(The following is a collection of rough notes for a class I'm guest-speaking in on The Rhetoric of Heroism. The intended audience is a group of freshmen composition students. Just something to keep in mind.)
During WWII, superheroes fought Nazis. Superman and Captain America took time off from fighting masked novelties to put a whipping on an evil all the more disturbing because all the more mundane: people obsessed with the desire to remake the world in their image and according to their ideology. To your left is Captain America smashing Hitler. To your right is Superman punching a tank. (Because the most effective way for the American government to deploy someone with the ability to melt cities with his eyes and wilt fields with his breath is to send him out with the grunts and have him punch tanks. But I digress.) That moment in our cultural history has passed. As proof, I offer the sad decline of Frank Miller, who not but two decades back put the darkness back into "The Dark Knight." In 2006, Miller decided to revive the tradition of American heroes fighting alongside the American military by sending Batman off to fight Osama bin Laden. His idea was widely reviled. What could one man dressed as a bat accomplish against a worldwide jihad movement? How could Bruce Wayne single-handedly forestall the coming of the Caliphate? The answer was obvious to everyone but Miller, who by this point had become a caricature of himself. All the bold strokes of cinematic excess on exhibit in the two recent films of his work—Sin City and 300—seem to have dulled his critical faculties. (To this day, the publication status of Holy Terror, Batman! remains unclear.)
A contemporary audience, composed of people like of you, would mock the absurdity of Miller's nostalgic vision. As gratifying as it might be to see Batman deck bin Laden—there is no small joy in seeing Captain America land a solid hook to Hitler's jaw—as a statement it would be nothing short of perplexing. Why would Batman, the perpetual outsider, act in league with the United States government? As is obvious from the panel on the right, that role is better served by someone without an adversarial relationship to authority; by someone who believes it is his duty (and pleasure) to serve the land that adopted him, however pragmatically, as one of their own; by someone, that is, like Superman. In 1986, at the height of the Cold War, that is precisely what Miller did. To your left are panels from The Dark Knight Returns in which the American flag morphs into the "s" on Superman's chest. Miller could hardly be less subtle. However, the threat facing the nation in 1986 is far different than the one facing America today, as I will discuss in more detail shortly. For now, it is enough to say that the role of the hero in modern society has changed, and the book we'll be discussing this next week, Alan Moore's Watchmen, documents this shifting attitude in brutal detail.
But before we move on to Moore, I want to linger on the hero's role in modern society. Consider the opening action sequence in Bryan Singer's Superman Returns. It plays on all the anxieties born of 9/11 without directly addressing them, as is obvious when you distill the scene into a single sentence:
Superman prevents a plane from crashing into a New York City landmark and killing thousands upon thousands of innocent Americans.
That the plane spiraled from the sky because of mechanical failure and threatened 30,000 baseball fans in Yankee Stadium instead of being deliberately barreled into the Twin Towers and killing thousands upon thousands of innocent employees is significant: Singer plays upon the primal fears of contemporary American society without reminding viewers of their origin. The scene is not an escapist fantasy—it affords us the opportunity to revive these fears in a context in which the conclusion is foregone. Unlike 9/11, when we sat before our televisions and stared in horror as the morning unfolded, Singer has us perched on the edge of our seats, secure in the knowledge that passengers and fans are in safe hands.
Watchmen provides no such luxury. Its world is more like ours—so much so that by the novel's end we'll be reduced to staring in horror at thousands upon thousands of dead New Yorkers. The events leading up to this will seem eerily familiar: a man with a vision of a just world sacrifices the lives of others in order to see it realized. It is also a much different world, as the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation lays plain: one in which people were more afraid of Mutual Assured Destruction than box-cutters in flight-cabins.