Films that are adapted from comic books (or later spawned comic books) often feature vigilantes in lead roles. The law enforcement in the form of police officers, detectives, or courts, often are portrayed defamatorily and are essentially the antagonists. Viewers often identify with the vigilant, sometimes anarchist hero while accepting the law as the enemy.
Cops are heroes of the real world. In theory, the police protect society from crime. Civilians call them when they need help. Without them, anarchy would ensue throughout cities and counties everywhere. However, there seems to be an underlying theme involved in films based on comic books (and films that spawned comic books). Virtually all comic book films portray the law enforcement as being the antagonists, while the law-breaking vigilante plays the dutiful role of the protagonist, or hero, of the film. Vigilantes are those whose ideology is to break the law in order to achieve a higher good. When watching these films, individuals and groups tend to identify, or root, for the underdog vigilante more than the law abiding authority figures.
The protagonists in comic books work for themselves and are often running from the law. The one popular exception is Superman, who works with the law enforcement and is appreciated by them. Most, however, including but not limited to Batman, the Crow, the Punisher, Spider-man and the Watchmen, are essentially taking the law into their own hands disregarding the rules set before them. While these heroes represent the anti-law, viewers still identify with them as heroes.
Negative portrayals of the law enforcement are relevant. Whether society notices it or not, they are there. It’s not difficult to find messages of anarchy and anti-establishment hidden within a comic book film. It makes on ponder the question, is this just coincidence? Or do the writers and producers of these films have a political agenda they want to subliminally impose into the general public?
Negative portrayals of law and vigilant leads not only exist in films adapted from comi books, but also films that spawned them after their release. This suggests that there must be anti-law. The Terminator, The Matrix, and The Ghostbusters franchise have all spawned comic books after the first film in each franchise was released (Hadju 344). All have several factors in common. They all feature vigilante protagonists, the protagonists in some way cause property damage, and the law serves as an obstacle preventing the heroes from achieving their goal. Society never sees a comic book based off of Bridges of Madison County. Therefore, there must be some connection between comic books and anarchy.
Take Terminator II: Judgment Day for instance. T2 spawned a series of comics manufactured by Dark Horse, Inc. There are several characteristics that could be pointed out to define this film as anti-establishment, but the main factor is obvious. The protagonist of the film (Arnold Schwarzenegger) dons biker clothes, equipped with a motorcycle, cowboy boys, and a leather jacket. The enemy, the metallic T-1000 (Robert Patrick) ironically enough chooses a police uniform as his accoutrements. Evidently, the film wants viewers to cheer on the bad boy while instilling that the police is the enemy. In The Matrix, the heroic protagonists Neo and Trinity (Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Ann Moss) shoot and kill several police officers resulting in a bloody decimation. Were the police really the enemy here? Or were they just trying to do their job?
One might consider that there are several films with feature those working for law enforcement, mainly police officers or detectives, in lead roles. This is correct; however, even police officers in lead roles are breaking formal policy in some way. Even police officers in protagonist roles are still portrayed as vigilantes in their own right. Consider Detective Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) in Beverly Hills Cop and its sequels. Foley breaks official policy several times. He impersonates the President of the United States, steals a house, and attempts bribery. Sergeant Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) in Lethal Weapon tells his partner Sgt. Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) to shoot to kill even though he has no authority to do so. John McClane, a New York City police officer who took reprimands from his authorities when he made it his duty to apprehend terrorists in a Los Angeles building, even though it was not his state, let alone jurisdiction. These said policemen, particular McClane, caused several thousand dollars in property damage.
Property damage is yet another major characteristic of a comic book vigilante movie. Vigilantes in film rarely ever pursue their climatic goal without damaging property en route. Take Batman Begins for instance, where Batman jumps buildings from rooftop to rooftop with his highly technological vehicle, damaging every shingle his vehicle touches. Buildings catch on fire, factories are destroyed. Consider Terminator II: Judgment Day when The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) completely destroys the Cyberdyne building via guns and explosives, rams a truck straight into a steel mill factory, and breaks out windows at a bar.
