Superhero movies, once considered a risky commercial venture, have gone on to become one of the most popular and lucrative genres in cinema. They're everywhere. Behind all of the explosions, lasers, and villainous monologues, however, there often lies a serious political statement. Let’s not exaggerate, they’re no Dr. Strangelove, but many of our favourite superhero movies have boasted political messages that you might not have even noticed... until now.
30. Superman (1978)
Released in 1978, Superman took his first cinematic flight in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate. The film openly acknowledges the cynicism of its era, before instead presenting a noble hero that represented the embodiment of everything that America once stood for - “truth, justice and the American way”.
What’s more interesting is that Superman is an alien immigrant who embodies these cherished values, overcoming his own personal tragedy as an example to those disillusioned by recent events. At one point, the Man of Steel tells love interest Lois Lane “I’ll never lie to you.” You know, unlike those rotten politicians.
29. X-Men (2000)
The numerous open references to the Holocaust aside, the entire X-Men universe is a commentary on racial tension. Two heroes with strong, decent beliefs take very different approaches to their cause, the question of mutant equality being a direct metaphor for the American civil rights movement. Director Bryan Singer once told the that “Professor Xavier was Martin Luther King and Magneto was Malcolm X, and these were two men who had very strong, decent beliefs, but had taken different roads."
"The irony of that, and the moral ambiguity of that, intrigued me," explained Singer, saying that X-Men "was a step beyond simple crime-solving, superhero action. It was much more socio-political, and in that way exposed more truth.”
28. Spider-Man (2002)
Released soon after 9/11 and set in New York, it’s almost inconceivable that Spider-Man wouldn’t carry some sort of political weight in the wake of such a catastrophic event. In fact, with a character and a city so intertwined, ignoring it would have come across as callous. Several changes were made to the film’s promotional materials in reaction to the attacks, removing images of the World Trade Centre.
Director Sam Raimi also added a scene after shooting finished, depicting a group of people helping out Spider-Man by throwing objects at the Green Goblin and shouting: "You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us" in tribute to the people of New York.
27. The Incredibles (2004)
There’s a very middle-American sensibility not usually seen from Hollywood in The Incredibles, advocating the necessity of a strong nuclear family in increasingly unstable times. In a family made up of heroes, Mr Incredible must realise what’s truly important in life – and it isn’t a shiny car. Family is everything. Even when you’re a superhero.
Also worth noting are the nods to today’s blame-free society, and the lawsuits that come with it. "I just always wondered when a superhero broke through a wall, who was going to pay for that wall?" writer-director Brad Bird told the . "In the small-minded world we live in, that deed is not going to go unpunished."
26. Fantastic Four (2005)
Rather than going after governments or terrorists, Fantastic Four instead holds up a mirror against celebrity-obsessed society. After gaining their superpowers, the characters turn up in New York and instantly become famous, going into hiding from the media as they are recognised by photographers on the street - like paparazzi pursuing celebrities.
Regardless of its faults, the film shows the truth of being a superhero/celebrity in the real world: action figures, marketing teams, brand awareness, and public perception.From this perspective the actual villain of the piece, Doctor Doom, is almost secondary to the story.
25. V For Vendetta (2005)
V for Vendetta is all politics. The disfigured product of evil, government experiments, corrupt totalitarian governments, fabricated news, police brutality… it’s starting to sound a little too close to home.
V is the dramatic embodiment of the idea that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and the impact of his actions represents a warning to viewers over the danger of apathy, which can allow a government that isn’t held accountable to strip a civilisation of its liberties. And there’s a dig in the ribs for the good old U-S-of-A, too, with torture scenes in prisons that look reminiscent of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
24. The Dark Knight (2008)
Alright, you probably already knew that this one was a political movie. Commentary on the moral compromises made since 9/11 pervades The Dark Knight. From the crumbling building behind Batman in publicity posters to the overt reference to warrantless wiretapping, this movie is an explicit statement on the times we live in, approaching the topic from all angles with moral conflict after moral conflict.
Every time torture is employed it fails miserably and the Joker wins. Every time corruption is condoned, every time the rules are compromised, it creates an escalation in the violence. When Batman makes a selfish choice, it ultimately costs him badly because evil is one step ahead. And then there’s the Joker himself; anarchism personified. His relationship with Batman reflects the notion that terrorism only works when we let it make monsters of us.
