When Stalinist historiography presented its version of Soviet history, it erased any mention of the contribution of people who would go on to become dissidents to the Russian revolution. If this is a case of totalitarian abuse of history, liberals have fared no better. To take examples from contemporary cinema, Joseph Wright’s biopic Darkest Hour (2017) or Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) avoided even a single mention of the USSR. Liberal censorship can be far more total than its totalitarian counterpart and, since it is informed by the notions of popular appeal and democratic consent, far more effective.
That is even more so when it comes to the liberal approach to war crimes. In their discourse, powerful human rights organizations often frame war crimes and human rights violations as an inherent part of dictatorships, while conceding that such political behaviors are but occasional excesses in liberal democracies. One can also see the spillover of this thinking onto cinema. Amnesty International identified Thanos, the top villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), as a war criminal guilty of human rights violations. Thanos prescribes what appears to be an insanely radical solution to a universal ecological crisis – eliminating half of a world’s population. He succeeds at this venture in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and the earth is indeed a better place, as a few of the Avengers grudgingly admit in Endgame.
The Avengers, however, manage to reverse Thanos’s achievement through a ridiculous game of time travel and he is eventually killed. Time travelling to correct radical changes to the liberal order was a solution of choice in another Marvel film, X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). Here, Wolverine travels to the past to prevent an assassination that would eventually bring a showdown between the mutants and the humans, resulting in a totalitarian future. The prevention of this single act restores the smooth linear flow of liberal democracy. One can have other wild speculations on such cinematic historical rectifications. Imagine, for instance, a Native American using time travel to undo the colonization of her lands and genocide of her people. This can’t be shown because it would undo the sordid ideological foundations that Hollywood-style liberalism stands on.
In the climax of Endgame, Ironman wields magical infinity stones and eliminates all those on Thanos’ side, making him a more ruthless killer than Thanos who only killed half of the earth. Yet, Ironman will never be seen as a war criminal because he was restoring that which always was and should be – the liberal order. The bottom line of the entire Avengers film franchise seemed to be one single point, that a superrich superhero like Tony Stark/Ironman, who made his fortune through manufacturing weapons, would sacrifice his life for the sake of humanity. Throughout the MCU series, we were exposed to a defense of the American military-industrial complex, foreign interventionism, mass surveillance, targeted assassinations, and the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction. Endgame was a justification for all that and more. The left-leaning The Guardian, however, felt a greater need to celebrate the diversity component of the movie. One does feel compelled to conclude that liberal multiculturalism is, indeed, the hegemony of our times!
Films like Endgame reveal an anxiety and fear of what is to come – a possible end of liberalism. Just as European romanticists were apprehensive of capitalism overturning the simplistic relations of the village (concealing the violence of feudalism), the liberals of today fear ruptures with the status quo, refusing to acknowledge the violence and injustice inherent to it. We can identify three villains from recent superhero films who stoked liberal fears in the right way. Bane from The Dark Knight Rises (2012), represented an organized people’s revolt against the elite, strongly reminiscent of the Jacobins. Eric Killmonger from Black Panther (2018), represented in a Fanonist fashion the redistribution of wealth among the poorer countries of the world as different from a multiculturalist politics of mutual recognition and tolerance. And Thanos represents the need to address ecological problems on a global scale, rather than quick-fix local solutions. Perhaps, a combination of the three is the political leader we need.
The apparent craziness of these villains’ methods shouldn’t blind us to a critical reading of the politics that lie behind them. It is a commonplace to show one’s enemies as lunatics and savages, while projecting an image of one’s own side as rational, just, and humane. A greater imperative for today’s critics is to deconstruct the idea of evil as it is portrayed by the liberal culture industry and understand what this portrayal actually fears. What makes these super-villains fearsome is that they are not pursuing a pre-modern, isolationist or a narrowly identitarian form of resistance to capitalism – such narratives are actually celebrated in Hollywood in films like Avatar (2010) – but call for a complete overhaul of the existing system. In a sense, this is also what makes someone like Jean-Luc Mélenchon or Jeremy Corbyn more fearful to the liberals than a sectarian identity-based movement.
The paranoia in Hollywood about retaining the status quo, conjuring radical threats to the system and prescribing ridiculous solutions to save it, indicates that liberalism’s endgame is on the horizon. There might not be a Thanos to end it, but there will be no Ironman to save it, either