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From Draft NOtices, July-September 2013

Patriotism and Propaganda — Superman: Man of Steel

— Oskar Castro

Once again it is summer blockbuster season. Along with incessant pleas for us to spend hard-earned dollars to see the flick claiming to have the biggest explosions and the most seamless CGI, we are also inundated with advertising tie-in campaigns on screens big and small. This, of course, is nothing new. But what many people are unaware of is that the military has been in on this game of working with Hollywood filmmakers for even longer than the retailers have been playing the game. And, like most things, with age comes experience.

Operating collaboratively since World War II, the military has deftly been working with Hollywood to mold a consciousness of patriotism by slipping propaganda messages into films. The Pentagon assists filmmakers by providing authentic military hardware or personnel to enliven scripts. Therefore, it really should come as no surprise that right-wing director Zack Snyder would embrace the partnership that the U.S. National Guard has forged with Warner Brothers to make the new Superman movie, Man of Steel. His newly produced National Guard recruitment video and all the patriotic hyperbole around it is worthy of closer examination.

While the iconic Superman has long been known as the Boy Scout on steroids — championing truth, justice and the so-called American way — we haven't seen him being used to sell war and recruit people into wars since WWII. Sure, we've seen him in comic books and in animated cartoons where he fills the power void and supports the military when it comes to battling super-powered villains or extra-terrestrials bent on global conquest. But it's been decades since we've seen him used to blatantly sell a pro-military message.

Interestingly, the Superman/National Guard tie-in recruitment effort is not selling war or service in war. It is selling an idea: specifically, that we can be like Superman if we enlist in the National Guard, put on a uniform (that isn't as form fitting as his), and serve one's state when it is under siege by tornadoes, floods and other types of disasters. Cleverly left out of this idea is the stark reality that for the last 12 years the National Guard has been used in ways other than the heroic rescue of people trapped on rooftops or buried under earthquake-generated rubble. In this new recruitment strategy there is no mention of the role the National Guard now plays in supporting the waging of wars abroad — wars where no one is bulletproof like Superman.

According to Snyder, he took on the task of making the one-minute recruitment video as a show of gratitude to those Guard members who appear in the movie. What is more likely is that Snyder and Warner Brothers struck a deal in which the Pentagon supplied military hardware and real-life Guardsmen for the movie, and Snyder agreed to direct a recruiting video that lends Superman's image to military recruitment efforts and links patriotism with service. Snyder seems quite happy to have directed this video, and military participation in a film project often comes with tangible benefits to the filmmakers.

Apparently the National Guard NASCAR team has Superman emblazoned on their racecars, and there is even a new National Guard recruiting website with a video game tie-in to the Superman movie franchise. We're all inured to deceptive ad campaigns these days, but take a moment to consider just how disingenuous it is to use the globally recognized image of the quintessential do-gooder in order to sell the U.S. National Guard to young children, and to do so without acknowledging the reality of Guard membership. These citizen soldiers, as they are often called, are pulled from their homes, jobs and communities to participate in a seemingly endless war on terror. How many ten-year-olds will see their beloved superhero equated with military might, and then have fixed in their minds the idea that this should be their destiny, only to find themselves years later in a foreign country, fighting people the U.S. government has labeled enemies? How many teenagers who see these ads will eventually become compelled to enlist, only to be the victim of an IED that doesn't kill them but leaves them able to eat only through a tube and unable to bathe themselves?

If only one person were recruited due to this blurring of patriotism and propaganda it would be one person too many, but we should assume the National Guard expects to reap a far larger harvest of young lives from the tacit endorsement of Superman. I'd like to believe that the hero we all know and love wouldn't really stand for this type of deception. This is something we should think about as we consume our popcorn and high-fructose corn syrup while watching the latest blockbuster addition to the DC Comics franchise.

This commentary was originally produced for Collateral News and can be seen in video at Oskar Castro is on The Right to Refuse to Kill committee of War Resisters International and formerly worked for the National AFSC Youth and Militarism Program.


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