The political messages in blockbuster movies

From Forrest Gump and The Incredibles, through to Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice and The Muppets - exploring the politics of big films.

Some movies wear their political messages lightly, some club you over the head. Guardians Of The Galaxy’s most explicit political statement is probably ‘We are Groot’, which could mean anything from ‘You’re my friends’ to a thesis on the benefits of intersectionality. Team America: World Police, on the other hand, provides an argument for military intervention that probably isn’t covered in the Chilcot Report.

Some movies, though, have messages buried at varying depths in the subtext that don’t come out straight away upon the their release. The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, despite having been published in 1955, achieved this. The influence of World War One – the trenches and mechanised warfare – influence a technophobia, as does growing up near the Black Country. Tolkien was brought up in Hall Green near Birmingham, and could literally remember when it was all fields, more lush green idyll than Waitrosed suburb.

From here the nightly view of the North West of the city – at the peak of the area’s industry – was one of glowing furnaces and shooting sparks. The films echo Tolkien’s sentiments towards a simple, rural life rather than an urban, industrial and mechanised one. Mordor and Saruman reflect this attitude and, indeed, their locations reflect the Black Country or areas of intense industry. Power, in more than one sense, corrupts in Lord Of The Rings, and ideas of technological progress are questioned.

Similarly, Forrest Gump can be interpreted as suggesting a simple, decent life is preferable to seemingly progressive lifestyles, as the title character’s naive optimism triumphs time and time again whereas Jenny, his love-interest, continually tries to escape the abuse in her life by joining in with the counter-cultural movements of the times but never manages it. In fact, it simply makes things worse and contributes to her early death, leaving the viewer with the message ‘Don’t do anything liberal or you’ll die’.

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The authorial intention behind these stories is not necessarily reflected in these interpretations. Tom Hanks and writer/director Robert Zemeckis saw Forrest Gump as apolitical, the story of an innocent in a cynical world. Tolkien, however, spoke of ‘cold-hearted wizards’ destroying things in their quest for knowledge, hoping that the Hobbits of this world would outlast them. He’d probably had a few by that stage (this was at a Rotterdam ‘Hobbit Dinner’ in 1958) but it does suggest that this interpretation is backed up by authorial intention.

However, the general reception of fiction and its authors’ intentions don’t always go hand in hand. This is not an article about theories I have regarding the politics of movies, rather a description of existing interpretations and how they came about. In Forrest Gump’s case, it seems to be that Jenny’s story – in which almost nothing positive happens to her at all – was latched onto as being representative of the whole film.

Likewise, one line in The Incredibles stands out as a way in for the interpretation that the film represents Ayn Rand’s objectivism. This philosophical system states that, among other things, the primary moral purpose of existence is to bring about your own happiness. In her fiction writing Rand sought to depict her ideal hero, one who is totally dedicated to achieving his goals irrespective of the problems it causes for others. You can see how that links up with the recurring line in The Incredibles saying that if everyone is special then no-one is, and with Dash’s desire to use his powers of speed to easily win at school races. Plus, ideas of innate superiority or specialness also occur in other films by Incredibles writer/director Brad Bird, specifically Ratatouille and Tomorrowland, which also features a group retreating from society to a special hideaway, a plot point echoing Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. There is enough to latch onto to deem it problematic, but it’s always been denied by Bird.

The notion of an individual who is distinctly talented and uncompromising also runs through the work of Zack Snyder, most recently in his depiction of Superman. Snyder has praised Rand’s novel The Fountainhead as being a ‘thesis on the creative process and what it is to create something’, saying he wanted to adapt the novel into a movie to The Hollywood Reporter.

This comment led to an examination of his work, his depiction of Rorschach in Watchmen (who was based on an objectivist Steve Ditko character, The Question), and also the version of Superman seen in Man Of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Here we see Clark Kent’s journey from a man performing heroic deeds anonymously to a superhero told by his parents that he doesn’t owe humanity anything, as he struggles with being a superior being. It matches up with the Randian hero archetype, the (appropriately enough, given its literal translation) Übermensch who must deal with a lack of understanding from society.

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Superhero films do generally find themselves open to accusations of holding conservative values, due to their frequent story pattern of establishment figures upholding the status quo in the face of revolution. When villains are given qualities loaded with political significance, or are sympathetic, it results in a story that can be interpreted as the establishment winning. Avengers: Age Of Ultron features government-sanctioned heroes causing and solving their own problems via a colossal death toll, reflecting interventionist foreign policy.

The Dark Knight Rises depicted Batman quashing an uprising whose espoused ideology reflected the Occupy Wall Street movement, while simultaneously acknowledging that Gotham does have problems and that the rebellion’s grievances have some justification. Nonetheless, Batman must maintain the status quo, and the character – being a billionaire channeling his fear – is generally seen punching down in vigilante mode. Because The Avengers and Batman stories invariably feature a preservation of existing power structures, coupled with a wish to make their opponents more interesting and sympathetic, and they can be interpreted both as a satire of and a paean to conservative values.

Disney’s 2011 Muppet movie (called simply The Muppets) was less welcomed by right-wingers than The Dark Knight Rises, with Fox Business host Eric Bolling complaining about the film on his show Follow The Money, with the Media Research Centre’s Dan Gainor saying: “It’s amazing how far the left will go to manipulate your kids, to convince them, give the anti-corporate message.” This was in reference to the character Tex Richman (as played by Chris Cooper), an Evil Oil Baron who wished to destroy the old Muppet Theatre due to the wealth of oil underneath it. This lead to Bolling asking “Where are we? Communist China?”

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However, American Christian group Focus on the Family gave The Muppets a positive review on its Plugged In site, believing the Muppets’ oddball underdog status reflects that of contemporary American Christianity.

When The Muppets – a film designed as silly, family entertainment – can be interpreted in two ways from ostensibly similar viewpoints you can see how something as knowingly theme-driven as The Dark Knight Rises can get latched onto from vastly differing political perspectives, due to aspects of it representing different ideologies.

This makes a difference, as a film takes on a life outside its creator’s intentions, and if it clashes with a viewer’s outlook it can leave a sour taste. Whether you agree with these interpretations or not, the fact they exist means they can be used for or against a movie, giving it and its creators a reputation that persists in cinemagoers minds irrespective of its accuracy.