The release of “Iron Man 2” this weekend kicks off the summer blockbuster season.  It’s an interesting cultural moment for conservatives.  The movie version of Iron Man is one of the most unambiguously libertarian figures in popular culture, a billionaire industrialist playboy who spends much of the new movie telling the government to get bent when it tries to claim his amazing suit of high-tech armor.  He’s patriotic, loves the military, and views the bad actors of the world from a Reaganite position of moral confidence.  In the original movie, he did what Hollywood has been painfully reluctant to do, ever since September 11: he flew over to the Middle East and took out the trash.  This Atlas doesn’t shrug… he busts out repulsor beams and micro-missiles.

The recent wave of super-hero movies has been largely agreeable to conservatives.  “The Dark Knight” topped many lists as the most powerful expression of conservative themes in recent years.  “The Incredibles” would be a hit on pay-per-view in Galt’s Gulch.  Spider-Man carried his famous motto, “with great power comes great responsibility.”  The hero of last months’ “Kick-Ass”, disillusioned by the passive willingness of so many people to tolerate evil, illustrated the conservative pedigree of Spidey’s creed by turning it around: “with no power comes no responsibility.”

The movie version of “Kick-Ass” was hailed in some quarters as a fable about individualists taking charge of their lives, and stepping forward to the front lines of the war against crime, rather than helplessly waiting to be rescued.  (The original comic follows the same major plot points, but has an entirely different meaning, due to a crucial difference in the background of Big Daddy, the character played by Nicholas Cage in the film.  It’s amazing how much that single detail changes the point of the story.)

Superhero comics generally slant more to the Left than recent movie adaptations.  It could be said the best superhero movies feature the same direct and earnest heroism as the Golden Age comics.  Like early comic books, the superhero movie is still introducing itself to its audience.  The characters haven’t been overexposed and eroded through complex re-inventions, leading lazy writers to inject leftist cant into their stories, in a desperate attempt to seem relevant and high-minded.  Average folks who enjoy “Iron Man 2” this weekend would be utterly baffled by the portrayal of a nearly fascist Tony Stark in the recent “Civil War” storyline running through Marvel Comics.  An industry that flirts with the idea of Captain America charging into battle against the Tea Party has lost touch with its roots, and taken leave of its senses.  Fortunately, the superhero movies are giving us cleaner, more coherent interpretations of these great characters.

Comic fans argue about whether a particular superhero subscribes to liberal or conservative politics, and while most modern comic creators seem to write from the Left, the superhero itself is a fundamentally conservative, libertarian idea.  It’s also a remarkably American concept.  Its roots stretch back into pulp fiction, folk tales, and ancient myths, and there have been fine efforts in the genre around the globe, but only America seems able to produce truly legendary superheroes.  Like the United States itself, it’s an art form blended from old traditions and modern science, incorporating influences from many cultures to produce something unique.

As early America drew the attention of the brilliant de Tocqueville, superhero fiction has attracted overseas talent to produce some of its finest entries.  From the dark wit of Alan Moore’s cultural autopsies, to Neil Gaiman’s elegant tapestries of arcane legend and modern drama, superheroes have benefited greatly from the perspective of foreign-born artists… but in the end, they all live here, from the confields of Kansas to the concrete valleys of New York, and the urban dreamscape of Gotham City.

Superheroes are a libertarian fantasy, because they are individual men and women given the power to shape the course of history, and burdened with the moral responsibility to use it wisely.  Spider-Man learned this in his hour of grief, after a moment of selfishness cost a good man his life.  Superman is a Kansas farm boy who discovered he was a god, and devoted himself to protecting the mortal men and women around him, who he loved and respected with all of his heart.  Batman is an extraordinary individual who devoted his talents to the pursuit of justice, freely choosing a path of agony and terror when his wealth and ability offered countless other choices.  Some fans say they like the character because he’s a normal guy, and anyone could be Batman, but the point of his legend is that Bruce Wayne isn’t just anyone. He’s a paragon of intellect and will, one in a billion, who chooses to be a knight when he could have been a king.

Superheroes are not produced by central planning or political fiat.  Even when the government manages to create one, it’s a miraculous accident.  Most of them are ordinary people who were granted power through an improbable frenzy of science or the elements, struck by lightning or bathed in radiation, rewarded for a moment of pure kindness by ancient wizards or dying aliens.  Some make a willing choice to accept their power and the obligation to use it wisely, swearing into a battle against evil that has raged across aeons and galaxies.  Others find themselves fumbling through a crazy new life without an instruction book (or, if there was such a book, they promptly lose it.)  Their enemies cannot be appeased, and they’re not impressed by noble gestures.  The superhero story expresses themes of duty and responsibility, courage and initiative, on the towering scale of mythology.  We all write the pages of history, but superheroes do it with boldface capital letters.

Iron Man is the most perfectly American superhero, next to Captain America, whose own movie is on the way.  The armored avatar of resourcefulness and ingenuity, Tony Stark does what capitalists always do, in the long run: create incredible possibilities, far beyond the narrow vision of politicians with constituencies to appease.  He understands that no one else can lift the burden of responsibility from his shoulders, and he’ll be damned before he lets anyone take it by force.  His marvelous suit of armor is his defiant statement that threats to his loved ones and fellow citizens are no longer Somebody Else’s Problem.  He doesn’t want to run for office, but he’s a perfect American leader nonetheless – funny, creative, maddening, indomitable, in love with himself and everyone around him, and completely uninterested in blaming anyone else for his troubles.  He cleans up his own mistakes.  I’d vote for him.

Cross-posted at www.doczero.org.

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