War movies from Apocalypse Now to Rambo used to be where we dealt with issues like the morality of violence and the meaning of honor. Now superhero flicks like Wolverine and Watchmen are replacing them.
Indeed, Wolverine is in some ways a version of Rambo, with its ripped hero who has been abandoned by his government and forced to go mercenary for justice. And who would deny seeing glints of Apocalypse Now in Watchmen's war scenes with the Comedian? The two movies even use the same music in their soundtracks, to much the same effect: Brooding 60s protest music hovers over scenes of state-sanctioned violence, reminding us that all oppression spawns a counterculture.
Though the last few years have seen the release of a few stately war movies like Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers, as well as some serious gut-punchers like Black Hawk Down and Jarhead. But these films treat war as historical drama, or as pure clusterfuck. There is little of the classic war film here, where the horror and madness of combat (or imprisonment) become an occasion to tell stories of loyalty and tragic sacrifice.
But if you want those themes, you can find them in Wolverine, which despite its cheesiness does make an effort to give us the soldier's eye view. And although he skirts madness, Logan is clearly focused on finding justice. Likewise, Watchmen shows us the way soldiers (in this case, the superheroes who work for the US government) transcend the horror of their circumstances through loyalty. Like many war movies made after the 1970s, however, Watchmen takes a jaundiced view of the soldiering life. Just as we do in Apocalypse Now, we see how a hypocritical government drives its troops mad and turns loyalty into a joke.
And if you want a truly brilliant war movie, check out Iron Man. Its ironic triumphalism reminded me of the underrated movie Lord of War, about the rise and fall of a big time weapons smuggler. Iron Man takes us back to classic war films of the John Wayne variety, but with a 21st Century liberal twist. Iron Man revels in weapons technology, and at many points suggests that the US needs to get more involved in Middle East conflicts. But it also delivers a requisite "war is hell" message, giving its defense industry magnate a change of heart when he realizes that his mega-weapons are falling into the wrong hands. (There's actually a similar set of scenes in Lord of War, which are truly intense.)
While the most recent Hulk film was uneven and ultimately unsuccessful, I'd still claim it as another war film - similar in tone to Full Metal Jacket (though nowhere near as good). Unabashedly liberal, its the tale of a man swept up by a war machine that uses him and finally drives him completely insane.
Later this summer, expect more another superhero war movie: G.I. Joe is coming in August.
Why has the superhero movie come to be one of the only places we can find intriguing stories about war? Possibly it's just coincidence: the US is at war, and we're also in a phase where comic book movies are incredibly popular at the box office. So naturally we tell comic book war stories. Moreover, it's a lot safer to tell war stories when they're safely cloaked in a fantasy: Often, we can convey emotional truths more clearly when they're hidden behind a mask (perhaps a superhero mask).
I also think there's something to be said for the idea that war itself - filled with robots, autonomous vehicles, smart armor, and high tech surveillance devices - has become more like comic books. This comes from an idea that Peter Singer suggested in his new book Wired for War, which is about cutting-edge weapons tech. Singer writes that new weapons tech removes soldiers from the battlefield, turning warfare into what feels like a videogame. And turning some soldiers into people with superpowers.