What A Pair of Superhero Movies Taught Me About The State of Present-Day America

Pranav Guru
9 min readFeb 6, 2022

While it wasn’t my first time flying to Seattle to see family, it was my first time flying Alaska Airlines. Having recently flown my first Delta flight, I didn’t know what to expect.

Knowing it would be exactly 4 hours and 29 minutes between taking off from O’Hare and landing at Seattle-Tacoma International, I knew it would be more than enough time to watch one full in-flight movie. But two? That might be unlikely.

Luckily, the GoGo Inflight entertainment app I had downloaded earlier gave me the option to play movies at double-speed, with another option for closed captions.

I felt, with these options at my disposal, I might even be able to watch three movies by the time we landed.

Luckily, there was a whole subsection of movie options exclusively full of my favorite genre;

Superhero Movies.

First up, I thought I would check out Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice had initially come out during my senior year in high school. I had initially hesitated on watching it in theaters at the time due to its poor performance with critics.

By now, having already caught up with the DC Extended Universe thanks to other additions to the franchise like Aquaman, Shazam, and Wonder Woman (as well as its sequel), I decided, “Why not?”

Before I jump in, now would be a good time to issue a spoiler alert.

The film began with a series of flashbacks, including one from the DCEU’s first film — Man of Steel — featuring Superman in an effects-driven, superhuman match against Kryptonian supervillain Zod. As a result of the extensive collateral damage, Superman becomes incredibly controversial among those who both did and didn’t witness the battle…including the billionaire genius himself, Bruce Wayne (who you might also recognize by his moniker-slash-street name; Batman).

However, while Superman faced both acclaim and derision for his actions in Metropolis and is hated by Bruce Wayne, Superman himself — in his human form as news writer Clark Kent — proves to not exactly be a fan of Batman’s (quite literal) brand of vigilante justice in Gotham City.

One mutual enemy of both fabled superheroes is a name synonymous with pure evil among comic book fans: Lex Luthor.

Throughout the movie, Luthor plays the long game to fan the flames of division between Superman and Batman. He extracts kryptonite from the corpse of Zod (without government permission) as he knows the material is Superman’s weakness. Meanwhile, he draws suspicion from Batman through his black market dealings with Russian mobster Anatoli Knyazev.

During a congressional testimony given by Superman, Luthor bombs the Capitol. Finally, he draws out Superman by kidnapping his love interest Lois Lane — as well as his adoptive mother Martha Kent — before using them as blackmail to get him to kill Batman.

While Superman is more or less coerced to fight Batman, the latter is more or less willing to fight like a dog till the bitter end.

Batman — who is equipped with stolen kryptonite — is able to successfully weaken Superman to the point where the latter begins to fear death and begs his adversary to “save Martha”. Moments later, Lois finds the two and explains to a confused Batman. After Batman comes to his senses and Superman regains his strength, they learn who the real enemy is: Lex Luthor.

The film ends with Luthor imprisoned, but Superman is killed by another supervillain. This leaves Batman guilt-ridden and determined that the world should remain protected in Superman’s absence.

When it was over, I was left wondering what exactly it was that ticked critics off so much back in 2016, as well as asking myself the question, “Does this movie have any analogies to the present day?” But having just seen an explosive, dramatic superhero movie at double speed while less than an hour-and-a-half into a flight, I decided I wasn’t in the mood for critical thinking. Just in the mood for another movie.

But considering my next choice was to watch Captain America: Civil War, maybe I was in the mood to think critically after all.

Well…either I was in the mood to think critically, or I wanted to keep up with the Captain America trilogy, having previously seen The First Avenger and Winter Soldier.

Since the film is not only part of the Captain America trilogy — but is also directly following the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron — it’s important for me to say, once again, spoiler alert.

In the events of the aforementioned Avengers sequel, the (fictional) nation of Sokovia was destroyed in the midst of the Avengers’ battle against the villainous Ultron. As a result of this as well as the collateral damage caused by the Avengers’ attempt to defeat Brock Rumlow (a S.H.I.E.L.D. counter-terrorist later exposed as a double agent of Hydra), U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross announces that the United Nations plans on ratifying a set of accords that would grant the UN oversight over the Avengers (aptly named the Sokovia Accords).

This begins the division of the Avengers; While some — most notably Tony Stark (AKA Iron Man) — believe political oversight can prevent the kind of damage that the Avengers have normally written off as par for the course, others — especially Steve Rogers (AKA Captain America) — don’t share Stark’s level of faith in government officials.

Ultimately, the plot of Dawn of Justice plays out on a much grander scale.

The house becomes divided against itself to the point where the Avengers are fighting themselves to the degree that they once fought the Chitauri and Ultron, the plot thickens amid instances of brainwashing, imprisonment, and outright terrorism.

And just like Dawn of Justice, a supervillain pulls the strings the whole time: Former Sokovian military leader Helmut Zemo.

When confronted near the end of the film over his acts of terrorism (which were fueled by his obsession with the action of the Avengers in his failed nation), Zemo nonchalantly responds, “An empire toppled by its enemy can rise again. But one which crumbles from within? That’s dead. Forever.”

In another analogy, the film contains a message from Captain America to Iron Man acknowledging that while mistakes were made (possibly because of the differences between the parties involves), the original mission must never be forgotten.

