Discipline and Control in the Post-9/11 Superhero Film: The Cyborg Superhero

Nov 7th, 2012 | By | Category: Articles

Guest post by Dan Hassler-Forest, excerpted and adapted from Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age (Zero Books, 2012)

Popular culture has played a crucial role in the legitimization of both government and corporate surveillance as a natural and necessary part of contemporary public life. Superheroes in post-9/11 Hollywood cinema have repeatedly addressed public anxieties related to issues of masculinity in a world in which the new enemies have incorporated the logic of finance capitalism. In the previous chapter, I argued that the figure of the Joker in The Dark Knight can be interpreted as a metaphorical embodiment of this specifically postmodern economy that requires the chaos of destructive capitalism and the flexibility of a permanent disposable workforce. In this section, I examine more closely how superheroes utilize their powers to counterbalance these threats, and how they are thereby transformed into a form of this surveillance machinery, their bodies literally inscribed by the technology they utilize.

The superhero arose from American popular culture in the 1930s, alongside the development of the metropolis in its modernist form of geometric glass-and-concrete buildings and architectural designs that attempted to remove all traces of bourgeois nineteenth-century cityscapes. The modernist ambitions of transforming the chaos of nineteenth-century urbanization into a transparent, multifunctional environment gave architectural form to the utopian desire to control urban space. The imposing skyscrapers of Manhattan and Chicago that arose in the 1920s and 1930s thereby embodied the heroic modernist quest for power through order, transparency, and visibility.

The superhero figure became the pop-cultural figure most obviously associated with the forms of power and control implied by the architecture of the International School and its utopian aspirations. The two archetypal superheroes of comic books’ Golden Age, Batman and Superman, each patrol the city in their continuous efforts to provide a sense of safety and order for its citizens, while neither figure can truly be considered an inhabitant of the city he safeguards: both Batman’s residence at Wayne Manor and Superman’s arctic Fortress of Solitude suggest a strong connection to the older, European traditions of the aristocracy and its pre-modern forms of power. These superhero archetypes and their many descendants thus represent not only a fantasy of overcoming the obvious limitations of the human body within the overpowering vertical landscapes of the modern metropolis; they can also be read as the literal embodiments of modernist aspirations, reframed from within the context of popular culture.

If the original ascendance of superheroes in the 1930s and 1940s therefore constituted a more accessible incarnation of modernist visions of urban order and control, the superhero’s popular resurgence in post-9/11 cinema indicates a marked nostalgia for older imaginations of the urban environment. As I argued in the previous chapter, the superhero movie genre strives to present the city as a coherent space in which modernist and postmodernist architecture coexist comfortably under ubiquitous capitalism, while social and architectural contradictions are subsumed by the superhero’s controlling gaze. A large part of the attraction of these narratives therefore resides in the fantasy they offer of an urban environment that is made safe by the forms of power associated with an older form of capitalism.

While Batman Begins (2005) offers the most obvious example of this desire to re-establish entrepreneurial capitalism when faced with the threat of global terrorism, its sequel The Dark Knight (2008) elaborates in more detail how this position of power can be enforced and maintained, and how strongly the exercise of this kind of power has come to rely on surveillance. Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film foregrounds issues of visibility and the implied empowerment of the gaze at several levels, the first of which is encapsulated by the film’s visual aesthetics. For while Batman Begins offered a more traditionally Gothic presentation of a Gotham City that seemed all but impossible to master, The Dark Knight presents a vastly different conception of the modern metropolis, which is here depicted as a public space defined entirely in terms of visibility.

This shift is obvious from the opening helicopter shot that provides a spectacular, panoramic view of downtown Gotham City. It displays the city in broad daylight, the blue morning sky reflected in the vast surfaces of one of the many high-rise office buildings of central Chicago. The use of high-definition IMAX film stock for such panoramic shots of cityscapes in the film further emphasizes the importance of visual detail on prominent display. The larger film stock employed by IMAX cameras yields an image in which one can distinguish far more detail than is possible in standard 35mm film projection. The imagery of The Dark Knight thus provides an overwhelming amount of visual detail that becomes an important part of the film’s commodity value. (Indeed, much of the film’s promotional material focused on both the visual rewards and the technical challenges of its extensive use of IMAX technology.)

