We are now fifteen years into the superhero movie’s dominion over U.S. film production, discourse, and consumption. Since the release of Iron Man in 2008, our major film productions have been almost exclusively devoted to stories of heroic individuals using superpowers to defeat grand cosmic threats. It’s no surprise that the essentially fascist notion of a superhero—an individual of unique power acting to quell threats the collective population is too weak and ignorant to defeat on its own, and exempt from all laws and norms in that pursuit by virtue of their unique power—has so taken root in the United States. After all, our atomized culture of individual striving, fearful and violent, produces a society of anxious worshippers of unchecked power, a people who do not look to one another to solve problems or make a society, but to the hoped-for benevolence of a few extraordinarily powerful individuals. It is a world primed for Great Men to save it, and U.S. entertainment conglomerates have been happy to provide us with endless fantasies of Great Men (and the very occasional Great Woman).
The runaway success of Oppenheimer—currently the highest-grossing R-rated film ever released in the United States—both undermines and reaffirms the superhero’s hold on U.S. cinema. Oppenheimer is the first film for adults to touch a chord with the broader public in a generation. In the sea of Marvel’s idiotic, bloated non-cinema, its string of adolescent self-advertisements, Oppenheimer is something else, a real film about history and politics, an attempt to say something direct and pressing about the world we’ve made and continue to make. For those of us who have yearned for the end of the superhero movie’s stranglehold on U.S. film production, Oppenheimer’s success is at least some cause for celebration. The list of promising young film artists who have wasted their talent after being recruited by Marvel is, at this point, too depressing to contemplate. And you can feel the critical establishment’s relief in Oppenheimer’s reception. This film, we’ve been told, is an electrifying journey into the heart of a man’s ambivalent and clotted heart, a masterpiece of haunting and shattering power.
But Oppenheimer is just as much of a superhero film as Iron Man or Thor or Captain America. It is not the story of the creation of nuclear weapons, or of their use, or of the society that made their creation possible. Instead, it is the story of a Great Man, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who made the atomic bomb and, in Christopher Nolan’s mind, the most important man who has ever lived. The film is the story of how he used his genius and what it cost him. In other words, it is a biopic, and it is Nolan’s loyalty to that genre that makes for a film that is uniquely American in its rejection of community and its empty focus on the unresolved feelings of a single man.