The Rebirth of A Nation: America in the 1980s

After the dismal decade of the 1970s, Americans of the 1980s were looking to raise their once great nation from the ashes. With Ronald Reagan at the helm, the United States began to rebuild after the economically and politically depressing 1970s. Frank Miller’s classic comic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns tells the story of Batman, a superhero that has taken the past decade off duty, reemerging into the spotlight that only the controversial protector of Gotham City can fill. Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street centers around a young, up-and-coming stockbroker named Bud Fox who is willing to do anything to get to the top, even if his actions go outside the realm of legal. These works of the 1980s show viewers the shift in American attitude from an era steeped in malaise to the present that is seeing the light for the first time in a decade.

Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns features the return of Batman to crime fighting in fictional Gotham City after a ten-year hiatus. Based on this fact, Batman has not seen action in the field since the 1960s, a decade characterized by peace and liberalism. As the 1970s was a dreary period in American history, it was also a bleak time in the history of Gotham City, as it was a phase without the protective presence of their hometown hero Batman. As this set of comics was released in 1986, it signifies America climbing from the depths of the 1970s with the reawakening of Batman. By this time, President Reagan had promoted supply-side economics, now referred to as “Reaganomics,” and the American economy had taken a turn for the better in juxtaposition to the decade prior to Reagan’s first term of his presidency.

In the first Book of the set of four, The Dark Knight Returns, Batman refers to his return to crime fighting as a “baptism,” in reference to the fact that he has been “born again.”[1] This rebirth of Gotham City’s chief protector is directly parallel to the revival of the United States and American spirit after the desolate 1970s. Throughout the work, much attention is drawn to the fact that the young people do not believe in Batman, choosing to believe that he is simply a myth. This ignorance of Gotham City’s youth shows that they cannot believe in times of peace and overall good fortune because they have not experienced it during their lifetime. However, it is not only among the young that skepticism rises due to Batman’s reappearance, it is among the adult population as well. Adults who had seen prosperity in Batman’s hay day, the 1950s and 1960s, were distrustful of their former idol’s homecoming. This idea is analogous with the American attitude of the 1980s. While many Americans were pleased that the United States had turned itself around, many were uneasy and thought that it may be too good to be true. At the end of the novel, Batman fakes his own death, allowing him to lead a different life and create an army to “bring sense to the world.”[2] While this is a criticism of Batman’s current era, it also shows his leadership in his future attempt to bring Gotham City out of the dark of the 1970s.

Released in 1987, Oliver Stone’s critically acclaimed film Wall Street tells the story of Bud Fox, a young stockbroker hell-bent on being successful and making his father proud. Raised in a working class home, Fox was instilled from a young age with strong moral values that are bent, but not completely broken, by the end of the film. Gordon Gekko, Fox’s boss and role model, is a very wealthy businessman who will do anything to come out on top. He teaches Fox his sneaky ways of success, namely inside trading, and soon Fox begins to lose the morals his father infused in him. In the context of the 1980s, this movie shows the willingness of people to do whatever it takes to forget the financially depressed 1970s. As Fox’s father was just an average man working an average job at an airline, Bud felt the responsibility to make his father proud by becoming monetarily successful, and now that it was possible, he would engage in illegal activities to do so. According to film critic Roger Ebert, Stone hits the nail of the head of an “atmosphere of financial competitiveness so ferocious that ethics are simply irrelevant.”[3] As the 1970s were full of gloom and comparatively the 1980s were a time of success, it is no wonder that people such as Bud Fox left their moral standards behind and engaged in illegal activities to fulfill their once unimaginable desires.

In comparison to the 1970s, the 1980s were a time of growth and prosperity. After leaving a period of cynicism and depression, the people of the United States were more than willing to leave their clouded past behind and move on to a better and brighter future. However this would take time, and though the 1980s were less muddled than the 1970s, they served as a transition period. For people like Bud Fox of Wall Street who threw their morals to the wind, the 1980s signify a period of greed due to economic opportunities previously unknown to America’s young professional class. Though morality may have been scant, overall the 1980s served as a period of economic growth. In Batman: Return of the Dark Night, Batman himself serves as the icon of this shift. He symbolizes the return of a once great America to its past glory. Though in the end Gotham City has not quite reached its previous magnificence, it is clear that a shift has occurred with the return of Batman and the future looks brighter than its bleak recent past. The 1980s in America were not a golden age, however they were an age of progress and a step in the right direction to a promising future.

[1] Frank Miller, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (New York: DC Comics, 1986), 34.

[2] Ibid., 199.

[3] “Wall Street,” Dec. 11, 1987, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/wall-street-1987

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