From Ancient Greece to Star Wars, the Bible to Breaking Bad, throughout history the father figure has been a major feature in dramatic storytelling. This is especially evident in film, but in post-9/11 American cinema the father figure has often become notable by his absence. In this three part series I look at how the role of the father figure in American film has evolved in the 21st century across three genres: the combat film, the historical epic and the superhero film. For each, I ask: O Father, Where Art Thou?
– NB: This article contains numerous spoilers. –
In the second instalment of this series I suggested that the father figure in the historical epic fell into three sorts: the heroic, ideal father (Maximus, Hector, Leonidas), the absent father who is ultimately rejected as part of a corrupt establishment (The Eagle, Centurion, King Arthur), and the absent father who returns to the son after they prove themselves (Clash of the Titans, Immortals and The Passion of the Christ). The latter type of father – appearing in films based on mythology and the principle religion of America – is a recurrent trope of the superhero/comic book film, and nowhere is this more evident than in post-9/11 cinema. Allow me to explain…
The comic book/superhero film found new popularity in the 1990s and early 2000s with such hits as Blade and X-Men, and the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man (which was produced prior to 9/11 although released [with some alterations] after the event). In these films we do not see the protagonists’ biological fathers, but all adopt an older father figure: Blade/Whistler, Wolverine/Xavier, Peter/Uncle Ben. Each of these figures is either killed or threatened, which inspires the hero to accept the responsibility that comes with great power.
However, in the post-9/11 age the superhero film has become increasingly popular – indeed, it is the mythology of our time and most tent-pole releases during the blockbuster season are inspired by comic book/graphic novel sources. If we examine these releases, though, we see an increasing fascination with the father figure.
Take, for instance, the new (not so) Amazing entries into the Spider-Man franchise. Uncle Ben’s death hovered over Peter’s actions in Raimi’s original trilogy while the father-son relationship was relegated to the villains in Norman/Harry Osborne (repeated in The Amazing Spider-Man 2). However, in Marc Webb’s first two installments, Uncle Ben’s death has taken a back seat to the growing mystery surrounding Peter’s father, Richard Parker. The themes of destiny and identity are explored through Richard’s actions and their ramifications for Peter. Crucially, although both Peter’s parents died, thus far the emphasis has been on his father and his experiments, emphasising the absent father motif over the absent parents; Aunt May remains as a surrogate mother, repeatedly exclaiming in the recent TASM2 ‘You’re my boy!’ Finally, Peter’s relationship to his absent father is emphasised by Peter’s destructive effect (read: bad luck) around possible surrogates, with Uncle Ben, Curt Conners and Capt. Stacey all being removed instead of taking the place of Peter’s father.
A similar motif appears in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Whereas in the Burton/Schumacher Batman films the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents is referenced, it does not figure as a major narrative theme across the films. However, in Batman Begins we see Wayne witness his parent’s murder and although they both die, Wayne frequently replays memories of his father – such as him saving the young Bruce from the well – and his father’s business empire is integral to his actions in, and influence over, Gotham. By contrast, references to Wayne’s mother remain few and far between. Wayne moves between older, surrogate father figures – Ducard, Alfred, Fox – who at different points question his morality, but eventually his sacrifice to save Gotham is memorialised by being returned to his absent father when he is (seemingly) buried alongside him. Along the way numerous father/child relationships appear (Gordon/James, Ra’s/Talia) and, as with Perseus, Theseus, Leonidas, Hector and Maximus, Wayne leaves a son-figure to continue his legacy in the form of Blake.
The Christopher Nolan-produced Superman reboot, Man of Steel, also features emphasis on the father figure, despite Kal-El’s mother also dying in the movie’s opening sequence and the presence of a surrogate mother on earth. Compared to Marlon Brandon’s performance in 1978’s Superman: The Movie, Russell Crowe’s Jor-El features much more heavily in Man of Steel. Indeed, the film is a tale of two fathers: although abandoned for his own protection when his home planet of Krypton is destroyed, Kal-El/Clark Kent is raised by an adoptive father, Jonathan Kent. When he is killed, Clark wanders aimlessly until he is reunited (in a fashion) with his biological father, who guides him to realise his true potential. The film ties this father/son relationship to that of The Passion of the Christ through its repeated use of Christian imagery which – as discussed in the previous instalment of these articles – ties Christianity and America through the all-American saviour/savior, Superman.
But what of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Before the Avengers assembled under the paternal umbrella (or helicarrier?) of Nick Fury, we were introduced to a string of father-son origin stories. Like Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark in Iron Man strives to escape the shadow of his prematurely-deceased father. His continuation of his father’s empire and, in Iron Man 2, his use of his father’s teachings and ideas to survive and re-invent himself/his suit evoke the motif of sons acting to make an absent father proud, who then returns at some point to reinforce the hero’s objectives. Similarly, the eponymous Thor is forcibly absented from his father until he has learned morality, wisdom and values – again proving himself in order to be reunited and (literally) saved by his father at the film’s climax. This relationship is heightened by the character of Loki, who upon discovering he is adopted becomes increasingly wayward and immoral, eventually killing his own absent father. A slight twist on this motif appears in The Incredible Hulk, where Bruce Banner’s father appears absent but his surrogate, such as it is, takes the form of his prospective father-in-law, Gen. Ross, who also wants him captured/killed. This is also largely applicable to Ang Lee’s Hulk, with the exception that Banner must defeat his real absent/returned father in a climactic battle. One could say that Hulk’s anger issues partially result from his lack of a good father figure to give him guidance or inspiration. As a result, he’s always angry…
‘But’, I hear you cry, ‘what about Captain America?!’ Initially fatherless Steve Rogers moves between the surrogate fathers of Dr. Erskine, Col. Phillips and Nick Fury, using each as moral guides at different points. However, Captain America: The First Avenger is, in many respects, also a WWII combat film. As such, these father figures either represent or are surrogates for Cap’s real father – America itself. While Wayne, Stark and Thor have actual fathers, Captain America is the son of patriarchal America; a metaphor that is explored in Captain America: The Winter Soldier when Steve rejects S.H.I.E.L.D as not part of the moral America he represents. Indeed, Loki in Thor: The Dark World pauses to mock the ever-moral Captain America – he is the ideal son, the Star Spangled Man.
So what should we make of this patriarchal fixation in modern superhero films? Is it a sign of Hollywood’s lack of imagination? Is it Hollywood repeatedly focusing attention on male figures, or worrying over oedipal alternatives? Of course, we should also remember that the sources these films derive from all originate in a pre-9/11 era – but most were created at similar times of national crisis when America was at war, either during WWII or the Vietnam War.
My suggestion is that comic-book films are ultimately fantasies. They reassure us, comfort us, give us entertainment and pleasure. In times of real-life crisis and loss of faith in patriarchal institutions in America, combat films (and even some historical epics) show soldier-sons losing their morality in the horrors of war; but in superhero stories, they often stay strong. In the post-9/11 superhero film the father figure – as moral guide, as nation, state, military, even God – ultimately reiterates the Christian ideology that was the focus of The Passion of the Christ: as sons (and daughters) we should strive to lead a good life, endure and ultimately overcome whatever obstacles are put in our way; ‘If Batman can do it, why can’t I?’. But even heroes have a darkest hour, and however grim things become, these films tell us that a father will always be there to save us.
Who are your favourite father figures in superhero films? What is the greatest father/son or daughter tale in cinema? Let us know below…