With the boom in popularity of comic book adaptations in the last two decades, superheroes have become far more than just action heroes with extraordinary abilities. These heroes have also become vehicles to address critical social and political problems in the modern day.
Stan Lee‘s sentiment that superheroes are a reflection of the outside world is more relevant than ever, especially considering the massive platform they’ve been given through cinema. Whether it’s Spider-Man dealing with classism or Batman facing government corruption, these heroes face problems fans deal with on a daily basis. And while these issues don’t necessarily make them more relatable, they succeed in making the superhero genre seem more topical, mirroring the real world in ways few people previously thought possible.
10 Anxiety and Mental Health – ‘Iron Man 3’ (2013)
The man who seemed to be Marvel’s most confident billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist went through a taxing mental struggle in the third installment of his franchise, Iron Man 3. Following the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark suffers from anxiety attacks and PTSD, making his role as Iron Man increasingly difficult.
There is something so refreshing about watching a man who seemingly has everything struggle with something as common as anxiety. It could make audiences feel less alone in their struggles; after all, if Tony Stark can have his day ruined by an anxiety attack, then maybe it’s okay that it happens to everyday people. Tony taught audiences about pushing past mental struggles no matter the odds and that even when people falter, what matters most is that they continue trying their best. Tony Stark arguably had the most development in the MCU, and his mental health played a huge part in that.
9 Civil Rights – ‘X-Men’ (2000-2019)
Since their comic book inception in 1963, it’s been no secret that the powerful and iconic X-Men are an allegory for the Civil Rights Movement. In a world where mutants are discriminated against, the protagonists and antagonists suffer from intense oppression from the rest of the world, with the government attempting to pass laws against their powers to capture them.
The films handle the juxtaposing responses that Professor X and Magneto have to the world’s treatment of them. Professor X takes a stance of nonviolent resistance, akin to Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideologies. Meanwhile, Magneto strives for a militant, by-any-means-necessary approach to combating the issue, in the vein of Malcolm X. The X-Men franchise has its ups and downs, but films like X2: X-Men United and X-Men: Days of Future Past heavily feature social commentary regarding discrimination and intolerance, proving that superhero films can be deeper than people give them credit for.
8 Warmongering – ‘Iron Man’ (2008)
Iron Man was the introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, giving fans a deep look into the world of warmongering more than anyone really expected. As Tony Stark grows to become Iron Man, he gets to physically see where his weapons are ending up and who is getting affected by them. Realizing how his actions are affecting innocent lives, he vows to end weapons manufacturing at Stark Industries.
The film also features a healthy dose of corporate greed via Stark’s business partner, Obadiah Stane, who becomes fueled by greed and does whatever he can to reverse Tony’s “rash” decision. It’s a compelling message about warmongers in America and how war is an enormous industry seen as any other corporation rather than as an act of mass destruction. And while Iron Man could do more with its message, featuring it was admirable enough.
7 Xenophobia – ‘Captain Marvel’ (2019)
The Kree vs. Skrull conflict in Captain Marvel is a wonderful representation of xenophobia and how it can be amplified by intentional misinformation from those in power. Following Carol Danvers on the Kree side of the war, audiences realize the damage of misinformation and the effect that the Skrulls’ demonization has on the conflict, enhancing the violent actions the Kree take against them.
The film’s climax shows Carol’s understanding that while the two sides have many differing ideologies and opinions, their similarities are just as important. The message might seem basic, obvious even, but the amount of real-life conflicts that it very much isn’t. Captain Marvel falls short of fully exploring xenophobia, but its unofficial follow-up, the Disney+ Marvel show Secret Invasion, tries, with uneven results.
6 Classism – ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ (2017)
The origin of the Vulture is primarily and blatantly due to classism. In fact, Spider-Man: Homecoming makes it a point to place a separation between characters in the working class, like Spider-Man and the Vulture, and the wealthy, like Tony Stark.