I had some time to watch another movie before the plane landed. However, in the lyrics of Linkin Park’s song “Waiting for the End”, I was quite literally “Flying at the speed of light, Thoughts were spinning in my head.” Ultimately, I realized that this was almost like a see something, say something situation. It couldn’t be a situation where (to quote Linkin Park once again) “So many things were left unsaid.”

Every comic book fan (even those who haven’t seen our previous pair of movies) would be fair to ask why Batman would be fighting Superman of all entities, or what the Avengers have to achieve by beating up their fellow Avengers in the outside of some airport. After all, there are bigger fish to fry, aren’t there? Such as…actual supervillains?

That’s the same question I’ve been asking myself for years; “Why are our politicians — even those within the same party — attacking each other?” “Why does the biggest enemy of each American political figure…always seem to be another American political figure?”

Since 2016, political polarization between the American left and American right has increased steadily, with some major examples of failure to find common ground being the first (and second) times President Donald Trump faced impeachment, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and George Floyds protests, and the alleged legitimacy of the results of the 2020 presidential election.

As a result, figures from all walks of life — from journalists to historians to political scientists to investors — have suggested that the United States is currently seeing a cold war between right-wing and left-wing factions.

Some, as a result of more violent examples — such as the infamous 2021 attack on the United States Capitol — have even expressed concern that America might face a Second Civil War.

As someone whose parents came to this nation in hopes of a better life, this does give me a shudder.

As our government gets more and more entrenched in partisan gridlock, this leads to more and more Americans losing faith in the system. And as we’ve seen firsthand, when citizens lose faith in the system, they become vulnerable to anti-government conspiracies.

As someone who always aspired to think freely, I always despised political labels. I also try to hold myself accountable and allow my beliefs to be challenged. So I find it important to be careful who I surround myself with. To try to keep my emotions in check whenever a discussion turns political. And especially, to limit the amount of political discourse I get exposed to on social media.

Because social media has changed political discourse for good, although not necessarily in a good way. Algorithms are wired to create echo chambers based on the people and content we frequently engage with. This leaves our beliefs unchallenged and our feelings towards perceived adversaries as perpetually and progressively hostile.

In an interview with Full Frontal correspondent Mike Rubens, social scientist Ryan Berg claimed that political polarization is partially to blame in the drop in American religious affliation. To quote; “People live in these echo chambers where they’re reinforced in their crazy beliefs.” Berg also added, “Churches used to be places where Republicans and Democrats sat side by side and worship…It built bridges is what we would call.”

Basically, I’m not the first to accuse social media of being part of why so many people go from angry to radicalized. Why there are so many Helmut Zemos on the internet, who would be guaranteed nowhere near as hostile if they had to engage in-person with someone politically.

Additionally, billionaires who bankroll politicians and commentators don’t deserve to be compared to Lex Luthor. After all, Luthor is a fictional character specifically written to be the embodiment of pure, unadulterated evil.

However, let it not be said that billionaire activists and political fundraisers do not have an agenda and enormous influence over those in the government and the media to make their visions into reality (whether we’re talking about the Koch brothers and their donations to conservative television and right-wing media, or we’re talking about publicly traded companies who make deals to run ads opinion-based cable networks).

Political commentator and host of “Real Time” Bill Maher — on multiple occasions — directly accused Fox News of being “a government propaganda channel” during the presidency of Donald Trump.

In an era where politicians seem to openly encourage civilians to share appetites for destruction, it can feel like present-day America is in the exposition phase of a superhero movie. But ultimately, it’s not going to be a situation where only one hero will rise. It won’t be a single Superman. It won’t be a single Batman. It won’t even be a teamup of heroes like the Avengers.

It’s going to require every citizen of the country to rise. It’s going to require over 329 million Americans to become heroes.

Personally, I’ve always admired the example set by musician-turned-activist Daryl Davis. Davis, an African American, has spent years combating racism by simply conversing with members of the Ku Klux Klan (even if it meant plenty of respectful disagreement). To this date, Davis has convinced between 40 to 200 people to leave the KKK, with over 20 considering Davis as a friend. He has documented his work in his book Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan (1998), the documentary Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America (2016), and several public speeches (including at least four TED talks).

Davis has always been a proponent of using education and communication to attack American ignorance at its root. To quote; “The lesson learned is: ignorance breeds fear…If you don’t keep that fear in check, that fear will breed hatred. If you don’t keep hatred in check, it will breed destruction.”

His journey was much like the average American. No one trains to have a background in deradicalization. But the question that inspired his crusade is one we should all ask ourselves about those who may be politically divided against us; “Why do you hate me when you know nothing about me?”

It’s easy to hate people or get riled up against someone or something you know nothing about. But when we try to answer that question, our answers ultimately range anywhere between perceived superficial differences to fundamental disagreements. But the solution to both is somehow simultaneously the easiest to say and the hardest to apply;

In the words of Davis himself, “What I’ve come to find to be the greatest and most successful weapon that we can use known to man…is also the least expensive weapon and the one that is least used by Americans. That weapon is called communication.”

Don’t Hate. Communicate.

Because when you think about it, that’s really all you need to be a hero. Not a supersuit. Not an otherworldly ability. Not even a snazzy nickname.

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