Aug 17, 2021
Movies that Predicted Trump: Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009)
This is part of a series of reviews we’re calling Movies that Predicted Trump, where we discuss the films that foretold (in ways both large and small) the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. (Read the other reviews in this series: Idiocracy, Bulworth, Bob Roberts, and A Face in the Crowd!)
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is an animated adaptation of a 2003 comic book story arc which was itself the culmination of a story that had been running in DC since the year 2000, in which Lex Luthor—the supervillain arch-nemesis of their poster hero Superman—is elected President of the United States. The film re-unites Kevin Conroy, Tim Daly, CCH Pounder, and Clancy Brown as the voices of Batman, Superman, Amanda Waller, and Luthor respectively, reprising their iconic roles from the critically acclaimed DC animated universe which ran from 1992 to 2006 across multiple series, starting with Batman: The Animated Series and concluding with Justice League Unlimited, the latter of which also toyed with a Luthor Presidency across its second season (as did the show Smallville and other adaptations), though this film is in its own continuity.
In the original comic arc, Luthor, having been in office for a few years and found time to (amongst other things) frame Bruce Wayne for murder and fend off an alien invasion he secretly knew years in advance was coming, is informed that a dangerously large meteor made of Kryptonite is heading towards Earth. He informs the country (without offering any real evidence) that the meteor is being drawn to Earth by Superman, and offers a billion-dollar reward for his capture. Superman, teamed with Batman, has to fend off both supervillains and superheroes alike while seeking to clear his name and save the world.
Lex, secretly addicted to the fictional super-steroid Venom, eventually snaps and tries to kill Superman himself in his power suit. This and other misdeeds and misfortunes leave him financially ruined, exposed to the world as still being a criminal, and leads to him being impeached, while the meteor is destroyed by Batman, Superman, and a Japanese wunderkind called the Toyman who’s created a giant Batman/Superman hybrid mecha (because of course he did).
The film follows roughly the same plot, with a few minor changes. Lex has recruited a handful of B-list DC superheroes such as Power Girl and Captain Atom to his side who reason that, even though they know he’s a bad guy, he’ll make a good president if only because he’s enough of an arrogant genius that he’ll fix all of America’s problems just to show that he’s smarter than everyone. He’s also not really been up to anything particularly evil in his unknown-but-short time in office, with Power Girl saying, “He’s made things boring again, and boring is good,” as it’s established that Lex has indeed improved the economy, reduced crime, and generally been a capable president.
The film makes Luthor a bit more calculating; Rather than blame the meteor on Superman, he instead publicly offers that the two team up to destroy it, only to try to have Superman murdered by the villain Metallo. He then has Metallo murdered by another villain called Major Force (publicly, one of the heroes serving under Lex) and frames Superman for that, which is what leads to him placing the billion dollar bounty on Superman’s head.
In the comic, Luthor has no plans to deal with meteor, and the whole thing comes off as writer Jeph Loeb’s offering a lame excuse to get Luthor out of office and re-assert the DC status quo. In the film, however, Luthor plans to blow it up with missiles, waving off protests from his expert advisors that it won’t work on the grounds that he’s done the calculations himself, and he’s genuinely shocked and confused when his plan fails as others predicted. Unable to convince himself that he made a mistake, he gets high on his super-steroid and decides that the meteor hitting Earth is an opportunity to wipe out the useless bulk of humanity and rebuild a rational, orderly utopia in his image.
Basically, the film makes cosmetic changes to streamline the plot. Luthor is exposed as a criminal and a madman and his subordinates turn on him, leading him to go on a rampage and actively try to thwart the heroes’ attempts to save the planet just to protect his own grandiose delusions. As even his right-hand woman Amanda Waller tells him earlier in the film, the only reason he doesn’t want superheroes (even the ones working for him, not just Superman) helping him stop the meteor is so that he can get all of the credit for himself. In the end, he ruins his own presidency and nearly destroys the world out of nothing more than ego.
Luthor is a rather unique example in this series of Movies that Predicted Trump, in that he actually is based on Trump…sort of. While the character has been around since 1940 (ironically only a few years before Trump was born), in the 1980s he was re-imagined as a dangerous and corrupt yet wealthy and powerful businessman who explicitly took traits from The Donald, who was gaining celebrity status around the same time as an up-and-coming real estate developer who was courting publicity. Like Trump, Lex likes to build skyscrapers and other impressive buildings and plaster his name on them; just as Trump liked and likes to associate himself with his home city of New York, so did Lex become the uncrowned king of Metropolis, also established as his home in this new canon. And like Trump, Lex liked to diversify and gained prominence and prestige across numerous industries. And just as Trump has teased or been teased as a presidential candidate since as far back as the 1980s, Lex running for President in 2000 was a natural development for the character of Lex himself, if a rather unexpected one; After all, while Trump has long been accused of all sorts of crooked dealings, Lex Luthor was sworn into office as a convicted criminal and known supervillain.
This is one of the big talking points of this intriguing yet under-utilized storyline: would the people of the United States really elect someone like Lex Luthor to the presidency, knowing or at least having a good idea of what he’s really like? It was actually a pretty interesting twist at the time. Up to that point in comics, if the president was evil, it either meant he had a good public image (and was often a strawman version of an actual president; witness Nixon square off against Captain America), or that the setting was a dystopia (such as the Beast and the Smiler in the far-less-mainstream series Transmetropolitan), or they were a supervillain who got the job thanks to brainwashing the planet or because history had been re-written. If the villain ever actually ran for office (such as the Penguin in the movie Batman Returns), it was assured that it would either be a very short-lived victory, or they would simply fail.