The foregrounding of the city as a visible and therefore manageable and controllable space is evident not only in the numerous panoramic shots of Chicago and Hong Kong, but also in the many scenes that display the city through the windows of locations occupied by characters associated with state power. In scenes that take place in the offices of the District Attorney, the police commissioner, and the city judge, enormous windows frame spectacular views of the city’s downtown area. Bruce Wayne, while awaiting the reconstruction of Wayne Manor, now resides in the penthouse of Chicago’s Trump Tower, where one notices that his easy chair offers a controlling view of the city that lies both physically and metaphorically at his feet. By contrast, characters who are socially or economically marginalized are shown in locations that are confined, without a view of the panoptic city that seeks to exclude them. They are consistently presented in sheltered interior environments where they are momentarily safe from the controlling gaze of state power. The black, Italian and Chechen criminal gangs meet in isolated, low-ceilinged environments such as parking garages and basements. And on the rare occasions where they make themselves visible to the outside world, they frequently pay for this with their lives. Benevolent state power is thus systematically associated with transparency and visibility, while illegal and subversive activity is linked to confined, enclosed spaces and the desire to elude the penetrating gaze of state authority.

The thematic importance of the film’s high-definition aesthetics is further compounded by the narrative’s increased focus on the importance of visibility, data visualization, and surveillance technology towards its climax. In one of the film’s most-discussed scenes, Bruce Wayne reveals to Lucius Fox (played by Morgan Freeman) that he has modified his “sonar cell phone technology” to create a device that will allow him to listen in on all of Gotham City’s cellular telephone network:

Batman: Beautiful, isn’t it?

Lucius Fox: Beautiful. Unethical. Dangerous. You’ve turned every cell phone in Gotham into a microphone.

Batman: And a high-frequency generator-receiver.

Lucius Fox: You took my sonar concept and applied it to every phone in the city. With half the city feeding you sonar, you can image all of Gotham. This is wrong.

Batman: I’ve got to find this man, Lucius.

Lucius Fox: At what cost?

Batman: The database is null-key encrypted. It can only be accessed by one person.

Lucius Fox: This is too much power for one person.

Batman: That’s why I gave it to you. Only you can use it.

Lucius Fox: Spying on 30 million people isn‘t part of my job description.

As this exchange illustrates, the surveillance technology on display here goes beyond the mere eavesdropping on telephone conversations: the monitors of his surveillance device make it possible to “image all of Gotham.” The wall-filling array of screens closely resembles the familiar collections of CCTV surveillance camera screens that are monitored by security guards in shopping malls, office buildings, and any number of other public and private spaces that make up the contemporary city. Surveillance technology in this narrative context thus becomes a potent tool of empowerment and virtual omniscience that makes literally the entire city and its inhabitants visible on surveillance screens. And although the dialogue indicates a token sense of ethical disapproval, Batman’s use of this technology is justified by the fact that he employs it successfully, and only after all other methods have failed. Meanwhile, Batman’s moral responsibility is reassuringly confirmed by the fact that he destroys the device after having used it.

This form of empowerment by way of surveillance technology subsequently moves beyond its traditional twentieth-century form when it is extended outside the traditional surveillance monitors and is physically embedded in Batman’s costume. After using the imaging device to pinpoint the Joker’s location, Batman is able to gain the upper hand by feeding the input from the sonar device directly into his mask. He thereby replaces his actual field of vision with the visualized data that renders the building he enters literally transparent, like a three-dimensional blueprint or a video game environment. This technological ability provides him with a form of mastery over the chaotic situation that supersedes the attacking police force’s misreading of direct visual information. Because the gang members have exchanged costumes with their group of hostages, only Batman’s panoptic use of data visualization technology makes him able to interpret the situation correctly and take the appropriate kind of action. At the same time, the incorporation of Batman’s surveillance technology into the costume that defines his identity transforms him into a cyborg: “a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.”

