Hollywood has an uncanny way of capturing the Zeitgeist: in a sense, it has to in order to leverage its product for maximum global profit. Its latest commercial bid is to repackage comic-book superheroes as posthuman avatars, thus reflecting our emerging awareness that we share our identities (physical/psychic) with both non-human animals and cyborgs.
The prototypical superhero, Superman, has a long and tangled cultural history, of course, having roots in the “superman” of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw this figure as embodying the complete and absolute freedom necessary for undoing the restrictive ties of society. On the one hand, superheroes allow us to imagine new worlds where freedom is tested—on the other, they play into masculine fantasies of power and dominance.
The recent problems with the diversity of comic-book superhero movies have been well-documented, as has their cookie-cutter scripts. If we, however, venture off the beaten path of Hollywood history, far more interesting and provocative films that have used comic-book superhero motifs call to us. Join me as we go bravely forward into the past.
Written and directed by William Klein, Mr. Freedom (1969) plays like a history lesson beamed in from an alternate universe. From the turn of the 20th century, U.S. foreign policy has focused not just on territorial control, but the dominance of global markets, and, too, the selling of this policy to an overseas audience. During the Cold War, Vietnam was regarded as one of many “spheres of influence” for the exercise of American power. It was a geopolitical competition against the Soviet Union and China, for the recruitment, with varying degrees of coercion, of allies. And with high stakes, as the threat of thermonuclear annihilation hung ever heavily in the air.
What is critical to keep in mind is it rarely looked this way at the time thanks to a sophisticated propaganda campaign that incorporated America’s interests into a larger campaign for freedom for the rest of the world. The only time the mask slipped was during the moments when racial unrest escalated into full-scale riots in U.S. cities that gave other countries an opportunity to take a critical view of this campaign.
This is the perspective that Mr. Freedom dramatizes. The film satirically dismantles every aspect of the American propaganda machine. Its creative, low-budget scenes range comically from deadpan to surreal, borrowing the visual look and energy of pop-art, which foregrounds comic-book imagery, pictures of American flags, and the bright package designs of consumer goods.
The film opens with nighttime footage of rioting and looting. Cut to a sheriff who enters a deserted office. He takes a swig from a can of malt liquor and walks to a locker where a superhero costume is stored. Putting it on, the sheriff changes into Mr. Freedom, a global policeman.
With a macho attitude that makes Dirty Harry look like a human rights activist, he then breaks into an apartment where a black family is celebrating their haul of goods collected during the night of the riot. After reading them the riot act, Mr. Freedom appears to shoot them, although the scene ends before we can find out what really happened.
This trafficking in racial stereotypes and blasé dismissal of right-wing vigilantism may make some viewers uncomfortable, but reflects the film’s commitment to exposing the ugly logic that legitimates feelings of superiority. Such is the case when Mr. Freedom gets his next assignment, to travel to France to persuade its citizens to join the fight against communism. His commanding officer, Dr. Freedom (played with a steely-eyed intensity by Donald Pleasance) blatantly reveals the condescension behind the idea that “you’re either with us or against us” in a speech that, hearing it today, has lost none of its bile:
“Let me tell you about the French. They are 50 million mixed-up, sniveling crybabies who haven’t stood on their two feet since Napoleon, and that wasn’t yesterday. And Napoleon wasn’t even French.”
Klein takes advantage of the French national colors being the same as America’s to overlay a bold red, white, and blue color scheme on his subversive rewriting of Dr. Strangelove. Mr. Freedom combats his arch-nemesis, Red Chinaman, and deals with double agents, while the theme song with its militaristic drumbeat, blaring horns, and chorus, “F-R-double E-D, D-O-M spells Freedom,” plays constantly in the background. That the song misspells freedom suggests the anti-intellectualism of nationalistic fervor.
Like Dr. Strangelove, Mr. Freedom injects a large dose of comic paranoia into its parade of cartoon-like characters. As the mission falters, our hero begins to doubt if America is liked as much as he thinks it is, only to have this thought revealed to be the product of enemy brainwashing. It turns out, in a brilliant gag, that the enemy is broadcasting this message through an antenna for a radio transmitter, located in one of Mr. Freedom’s dental fillings. We watch as a dentist yanks the filling and replaces it.
Yet Mr. Freedom does not take itself quite as seriously as Kubrick’s film. The fight scenes are endearingly clumsy, the plot is packed with sex and violence (a la James Bond), and half-developed sub-plots, such as the cryogenic preservation of a French agent, are scattered among the trail of destruction our hero leaves behind in his wake. All this, and an amusing appearance by the French pop superstar, Serge Gainsbourg.
I can see some viewers arguing that this all doesn’t add up to very much, given the heavy-handed depiction of America as a reckless and lawless nation. But I don’t think the film expresses a hatred of America, as much as it refuses to look away from the rather extreme direction the nation was heading in during the Cold War. And Mr. Freedom contains some innovative stylistic touches, such as a montage that merges images of violence (a newspaper photo of a bloodied body) into a series of magazine ads for consumer products—a visual sequence that anticipates the psychic overload of the brainwashing scene in the mid-70s assassination conspiracy film, The Parallax View.
The ending also packs a punch, invoking the Vietnam rhetoric of destroying the village to save it and thermonuclear brinkmanship. As a last resort, Mr. Freedom throws a bomb he calls “the big one.” After a massive explosion, he is lying in a rubble-strewn wasteland, bloodied, one of his arms hanging by a thread. He is informed by Dr. Freedom that the bomb was actually “a medium one” and that the fight for freedom must continue, at any cost. The camera tracks over the scene of destruction, which turns out to be much smaller than we initially expected, across a highway, and then focuses on the raised fists of marchers at a political rally. Cut to credits, accompanied by the theme music.
If the ending of Dr. Strangelove suggested going underground as a means of surviving thermonuclear war, the closing of Mr. Freedom is a political call to action. The film intends to agitate and educate its audience—now, it is time to organize.
What Mr. Freedom holds for the potential of comic-book superhero films is the creation of imagined universes that are as morally complex as our own, where winners and losers are not determined according to a doctrine of might makes right. Furthermore, we see the possibility for shedding light on how these universes are made, specifically out of whose views of the world, which allows for the influence of ideologies such as American exceptionalism to not be critically overlooked.