Lex was different. While his past crimes are ambiguous in the movie, the comic book Lex had by this point been accused and charged with a range of crimes including arms dealing, murder, attempted murder, and trying to blow up Metropolis to cover up his misdeeds. He only got away with it because he blamed it on a clone (twice), but while he manages to make himself look good through philanthropic efforts, by the time he takes power, it’s treated as something of an open secret that Lex is a bad guy, especially given that publicly adored superheroes like Superman (who of course is also a journalist and writes against Lex in a major newspaper) are known to oppose him.
Compare that to Trump, who was accused of various misdeeds throughout his life but was never thought of as dangerously evil by the public at large until he ran his 2016 campaign and started making bigoted remarks about Muslims and illegal immigrants (Luthor also campaigns against aliens, though it’s obvious he’s talking about Superman), and further has never actually been charged with any serious crimes, though he’s been sued and investigated.
One reason characters like Lex Luthor manage to be engaging is that they present an interesting moral dilemma: what happens when the villain is the one offering to save the world, and would people actually go along with them? In the comics, it’s firmly established that Lex (along with other villains like Marvel’s Doctor Doom, or to a lesser extent the likes of Kira in the Japanese manga Death Note) does in fact have it in him to make the world a better place. The world can be (and in some parallel worlds, actually is) a better place under the rule of such people, who can or have created genuine utopias free of crime, poverty, disease, and war, and all at the cost of the population deciding that living life under a bona fide narcissistic sociopath with delusions of grandeur is perfectly acceptable if they’re good at the job.
One thing to be said about the 2016 presidential campaign is that many Americans seem to have a very rose-tinted view of their own history, at least when it comes to their presidents: specifically, the idea that Trump doesn’t have the temperament to be president is frankly laughable, given the crazed and corrupt character of many of his predecessors. In the movie, Captain Atom justifies working for Luthor on the grounds that, while Luthor may be a “sick man”, there have been womanizers, drunks, and crooks who sat in the Oval Office and still managed to at least get the job done, name-checking Nixon and Lyndon Johnson.
The other argument, of course, is the old historical fallacy: Progress. That stuff happened in the past, but people are supposed to know better now!, an argument that just shows that most people don’t know (or know, but don’t care) how these guys get into power. While the comic presidency ran from 2000-2003, the movie was made in 2008, during the Great Recession, and manages to predict Trump with uncanny accuracy as a result: Luthor is elected because an economic catastrophe leaves millions unemployed, which results in mass protests amidst talk of austerity measures, and a growing dislike of the establishment. Luthor pitches himself as an outsider candidate (he runs third-party; in the comics, he actually establishes his own party) and a “tough man” who can “get the job done”, while liberal figures in the media mock him and his supporters. Specifically, a Jon Stewart expy who thinks that people who support Lex have a preference for “getting f*cked in the a** with a red hot poker”. While Trump was elected after the Great Recession was over, he still benefited from its net effects, as many people are still unemployed as a result of it, and there’s still resentment against anyone associated with the political establishment that both Trump and Luthor profited from.
Or maybe people think that they know this already, so everyone else should know it too, so anyone who would vote for someone like a Trump or a Luthor must be ignorant and stupid, and thus deserving of the disaster that the president brings down upon them while they hide in their bunker nursing delusional hopes that a more “rational” and “orderly” world will emerge from the ashes and believing that they’re seeing things for how they “really” are… much like Luthor thinks himself.
Both Trump and Luthor got elected at least in part by the belief that they were smarter and more capable than any other candidate, but while Trump may be little more than a glorified conman who’s not as smart as his supporters think he is (though perhaps not as dumb as his opponents think he is, or like to think he is), Lex is genuinely a brilliant genius and proves himself capable of running the country more than efficiently, despite the fact that everyone knows what kind of person he really is. (Interestingly, Captain Atom is shown to technically be right; Luthor wasn’t actually up to anything nefarious, and really was improving the country for his own selfish ambition, at least until Armageddon was upon them.) In the case of Luthor, this comes back to bite him when he thinks he can avert a catastrophe and profit from it, relying solely on his belief that he’s right and that everyone who disagrees with him is wrong. But again, this is portrayed as a character deficiency that others are aware of and are willing to gamble with, especially if any inspiring alternative is not available.
In other words, like Lex, Trump got elected because people believed that he could get the job done. Unlike Lex, Trump is not a super-genius, so whether he’ll “Make America Great Again” or destroy the whole world due to an egotistical temper tantrum is anybody’s guess, though what we’ll get is probably somewhere in between. Lex, unlike Trump, is generally portrayed as a futurist who believes that science and technology and intelligence will lead us all into a better tomorrow, and he serves as a cautionary tale against marrying those beliefs to arrogance or elitism. Trump is a populist demagogue with specific, narrow, and reactionary agendas rather than ideological vision, who’s more about fixing problems than presenting truly radical alternatives, which makes him an unpleasant but far from uncommon problem in American history, and still not quite the level of a diabolical supervillain.