Ironically, several films that feature property damage and bad portrayals of police officers were later turned into comic books. The aforementioned T2 and Matrix are examples of this, and also Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II. The climactic battle in Ghostbusters had the heroic foursome battle a gigantic marshmallow man, incurring severe damage to New York City (property damage) in the process. In GII, the protagonists were given a restraining order (negative portrayal of law) preventing them from investigating the supernatural.
The first official comic book appeared in 1934 during the aftermath of the Hays Code. The Hays Code (also known as the Production Code) was formed in 1930 by the Motion Picture Procedures and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and heavily regulated sex, violence, and other controversial subjects (Bordwell 216). Under the Hays Code, even married couples in film had to be shown sleeping in two separate beds. The Hays Code had detrimental effects on the box office. Films that portrayed the law enforcement negatively, such as Scarface (1931) and Public Enemy (1932), were heavily censored and pulled from theaters (217).
The heavy censorship of films caused by the Hays Code led to the advent of the comic book industry. Unlike films, comic books were not regulated, and writers and illustrators could publish any controversial content they wanted (Hajdu 6). As a result, the comic book business boomed. The comic book industry gave the general public, particularly their teenage demographic, a means to see the sex and violence they could not see in film (31). By 1940, the comic book business was here to stay. The number of comic books ballooned from 150 publications in 1937 to nearly 700 in 1940 (34). Comic books became a perfect median for writers to emblematize their and political and anarchist agendas.
To compensate for the disallowance of controversy in films, comic books in the late 1930s and 40s showcased racism, pictorial beatings, shootings, stabbings, strangling, and graphic scenes of torture. As the comic book industry boomed, juvenile delinquency began to escalate (Hajdu 97). Dr. Frederic Wertham, then a psychiatrist who taught at John Hopkins University, conducted a research study and concluded comic books were “corrupting young readers.” Wertham describes the cover of one comic book featuring a young African American adolescent boy on his back, grimacing in pain while a girl pinned him to the floor and another stabbed him in the arm with a fountain pen (101). Wertham concluded that “comic book reading was a distinct influencing factor in the case of every single delinquent or disturbed child we studied.” Wertham considered superhero comics especially dangerous. He considered Wonder Woman represented fascism and Batman and his sidekick, Robin, represented homoeroticism (235).
In a landmark 1948 Supreme Court case, Winters v. New York (333 U.S. 507), the owner of a comic book shop was sued for selling comic books with graphic images. Under New York penal law at the time, comic books and magazines could not consist of criminal news or stories of deeds of bloodshed or lust, so massed as to become vehicles for inciting violence and depraved crimes against the person. The Supreme Court declared in Winters’ favor, stating that the statute was too vague and indefinite as to declare what constitutes graphic images. Also, the Court ruled that enforcing such a strict censorship violates freedom of expression and is unconstitutional.
However, comic book freedom was not going to last. Wertham’s research led to a federal Comic book censorship in 1954, called The Comic Code Authority, which banned the words “terror” and “horror” from being written in comic books. The Comic Code Authority also enforced that “No comics should encourage vigilante crime nor depict crime in a heroic fashion,” “excessive bloodshed, gory and gruesome crimes shall not be permitted” and “Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority” (Hadju 291).
The time of graphic comic books was over, albeit they eventually would make their return. By 1955, more family-oriented comic books were released (Hadju 295). Batman, who made his first appearance in 1939’s Detective Comics, was a dark character. The comics he appeared in were graphic and crime-ridden, and targeted for older teenagers. After The Comic Code, Batman comics were reduced to camp. Batman was drawn in lighter colors, featuring a blue cape and cowl, and had a sidekick named Bat-mite (297). It is obvious that the Twentieth Century Fox’s 1966 campy satirical Batman series was based on this era of Batman comics.
