Art reflects culture. As fans, it’s important for us to understand that the things we love and enjoy also act as a time capsule for the era in which they were created. It’s always intriguing to me to take a hard look at the kind of mass appeal entertainment that is released during a presidential election year — the last two election cycles gave us Nolan’s Dark Knight films as well as Iron Man and its eventual sequel, The Avengers — and 2016 has some stuff that deserves a closer look. This year has a number of offerings that seem to slant towards the vehemently political, and I think examining them offers a window into the attitude of a nation divided.
For fans, the most obvious place to start is Captain America: Civil War. This entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the thirteenth feature film) will see Captain America and Iron Man battling each other, two friends forced to choose opposing viewpoints on the divisive issue of how to handle superheroes and the threats they face. While there will certainly be a visceral excitement in seeing these two characters and their compatriots exchange blows, the real joy comes from seeing the characters’ ideals and beliefs come into conflict. We know that neither Cap or Tony are “bad guys” but rather two men trying to do what they believe is right. Though we all have our opinions about those who are running for the presidency, it’s important to remember that they aren’t maniacal supervillains bent on world domination. They are men and women who are trying to do what they believe is the right thing.
It’s also interesting how Captain America: Civil War highlights the dangers of binary opposition, a course of action that can only lead to eventual combat. Our nation has long been a two-party system, and that setup has led to a growing animosity across the entire political spectrum. It forces people to think in absolutes: right/wrong, good/evil, yes/no. It doesn’t allow for the unavoidable gray areas that are an intrinsic part of human existence.
If there’s one show in 2016 that revels in the gray areas of life, it’s Netflix’s House of Cards. The show released its fourth season this year, and the ongoing story of the diabolical pair of Frank and Claire Underwood is as riveting as ever. Though the show has changed gears over its four year run, it still offers us a glimpse into characters who are willing to do anything to obtain and maintain the highest office in the land. It’s fascinating to see how much people have embraced the cold-hearted monster that is Frank Underwood to the point where he currently has his portrait hanging in the Smithsonian. Is it because we simply love to hate a great villain, or is it because Frank Underwood gives a face to all the perceived evils and moral absences we tend to apply to politicians?
Of all that 2016 has to offer, The Purge: Election Year is probably the most brutal dissection of our political climate. In a move that’s as brilliant as the marketing of Deadpool, the sci-fi/horror film ran this commercial during one of the Republican debates:
It’s very likely many viewers didn’t even register that this was a parody of so many boilerplate political ads, and that says something about the way we’re sold some picture perfect rendition of our country and what it values. I think it’s also pretty clear where the filmmakers behind The Purge: Election Year stand when their tagline (“Keep America Great”) sounds like a reworking of the slogan currently used by one of the more controversial candidates in the running for the Oval Office.
You don’t even need to contain yourself to the world of fiction to witness an impassioned critique of our government and its many broken facets. The Daily Show alums Samantha Bee and John Oliver have staked their ground with their shows Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, channeling anger and frustration into tools for comedy and progress. It’s very easy to draw parallels between them and the character of Gordon Dietrich from the film version of V for Vendetta, a comedian and talk show host who dares to lampoon the totalitarian powers in control. As our governments become more and more all-encompassing and ever-present, will it lead to the rise of more outspoken satirists like Bee, Oliver, and Dietrich?
These few selections paint a picture of a country in spiritual turmoil. Our heroes are at war with each other, our leaders are conniving sociopaths, and our society is transforming into an unbelievable dystopia. In the midst of all this, we as a nation have to choose who will be our spokesperson to the world. When the election does finally arrive in November, will we be more influenced by fear and hatred rather than hope for a truly brighter future?
No matter what happens this election year, there is one thing I am absolutely certain of: #TeamCap.