Donna Haraway’s classic essay “The Cyborg Manifesto” envisioned the cyborg as a semi-utopian “creature in a post- gender world,” liberating the subject from the traditional binary divisions that have served as the conceptual paradigms of oppressive militarism and patriarchal capitalism. However, most cyborg-like figures that have been featured so prominently in postclassical Hollywood, from The Terminator (1984) and RoboCop (1987) to Iron Man (2008) and The Dark Knight, fulfill little of this revolutionary potential. Instead, they seem to function primarily as technologically enhanced versions of the hard-bodied icons of masculinity from the Reagan era.

In many ways, Batman in The Dark Knight represents the cyborg as an image of empowered masculinity similar to that of RoboCop, but one that is politically much more problematic. It goes so far as to suggest that the technologically enhanced superhero is in fact free to disregard the laws he is expected to uphold whenever he decides that circumstances demand it. Just as many authors have related the popular action films of the 1980s to the political and ideological discourses of that era, it is easy to read this current wave of popular superheroes as similarly supportive of neoliberal American government policy. The fantasy they provide constitutes a militarized form of masculine power that functions as the explicit extension of patriarchal capitalism. Nowhere in the films under discussion is this more evident than in the superhero’s appropriation of surveillance technology.

But while Batman’s costume integrates high-tech imaging software as an effective tool of panoptic empowerment, its use in the film severs an important link between character and audience. For as soon as Batman activates the imaging technology, it covers up the actor’s eyes, leaving only his mouth and chin as recognizable parts of the human face, and precluding the film’s use of effective eyeline matches. Iron Man, another superhero film in which the protagonist wears a costume that denies us access to the actor’s face, found a way to visualize the incorporation of similar technology without sacrificing the expressiveness that makes the character a recognizable and sympathetic human figure. For as soon as billionaire playboy Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) dons the suit that transforms him into the super-powered cyborg Iron Man, the film inserts close-ups that show Stark’s face inside the suit, operating a complex but visually elegant Graphical User Interface before his eyes.

Tony Stark’s skillful operation of the suit’s GUI with what appears to be a combination of voice control and eye movements shows the extent to which this kind of intuitive, “natural” operation of advanced technology represents a popular fantasy. The film continuously cuts back and forth between these close-ups of Stark’s face surrounded by dynamic GUI elements, external shots of the Iron Man suit in action, and the character’s point-of-view shots. These POV shots vary from views of the data visualization offered to Stark by his suit’s computer system, similar to the video game-like visuals in The Dark Knight, to photographic images enhanced by crucial computer information.

This use of data-enhanced images is more prominent in Iron Man, as it reveals the full extent of this popular cyborg fantasy, in which organic perception and technological data have become not merely inextricably intertwined, but also—and crucially— mutually beneficial. In one spectacular action sequence, Iron Man intervenes in an Afghan village where a massacre is about to occur. When faced with multiple terrorists who have taken the innocent villagers hostage, the computer system that is embedded in his costume automatically differentiates between the guilty and the innocent, making Iron Man able to target only those who supposedly deserve to be killed.

The impressive functionality of this system and its obvious effectiveness illustrates the logic that typifies postmodern American warfare. Slavoj Žižek has described our fantasies of this kind of “clean war” as that of “the Colin Powell doctrine of war with no casualties (on our side, of course),” or therefore even as “war without war.” Like the uncanny images of smart bombs flying down the chimneys of targeted buildings in the first Gulf War, or the “Shock and Awe” tactics of the Rumsfeld doctrine in more recent military conflicts, Iron Man’s use of high-tech weaponry is depicted as something that is possible without civilian casualties. Iron Man’s ideal soldier is presented as a cyborg figure who has incorporated this military technology into his outfit and made it into an essential, even natural part of his physique. As in Batman’s use of “immoral” surveillance technology, the film’s superficial rejection of the military-industrial complex is contradicted by its ongoing celebration of militarized (and privatized) cutting-edge technology.