23. Iron Man (2008)
There really is no room for misinterpretation here. In fact, Stark says it himself at a press conference: "I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero-accountability."
The setting of Stark’s '60s origins are updated to war-torn Afghanistan where, after the billionaire directly experiences the role which arms manufacturers play in perpetuating war, he decides to do something about it. When he later returns, in full Iron Man regalia, he deftly takes care of the terrorist group who had captured him providing - for a moment - an efficient conclusion to a seemingly endless and confusing war. If we all wish it hard enough, America will end the war on terror.
22. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
While soldier Emil Blonsky might be the one who Bruce Banner ultimately battles in this second cinematic iteration of the big green guy, it’s General Ross who proves to be the scarier threat.
A stark reminder that extremists exist on either side of the fence, Ross is a military devotee, desperate to harness the Hulk and turn it loose on America’s enemies, regardless of the potential for collateral damage. Though Ross is an exaggerated embodiment of America’s neoconservative wing of war hawks, there are undoubtedly politicians in power today who’d agree with his point of view.
21. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Tony Stark might be a hero, but he’s also symbolic of a lucrative privatised industry as he fights for property rights against the government trying to get their grubby mitts on his tech. Exhibiting all the traits of a character from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Tony is hauled into a hearing where he responds to their demands with his trademark irreverence; "You want my property? You can't have it!"
He humiliates his opponents by winning over the crowd, and concludes by committing to “serve this great nation at the pleasure of myself." So, Tony's a metaphor for capitalism, then. Throw in Russian (movie shorthand for communist) antagonist Ivan Vanko and it’s a veritable political palooza.
20. Kick-Ass (2010)
On seeing an 11-year-old child slice, dice and swear her way through a movie, most were shocked by the obvious. Those who bothered to look a little deeper, however, saw something extremely refreshing. This tiny, somewhat psychopathic, little girl is the hero of the piece. And her sex is absolutely by-the-by.
"We just really wanted Hit-Girl to be a character who, in a sense, simply happens to be an eleven-year-old girl, in the same way that Ripley in Alien could have been a guy but the part happened to be played by Sigourney Weaver," explained writer Jane Goldman in an interview with . “She's a feminist hero by token of the fact that she pays no attention to gender stereotypes. I think she also doesn't want special treatment because she's a girl."
19. Super (2010)
Before he was brought aboard for Guardians of the Galaxy, director James Gunn created a darkly funny subversion of the superhero movie template with Super. In an unexpected turn, however, Super turns its satirical eye to the topic of religion. It is the Lord himself who commands Frank to become The Crimson Bolt, and the character goes on to brutally murder those who commit crime, all while doing so in the name of God.
Considering the tenuous sanity of Frank himself, this could well be an example of a character who mistakes the dark recesses of his own conscience as a form of divine intervention. God, faith and religion don’t come off all too well, then.
18. Captain America (2011)
If muscle-bound science experiment Captain America seems like an obvious pro-war symbol, it’s because he is. Originally conceived in 1940 to do battle with Hitler, the character entirely evokes the value of the all American hero – patriotism and utopianism.
Steve Rogers is the epitome of the selfless hero, desperate to go to war and willing to go to any lengths to fight for his country. In today’s climate, it’s a hard sell, but Cap’s pure intentions, courageous sentiment and heroic ideology evoke a nostalgia for a simpler time - before corporations and agendas and greed got in the way. As Agent Coulson remarks in Avengers Assemble: “Everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light... people might just need a little old fashioned.”
17. X-Men: First Class (2011)
Set against the backdrop of the Cold War and at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, First Class cleverly evokes the zeitgeist of the era, intertwining it with X-Men mythology.
Eschewing the temptation to go over the top with fantasy, instead the film is rooted in the genuine fears of the time - international espionage, government cover-ups and conspiracy theories – using them to the plot’s advantage and provoking thought too.
16. The Green Hornet (2011)
In his transition to the big screen, pulp hero Brett Reid, who is more than just a vehicle for goofy lines and slapstick humour. Like many of his generation, trust fund millennial Reid is facing a crisis of masculinity, unsure what his place is in society and what’s expected of him.
