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Not Exactly Gettysburg, but . . .

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On May 5, America is going to get entangled in another civil war.

Well, to be precise, Captain America is, along with Iron Man, Black Widow, Black Panther, and a lot of other Marvel superheroes in the latest installment of the never-ending Avengers saga. Captain America: Civil War, the thing is called, soon to be in a theater near you.

Not to be outdone in the civil war department, the DC franchise is set to release something called Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice the day after this blog is scheduled to appear. And while this movie is not explicitly identified as a civil war per se, what else are we to call something that pits America’s original superheroes (Superman, b. 1938; Batman, b. 1939) against each other in violent conflict?

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Both movies are sequels to previous films, carrying on story lines that began years before their up coming release dates, with the Avengers flick in particular picking up a comic book conflict from 2006. But I still find it significant that they are appearing now, as America continues its ever-more-alarming spiral down a rabbit hole of red state/blue state divisiveness, Fox News/Comedy Central shootouts, Tea Party rebellions, government shutdowns, rancher uprisings, and, most recently, a presidential campaign free for all in which it appears that everybody is against everybody.

Which is to say, that at a time when America’s great divide has suddenly widened to Grand Canyon proportions, it is not surprising to see the superhero syndicates jumping on board. What an opportunity! Not only do you get a guaranteed box office but you can leverage an already boiling-over cauldron of political passions into a frenzied demand to see cinematic justice done against those miscreants who just don’t seem to see things your way.

If you think it is too far fetched to see civil war allegories in a movie called Captain America: Civil War, just consider the premise of the thing: Captain America and his allies go to war against Iron Man and his allies, over the matter of government regulation. If that’s not enough to trigger obvious ideological associations, there’s the fact that Captain America’s entire shtick is to be a poster child for old fashioned, corn-fed American patriotism, while Iron Man’s deal is to be a sophisticated urban industrialist. Something very similar is going on when that small town farm boy who fights for “truth, justice, and the American way” goes after a slick urban financier with a bat fetish. I mean, they could have cast these things with nothing but elephants and donkeys.

The whole thing is like those professional wrestling theatricals, where the bad boys of the day stand for whatever is bugging the core audience, while a muscle-bound good guy fights for the right.

Of course neither movie, I gather, is going to take us all the way to Appomattox, because in films like this there is always someone worse in the room (or universe), who poses such a colossal threat to the fatherland that the heroes suspend their spat and start pulling together to defeat the larger menace. But reality, unfortunately, is a whole lot messier than that. If, fifteen years ago, al Qaida managed, albeit briefly, to pull America together, ISIS isn’t doing that at all this time around. Americans continue to face off against Americans in ever more non-negotiable combinations, and while the movies can make that sort of thing entertaining, they sure as shooting can’t bring it to an end.

  [Photo via: Election 2016 by DonkeyHotey, from Flickr]

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Perfect timing. Many of my students will be writing on this "new" dynamic duo duking it out at the expense of an entire city. From what I've read, Superman is regarded as an unwanted and feared alien, an apt metaphor for anti-immigration. I guess that's a significant change from the Christ-like figure he represented even as early as the 2013 reboot.

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You're quite right about Superman having been re-engineered as a sort of metaphor for anti-immigrant sentiment, Eric.  In earlier editions of Signs of Life we had an essay by Gary Engle—"What Makes Superman So Darned American?"—that actually explored, in a positive light, Superman's immigrant status. It is strange to see this all-American farm boy (remember the TV series featuring Superman in his youth?) repositioned as an "alien" in opposition to a dilapidated Batman.  Does that dilapidation signify anything?  I think it does.  At any rate, one way or another, we have before us a divisive split among the superheroes—DC and Marvel alike—whose significance, while hardly obscure, is not exactly reassuring.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is professor of English at California State University, Northridge, where he teaches literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics. At present he is Director of the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review, a task to which he frequently applies the critical thinking insights that cultural semiotics can reveal. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.