Comic books would eventually lose their censorship and comic book films would become a huge box office trend. Other than Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), comic book films had not yet hit the mainstream until the late 90’s. Only the most popular heroes were considered to be box office draws. There were low budget made-for-tv superhero films in the 80’s and early 90’s, such as Captain America, Fantastic Four, and Spider-man; not the Tobey Maguire film but the made-for-tv films starring Nicholas Hammond.
The comic book film revolution began in 1999 with Bryan Singer’s X-men (Goldstein 144). Since then, the comic book film industry boomed. Virtually all comic book heroes were given their own big budget film treatment. Not only were the most popular comics, Spider-man, Superman, and Batman given film treatment, but so were unpopular heroes who most of the general public has not heard of before. Heroes only popular to comic book fans, such as Hellboy, The Watchmen, Kick-Ass, Jonah Hex, Scott Pilgrim, and The Incredibles, were all given big budget film treatment. In earlier decades, this would be considered box office suicide (Hadju 328). However, this was a new time and a new decade. Comic book films were now a billion dollar industry, with ten on average being released per year since 2002 (330).
What appeals one to comic books films? How can a film with such an anarchist theme appeal to such a large fan base? The fascination with anarchist vigilance dates back to the era of film noir. Comic book films were heavily influenced by film noir. Film noir typically consisted of depressed private eyes, damsels in distress, and the lead often running from the law or reprimanded by the law in some way (Silver 2). Many confirm that aftermath of World War II led to the film noir genre. Film noir often consisted of the protagonists showing off their patriotism with off color remarks. Film noir was a form of escapism during and after the war. It was a means to let people take out their anger and express their patriotism. In the 1943 Batman serial, the first live-action Batman feature, Batman constantly calls his enemy, a Japanese scum lord, a “filthy jap.” Currently, this would be unacceptable and politically incorrect; but then, it was intended to show patriotism during the World War.
Anarchism and anti-cop establishment appeal to film viewers only if it’s fake. In a 1994 research study, college students were shown several clips of real life violence (McCauley 143). Each student had a control device that they could click when they did not want to watch anymore. The first clip showed a dinner table in which a live monkey is the centerpiece; the monkey’s head is hammered several times on camera, until he dies a slow death and the dinner guests dine in on his still-pulsing brain (144). The second clip showed a man being tortured in a third world country. The third clip showed a young girl going through brain surgery, where surgeons pull the child’s face inside out (144). Most of the college students, on average, turned these videos off halfway through their runtime. After this, the same students were asked to watch scenes of graphic torture in film. The ear-cutting scene of a police officer in Reservoir Dogs was one, and a police officer dining on a human body in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was another. Virtually no students clicked these off, and in fact, appeared to enjoy the violent depictions, even though the scenes depicted were much more graphic than the footage of real violence (155). The conclusion of this research states that society as a whole appreciates the violence we see on film and television, but not real life situations.
In sum, comic book films serve as a means for the general public to escape the confines of an authoritarian society and to subconsciously enact revenge on the police who did them wrong. Most of civilization will say that appreciate the law, however, very few appreciate the law when they get a speeding ticket. Very few will say “I’m so happy I have a speeding ticket, this means the law is doing their job.” Society likes having the law around, to protect them, except when the law is not in their favor.
Comic book films allow the viewer to have the best of both worlds. It allows the viewer to identify with a vigilante lead, who stops crime, and at the same time, hate the law. Comic book films are genius; they suggest anti-law without being pro-crime. Though the absence of crime is not possible without lawful authority, comic book films allow the viewer to escape in that world for just a couple of hours.
Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. Film History. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill,
David, Hajdu. The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed
America. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008. Print.
Jeffrey H., Goldstein. Why We Watch: The Attractions of Violent Entertainment.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.
Alan, Silver. Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. 3rd ed. The Overlook Press: Woodstock, New York, 1992. Print.