In turn, there’s a larger metaphor as the United States also struggles for identity - to find a way to continue its place in the centre of economic, political, and social circumstances. Both are trying to achieve the American dream.
15. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
Perhaps simpler in intent than Raimi’s earlier films, The Amazing Spider-Man still sees patriotism rewarded. Throughout the movie, any of the good that Spider-Man does as a vigilante (though his true intent may not be totally pure) is ignored.
Instead he is hunted as a criminal himself. But when his purpose becomes honourable – and above all, patriotic – Spidey is rewarded with support, by both New York’s crane driving citizens and the city’s police force.
14. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Tying in the themes first set up in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises once again introduces villains that terrorise Gotham as a metaphor for the United States. This time it's class war - with many seeing Bane's attacks on Wall Street serving as an allegory for the world-impacting failures of the U.S banking system.
Like many corporate villains and cynical politicians, Bane hides his true intentions of finishing Ra’s al Ghul’s work under the guise of helping the city’s people - and does more damage to Gotham than any other villain of the trilogy. In one scene the heavily-accented brute is literally placed in opposition to the USA, as he sets off explosives in a football stadium just after the national anthem has been sung.
13. Avengers Assemble (2012)
From the right angle, it’s possible to see how celebrated lefty Joss Whedon has slyly stuck his liberal stamp all over this superhero extravaganza. From casting some of Hollywood’s most progressive stars, including anti-fracking advocate Mark Ruffalo, to passing commentary on right-wing commentators through Loki’s rants about how oppression is better than freedom.
As can be expected of Whedon, there’s also a notable feminist perspective. The film’s female lead, Black Widow, is as much front-and-centre as her male counterparts – transitioning her from the femme fatale cliché we saw in Iron Man 2 , to bona fide kick-ass hero. And all without being heavy-handed about it too.
12. Dredd (2012)
In this day and age, that there’s equality in the portrayal of male and female characters in this film shouldn't be exceptional. But it is. Neither heroine Judge Anderson and villainess Ma-Ma are sexualised, weak, or over-emotional. They share equal screen time with the titular hero Judge Dredd, their wardrobes are genderless, and they actually have personalities. They are simply excellent characters who happen to be women.
Of course, there is the inconvenient fact that the Street Judges are essentially are glorified take on police brutality, but best not to dwell on it.
11. Iron Man 3 (2013)
At several points in this third film in the Iron Man series, we see echoes of modern-day terrorism. A US army veteran self-combusting in rural Tennessee allows for contemplation on the rising rates of military suicide, while depictions of the shadows of the dead inscribed on walls recall the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And then there’s The Mandarin himself – a vague mish-mash of ‘terrorist’ tropes, albeit with no discernible ideology, political association or definable ethnicity. The public face of the evil organisation is essentially a hybrid of Bin Laden, and Ming The Merciless.
10. Man of Steel (2013)
No Superman film is complete without several allusions to the Messiah, and Zack Snyder’s reboot for the last son of Krypton has that in spades. What’s more interesting, however, is the unintentionally sour political message left by the film’s final act. In his explosive fight against General Zod, Superman essentially destroys half of Metropolis, with seemingly little regard for the people trapped within the skyscrapers he carelessly flies through.
His ill-conceived kiss with Lois Lane amidst the rubble of the city he swore to protect seals the deal in characterizing Superman as a hero who apparently doesn’t need to explain his actions. What kind of statement is that making about how we should regard those who are endowed with immense power and responsibility?
9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Arguably the most politically loaded Marvel movie to date, Winter Soldier has a lot to say about the subjects of security, freedom, privacy, and government accountability. The suspicious data collection technology employed by S.H.I.E.L.D. is clearly inspired by the disturbing revelations made public by Edward Snowden in 2013, which uncovered the invasions of privacy committed by America’s National Security Agency.
Both Captain America and the movie itself come out strongly against such governmental action, especially as it turns out that the real motivations behind the S.H.I.E.L.D. initiative are much more sinister than first assumed.
8. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Continuing in the new-found tradition of grounding the latest X-Men adventure in a distinct periodic setting, Days of Future Past turns its eyes towards 1970s America, and doesn’t shy away from all the political turmoil which distinguished the era. The usual themes of racism, rights and equality are explored, but this time in a setting where they feel naturally pertinent to the politics of the time.
The film also warns of the dangers of an over-powered military-industrial complex, albeit in a ham-fisted manner. The Sentinel Program is touted by the government as the latest technical marvel to beef up America’s security but, as the the flash-forwards to the future timeline reveals, they instead bring about the nation’s destruction.
7. Ant-Man (2015)
After shining a favourable light on Tony Stark’s status as a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist”, the Marvel cinematic universe finally places a more sharpened critical focus on the world of capitalism with Ant-Man. Not only is the hero of the story a modern day Robin Hood, but antagonist Darren Cross is a slimy, arrogant entrepreneur reminiscent of the worst that Silicon Valley has to offer.
There’s also a certain scene involving a sheep that touches on the issue of animal testing in science, but it’s never really developed into something tangible.
6. Big Hero 6 (2015)
Disney’s second contribution to the superhero genre doesn’t boast any explicit socio-political commentary per se, but the diversity of its cast is nevertheless an important statement, especially during a year in film which generated the “#OscarsSoWhite” controversy.
The group of kids which make up the team of Big Hero 6 are a healthy representation of gender, race, and even species, with the inclusion of Baymax ensuring that even robots won’t be left feeling shortchanged for cinematic recognition.
5. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
The primary threat to the Avengers in their second cinematic outing isn’t a villainous extraterrestrial or a power-hungry politician, but something which they themselves created. Ultron is a sentient representation of what can happen when a security measure goes too far, and ends up working against the very aims for which it was created.
The movie is an extension of the sentiments first explored through the subtext of Captain America: Winter Soldier, as another Marvel movie which seeks to discuss the dangers of securitization in the wake of the NSA leaks.
4. SuperBob (2015)
SuperBob may be able to fly, but even he can’t escape the monotony of the British Civil Service. In a satirical take on the protracted inner workings of government, this low-budget Britcom presents a superpowered Londoner who works for the Ministry of Defence as a professional weapon of mass destruction.
Watch as Bob is forced to learn the pretentious social conventions of diplomacy, pose for shameless photo opps, and remain firmly under the thumb of his busybody boss, Theresa. Beneath all the quirky British humor lies a genuine critique of the way in which shallow political priorities can get in the way of the pursuit of justice, peace and progress.
3. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
The entirety of Batman v Superman comes across like Snyder’s clumsy reaction to the criticism he received for the tasteless climax of Man of Steel. Instead of glorifying Superman, he presents the hero as a war criminal, on trial by both the government and the people for his role in the destruction of Metropolis.
As for Batman, his ardent militancy replicates the way in which extremist right-wing agendas can be legitimated from the ashes of national tragedy. “If we believe there’s even a one per cent chance that [Superman] is our enemy”, explains Affleck’s Dark Knight, “we have to take it as an absolute certainty.”
2. Deadpool (2016)
The overriding political message of Deadpool is entirely related to its complete disregard for political correctness. The foul-mouthed, fourth wall breaking mercenary cracks wise about every topic under the sun, and cares little for the controversy he might generate in the process.
In fact, many commentators have gone on to argue that Donald Trump represents the Deadpool of politics, as they both seem to lack any sort of verbal filter. The anti-hero’s irreverent attitude to everything going on around him could also be interpreted as an on-screen representation of anarchism or even nihilism, though Reynold’s take on the character does humanize him a little more than his comic-bound counterpart.
1. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
In a complete contrast to the muddied politics of Man of Steel, Marvel’s big-screen take on the infamous comic series of the same name makes it very clear that superheroes should be held accountable for their behaviour.
At the same time, the position Steve Rogers takes in opposition to the Sokovia Accords is a perfectly justifiable stance against the overarching reach of government control, and the battle between the two sides of superheroes is one gargantuan metaphor for the constant tension between national security and private freedom.
Further, the machinations of villain Helmut Zemo to turn America’s finest against one another isn’t a far cry away from the contemporary strategies of the United State’s real-world enemies. "An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again.” explains Zemo at one point, “But one that crumbles from within, that's dead. Forever."