Throughout the film, Peter Parker struggles to get Happy and Tony on the line, being treated like he’s not a priority. Vulture is put out of a job by Tony Stark and Damage Control, crafting a hatred for the wealthy and using the corrupt system to enrich himself. Both working-class characters feel slighted by the wealthy in one way or another, akin to how the current working class feels spurned by the 1%. The Vulture is among the best Spider-Man movie villains, largely thanks to his relatable plight, brilliantly brought to life by Oscar nominee Michael Keaton.
5 Accountability – ‘Captain America: Civil War’ (2016)
The Captain America trilogy is inherently political, with Captain America: Civil War being the most heavy-handed of the three. The main conflict deals with the lack of accountability of those in power in the Marvel universe, mirroring many real-life situations. The Sokovia Accords are created purely because the Avengers face zero government accountability, leaving the public to deal with their colossal messes.
To this day, audiences are still torn in the conflict between Iron Man and Captain America. The Accords might’ve made sense on paper, but giving the government more authority is seldom the answer. Indeed, the real world often calls for limits to governments’ influences in global conflicts, making Captain America’s stance the most sympathetic. However, his previous mistakes and willingness to turn a blind eye to his allies’ transgressions give him a moral ambiguity that makes the central conflict more ambiguous.
4 Economic Disparity – ‘Blue Beetle’ (2023)
2023’s Blue Beetle does a great job of representing the tough economic conditions many Latinos face living in America. Their home of Palmera City portrays the typical urban displacement seen in many large cities all over the country.
One of the best representations of economic disparity in Blue Beetle is found in its villain, Victoria Kord, who gives off quite an insensitive attitude toward Latinos. She’s a perfect representation of how many in America, especially the rich and powerful, view Latinos as second-class citizens. Jaime and his family also face adversity elsewhere, but their neighborhood comes together to help them after losing their house, showing that for many immigrants, family means more than just blood. Blue Beetle features many likable characters, making it easier for audiences to sympathize with their struggles.
3 National Oversight – ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ (2014)
Captain America is informed by Nick Fury that S.H.I.E.L.D. has developed a national surveillance system, Project Oversight. The First Avenger obviously finds a lot of problems in this and how it’ll affect the freedom of the Americans being looked over, fearing the possibility of a surveillance state.
With the constant talk of social media, phones and governments spying on and stealing people’s information, the themes of security in Captain America: The Winter Soldier are more relevant than ever. The film raises questions raised about how to find an equilibrium between security and freedom in modern society. It also shows how technology can easily be modified to fit new purposes, using a style similar to 1970s thrillers to give the story a sense of paranoia and urgency that feels uncomfortably topical today.
2 Government Corruption – ‘The Batman’ (2022)
The Riddler’s motivation in The Batman is fully fueled by the inherent government corruption all over Gotham City. Whether it be the police or politicians, Gotham City is rotten to the core and a parallel to the corruption modern-day America faces on a daily basis.
The film blames the city’s rampant crime problem on the police force that is practically owned by the city’s underground crime ring. With the sensitive topic of police brutality across the United States, many found a lot of relation in Gotham to the current government climate. The Batmanis a detective movie with heavy political undertones, ranking among the new millennium’s most complex and thought-provoking superhero efforts.
1 Racism and Isolationism – ‘Black Panther’ (2018)
Racism and isolationism go hand in hand in the plot of Ryan Coogler‘s 2018 superhero film Black Panther. Killmonger’s goal of becoming the king of Wakanda stems from the systematic racial injustice he witnessed all over America. Knowing the power Wakanda holds could potentially fix all of those problems, Killmonger adopts a revolutionary stance akin to many real-life historical figures who took arms against the establishment.
T’Challa’s arc revolves around accepting the consequences of the isolationism set by the kings prior to him. There are genuine concerns surrounding Wakanda’s reveal to the world, mainly due to racism and the possibility that other nations may want to take advantage of their technology. However, T’Challa decides to use their power to promote peace and equality across the planet.
From Black Panther to Captain America: Civil War, these superhero movies juggle relevant social and political issues with classic world-ending stakes. Read More