2005) and, most recently, in Captain America (2011) with its desperate yearning for an age when young men got blown up fighting Nazis and we were "all in it together".

In most of these films the purity of the superhero persona is presented as a solution to the ills of the world. Unlike Harry Potter or the Twilight series, the costumed-hero embodies a certain male identity that seeks to resolve the contradictions of western society. He purports to transcend the class conflicts and imperialist antagonisms that are actually at the root of social problems.The popularity of these films speaks to the drive for that identity to reassert itself.

This is why Dark Knight Rises is the most interesting of the recent films. The Batman franchise is built around order enforced by fear. The most recent incarnation exposes the anxieties of the ruling class in an era of revolutions. The myth of the "everyman" hero is shattered as Batman and the police put down an uprising of the enraged poor. Not an everyman hero, but the hero of a certain class of men.

It's the very anxiety to reinvigorate this macho, reactionary identity that points to its frailty, particularly in a period of economic crisis. But, as with much heroic fantasy, the superhero phenomenon points also to an aspiration beyond the incorruptible hero of justice, to a world without corruption or injustice, one to which the Dark Knight need never return.