A tough-on-crime WASP using torture, intimidation, and surveillance to bring down a media-savvy terrorist

Friday, June 28th, 2019

What might be called “Nolan’s enigma” began in earnest with The Dark Knight — which involved a tough-on-crime WASP using torture, intimidation, and surveillance to bring down a media-savvy terrorist:

The Dark Knight Rises took things one step further with Bane, a menacing mix of Robespierre and Ruthenberg, whose pseudo-Marxist coup unleashes all manner of mayhem upon Gotham: banishments and public hangings, street brawls and show trials, and — in a scene lifted straight out of the French revolution — the storming of Blackgate (Bastille) prison.

Not to be outdone, Marvel soon embraced its own brand of post-9/11 conservatism. In every Avengers film, Joshua Tait notes, “it really is 1938….The threats are real and the Avengers’ unilateral actions are necessary” to protect life, liberty, and democracy. Each hero thus functions as a kind of Cold Warrior, standing athwart would-be despots and authoritarians, while their enemies function as bland, unidimensional cannon-fodder, a convenient narrative pretext for blowing things up. (To be fair, the bad guys usually do possess weapons of mass destruction; this is fantasy, after all.)

By 2018, however, Marvel had ditched the neocon agitprop and gone full paleo. Black Panther — which Slate described as “the most feminist superhero movie yet” — is about the hereditary monarch of a monoracial ethno-state that keeps immigrants at bay with a high-tech border wall and faces no economic slowdown because of it. In fact, Wakanda becomes the richest country in the world without any international trade whatsoever, all while maintaining traditional religious customs and above-replacement fertility rates — a kind of black Israel. (It does eventually reconcile itself to foreign aid under T’Challa, but not to immigration.) Trouble only begins when Killmonger (a foreigner) challenges Black Panther’s claim to the throne — not because he thinks the current occupant is illegitimate, but because he wants to use Wakandan technology to launch a global, race-based revolution, with no regard for national boundaries.

Then in Avengers: Infinity War, Wakanda opens its border wall and promptly gets invaded by aliens.

So perhaps it is fitting that Avengers: Endgame, the Marvel movie to end all Marvel movies, is even more Burkean — and badass — than its predecessors, a sustained cinematic rejoinder to everything Hollywood believes. If you haven’t seen Endgame yet — or if you take comfort in the delusion that Marvel is “woke” — stop reading now.


  1. Graham says:

    Well, I’ll reserve final judgment for reading the whole piece, but so far that looks like either another desperate attempt by a conservative writer to shove some cultural phenomenon into the “really it’s conservative” box (long a National Review specialty) or a prog writer who’s just too right on even for Marvel. I assume the former without checking the author.

    I am not convinced by a conservative interpretation of the MCU, either as to creator intentions or public reception.

  2. Mike says:

    Black Panther was conservative!? Is this writer gunning for a job at ‘The Onion’ or is he bonkers enough to actually believe an idea like that should even be thought, let alone aired?

  3. Kirk says:

    How about we quit treating comic-book characters as though they were some sort of profound distillation of what it is to be human?

    Yeah, maybe comic books are a tapline into the cultural zeitgeist, but I’ve never been able to take them seriously as “literature”. Most of the writers who’ve worked in that genre have been amazingly trite and about as deep as the water vapor beading up on your mirror after a shower. It ain’t the Analects you’re looking at, in the comic book stand, but the equivalent of the village storyteller writ somewhat large.

    They’re literally comic books ferchrissakes… This ain’t Shakespear writing about the human condition; it’s barely grade-school level stuff, trite and empty of real depth or profundity.

  4. Bruce says:

    “Black Panther was the most feminist superhero movie yet”

    Yes, absolutely none of the women were hot. I work with hotter black girls everyday than they allowed in that movie, and that’s why a comic book movie got awards.

  5. Graham says:

    I find them increasingly tiresome, especially given the vastly increased prominence of comics, and especially comic book superheroes, comic book movies, and the comic book nerd subculture of conventions and commentary, in the last 10-15 years.

    Sure, age is a factor. But even when I was an 80s teen wishing for a decent Batman movie [which I finally got in my 30s], I wasn’t into comics the way convention-goers are.

    I finally attended a few in the earlier part of this decade and realized I had drifted away from even the margins of this culture, and it had also moved away from me in new directions that perhaps were inevitable.

    Call it a combination of my always being on the margins, ageing out even of that, and the subculture slipping its moorings and assuming an unjustifiably large cultural presence. It’s not the only such thing from the 70s and 80s, come to think.

    I wouldn’t say they are a distillation of what it is to be human. I’d rather see even dumbed down historical dramas or mythology for that. But comics and comic movies definitely represent something of what their producers and consumers want to see and see happen in the world.

    If I go to see these now [I've missed the last 57 movies in the enormous Marvel universe], it’s usually to hope against hope that the villains will win and the heroes and all their hopes will wind up dust. I gather that almost happened in the last Avengers movie. Maybe I’ll see it someday.

    On a side note, I have noticed that comic book sensibility has affected historical and war movies pretty hard. Such movies always did reflect their times [WW2 movies of the 70s were Vietnam metaphors to some degree, sure]. Now their times are the age of comic superheroes, childish archetypes, and over the top snowflakery.

  6. Graham says:


    Huh. A Chrome search suggests you are correct. Surprising casting.

    You may be aware there is a current pop culture trope in which white guys are always supposed to say, on hearing the name of any black celebrity woman, “I find her very attractive”. Any black guys are supposed to groan at this stereotypical, right-on, Stuff White People Like middle class progressive reflex. Rihanna is the usual example.

    I had not heard of this and so if ever asked the question would given an honest answer, even if it is “who?”

    I could also name a few more attractive black women of my workplace acquaintance easily.

    None of that cast holds a candle to Phylicia Rashad, circa 1985, anyway. Or the actresses who played her two elder daughters, for that matter. Or a young Lena Horne, though that would be well before my time.

  7. Graham says:

    Should have mentioned Halle Berry, also a cultural totem, though better when younger, and Vanessa Williams circa 1995.

    That was a lovely way to reminisce on a very rainy afternoon.

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