Superheroes in culture: Toys and Politics

Toys, I just love toys. I am reminded of the Tim Burton version of Batman, when Jack Nicholson says, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” The he punches his right hand man, almost as if to say, “Why don’t I have toys like that?” However, today is not about superheroes in television shows, games, or even other books that are spawns of their original counterpart, the comic. This discussion is about the toy and maybe politics…

This picture is from the FAO Schwartz building in Manhattan. The photograph was taken by your's truly, Sia Mozaffarimehr, in March of 2000.

How did we as a society become so obsessed with the comic book, so much so that we had to make inanimate objects that we could control and fly through the air or pound the villain? It started with television, at least for me, and I will not begin to speak for anyone else. The toy becomes a proverbial “comfort,” yes much like the food that we have became accustomed to our mothers making when we did not feel well while growing up. But let me direct your attention to the photograph that I recently discovered while rummaging through some old stuff while moving. This picture was taken inside the store, the life size statue of Batman, the Dark Knight, which upon closer examination looks to be a cross between the Joel Schumacher version (Look closely, you will see the nipples on the suit.) and Tim Burton’s Batman. Notice to the far right there is a small Superman doll in the corner of the picture. First, I wonder why Batman is held in higher stature than Superman, I didn’t see a towering statue, or flying statue in the store. However, there were numerous Batman toys that lined this particular floor from front to back. If you wanted the bat-mobile, it was there. If you wanted to get your hands on night vision batman, they had him too. Merchandising has taken another path, getting into the minds of children (or my mind.) convincing them that they need to have the latest and greatest Batman toy. Only it appears that Batman’s counterpart, the toy version anyway, does not appear to do things as portrayed in the commercials that market the product. It has reached the point that if the detail is good enough, I will buy it, that is to also say that if it is within my price range I will collect it. The toy franchise has grown so much so that if you want to emulate your favorite superhero, you can even be made into your own toy!

Comic books have not stopped at the toy market. No, they have also infiltrated political discourse. Recently with the Iron Man movies, taking place in a post 9/11 era, discussing the war in Afghanistan in a subtle fashion, the war on terror converted into a war for total world domination. Interestingly enough these messages have also made their way into films like the Dark Knight, the super deluxe Sonor vision gadget that eventually turns every cell phone into a way for Batman to monitor the entire city to pin point the Joker’s location reminds me of big brother watching your every move. Could it be commentary on the Patriot Act in so many words? It is possible. But I have noticed that many of us don’t look at our superhero movies and say, they are trying to tell me something. Most of the time I find myself escaping into a fantasy world, one that is not of my own, and has no hidden message. If one digs deep enough or just looks beyond the surface of the film or comic, one can see the writer’s message. These messages were as apparent in the 1960’s as they are now. Perhaps our ability to acknowledge or pin point the propaganda or anti-propaganda in recent works will eventually become similar to our ability to engage texts such as those found in the forties and sixties, comics such as “Fighting American,” “OMAC,” or even more main stream comics such as Batman, Superman, X-Men, and Captain America will be engaged in from a critical perspective as the culture moves on into a new realm. This is not a simple topic to discuss, and I must say that I wanted to speak just of toys, but it was too tempting to at least touch on some of these other aspects of culture and politics that are present within comics.

Until Next Time…


2 responses to “Superheroes in culture: Toys and Politics

  • Heidi Arndt

    The popularity of superhero toys is a testament to the intense immersion of this genre into our popular culture. Personally I never watched any TV shows or read any comics about superheroes when I was young, but I distinctly remember having Batman toys. If you showed men a yellow bat on a black background I knew what it was, even though my knowledge of his character traits was probably abysmal. The toys have become popular in their own right.
    I also think that it will be interesting to watch movies like Iron Man and The Dark Knight many years from now and find the kind of propaganda that seemed so crude in earlier comics. Any artistic medium that contrasts the “good” guys with the “bad” is hard-put to avoid stereotyping or scapegoating.

  • Charles Hatfield

    Could it be commentary on the Patriot Act in so many words?

    Perhaps. But it would be an ambivalent rather than a clear commentary, no? Batman, after all, uses the device in order to save lives and restore the peace; at the same time, Lucius Fox seriously questions his use of the device, and near the film’s end the device self-destructs, presumably never to be used again (we hope?).

    To make matters even more complicated, the device primarily helps Batman tell the difference between seeming “bad guys” (who are in fact hostages) and genuine bad guys (who are dressed up as hostages). So the device distinguishes between the innocent and the guilty, revealing a counter-intuitive result. This adds to the sense of moral ambiguity created earlier in the film by the recognition that (a) cops can be corrupt, and (b) assassins can dress up as cops. By the time we’ve reached the scene where the convicts on the boat refuse to murder the people on the other boat, we’re really in a swamp of ambiguity, aren’t we? 🙂

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