Such fantasies of masculine empowerment through the subject’s transformation into a technologically enhanced cyborg are not limited to the fantastical narratives of comic books and Hollywood action films. The U.S. Army’s infamous 2001 advertising campaign that adopted the slogan “An Army of One” tried to draw in new recruits on the basis of exactly this kind of image. The text that accompanies the advertisement’s photograph of a lone futuristic soldier, all but anonymous in the heavily armored and helmeted costume he is wearing, runs as follows:

What you see is a Soldier system that gives me 360 ̊ vision in pitch black. Makes me invisible to the naked eye. Lets me walk up a mountainside. And run in a desert. You’ve never seen anything like me. But don’t worry. They haven’t either. I AM AN ARMY OF ONE. And you can see my strength.

As this advertisement illustrates so vividly, the ideal 21st-century soldier is here imagined as an invincible figure whose complete control of advanced technology grants him the opportunity to become a high-tech superhero in the army. This kind of superheroic figure therefore vividly illustrates Žižek’s description, in which military conflict is presented not merely as a war without innocent victims, but as a virtual experience that resembles a video game, undertaken by soldiers who operate as invincible, completely self-sufficient cyborgs.

These particular incarnations of Iron Man and Batman make so much sense to contemporary audiences because they are both embodiments of such real-world fantasy figure associated with postmodern warfare. They each appropriate high-tech military equipment and surveillance technology as ways of enhancing their bodies, and then employ these abilities to stave off the threatening advances of post-Fordist capitalism. Tonal differences aside, Batman Begins and Iron Man feature identical plots, with their billionaire protagonists transforming themselves into superheroes by first building their own militarized body armor, then using their abilities to keep the villain from selling off their fathers’ companies. This makes their position as fantasy representations of the postmodern subject once again contradictory. On the one hand, they embrace the possibilities offered by the virtual, technologically enhanced body that is the product of postmodernism, while on the other hand rejecting the perceived threats of a virtual, post-Fordist economy that itself generates these new, more fluid forms of identity. This extreme ambivalence concerning the individual subject’s position in a technologically advanced postmodern environment is typical of many contemporary popular narratives. The Matrix is perhaps the most frequently cited text in that regard: “on the one hand, reduction of reality to a virtual domain regulated by arbitrary rules that can be suspended; on the other hand, the concealed truth of this freedom, the reduction of the subject to an utter instrumentalized passivity.” Žižek’s words here help us understand how these narratives dramatize anxieties about the contradictions inherent in postmodernism without ever truly resolving them: simultaneously nostalgic and future-minded, liberating and oppressive, reactionary and subversive, they offer a momentary illusion of escape from the passivity associated with postmodern consumerism.

As fantasy archetypes and even role models, these characters’ use of surveillance technology and its incorporation into the superhero’s very body is therefore entirely emblematic of the double logic that informs the neoliberal surveillance society. In the above examples, the superhero figure legitimizes the use of controlling forms of surveillance due to the fact that his actions are always justified by the narrative’s outcome. This justification meanwhile becomes all the more effective by the superhero’s visibility, both as a cultural icon (Batman as metatextual icon and brand) and as a public figure within the film’s own plot (Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark’s status as billionaire celebrities in their own fictional cities). In both cases, the neoliberal agenda of privately owned military surveillance technology as a tool for the common good is celebrated and even mythologized.

ISBN: 978-1-78099-179-5, $24.95 / £14.99, paperback, 285pp

EISBN: 978-1-78099-180-1, $9.99 / £6.99, ebook

Author Bio: Dan Hassler-Forest is assistant professor of film and literature at the University of Amsterdam. He publishes widely on comics, American cinema, popular literature, and critical theory. He is originally from New York but has lived most of his life in Netherlands.


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