There's a new type of superhero doing the rounds. They don't wear capes; they're less easy to spot, not often being embroiled in CGI scenes of downtown destruction. The latest sighting comes in the guise of an Egypt-born Frenchman with an immaculate blonde feather-cut, obsessive compulsive disorder and propensity for over-zealous disco-dancing. He goes by the name of Claude François: the subject of new biopic Cloclo, released this week in the UK. Come to think of it, François – a titan of 70s Gallic kitsch – wouldn't look out of place in a cape, and at the centre of director Florent-Emilio Siri's epic treatment, he is the embodiment of the new breed: the cultural superhero.
Cloclo follows in the path of The Iron Lady or J Edgar; The Lady, or Fetih 1453; or maybe even Nowhere Boy: taking a national icon and dolling them up in the garb and language of the global mainstream. Siri's film will be a minor footnote in the genre – François (played by the excellent Jérémie Renier) is pretty much a French concern, and Cloclo's UK release is surely for the benefit of his 400,000 countrymen here – but its basic approach is in step.
They share something that's been creeping into biopics more and more: a superhero-esque origins narrative that dwells on overcoming inner demons and unlocking your true potential. Instead of Batman's murdered parents, François has his tyrannical colonial-administrator father to get over; instead of Spider-Man revealing his identity to Mary Jane, it's Claudey-boy thrashing out the first bars of Comme d'Habitude, the song that, in the hands of his surrogate dad Sinatra became My Way and his one serious contribution to posterity.
This creed of self-actualisation is the bricks and mortar of TV series and advertising in the 21st century, so it comes as no great shock biopics have caught on as well. It's especially important for overseas sales: the "personal journey" structure gives a story universal traction. You get to ride along with the cultural superhero even if you don't share the culture. Any local complications and ambiguities are reduced to mere obstacles on the path, details in the dirt. Which is bearable if your crimes were mostly against music and a string of abandoned wives, as with François, but it becomes a stronger sticking point with more contentious figures whose lives affected millions.
What are we supposed to make of The Iron Lady's dismissal of those pesky trade unions to a few news-footage cutaways in angsty montages of Maggie working late again? Or how the whole clash of world-historical civilisations becomes another "issue" to be worked through in the personal-growth arcs of Mehmet II, in Fetih 1453, or Genghis Khan in Mongol, respectively? J Edgar comes closer to getting things the right way round, positing a woolly psychological theory about the link between Hoover's creation of the FBI state apparatus and his stifling relationship with his mother. But it's a tricky balance to strike: try too hard to accommodate the cultural superhero, and suddenly the American obsession with communism is rooted in one man's inability to chat up Naomi Watts. The context dissolves, and we're lost in subjectivity.
Struggles over private identity can function allegorically in the superhero universe, where realism doesn't ruthlessly exert its gravity. There's something about youth, virility and senescence in Spider-Man's ejaculatory webs v Norman Osborn's super-serum obsession. But ported over to the culture-hero universe, that kind of archetypal setup is a more uneasy fit when real-world concerns are more persistent. The Iron Lady's personal Kryptonite is the dementia that makes her mortal; but it's not much more than a clever framing device in Phyllida Lloyd's film, rather than an entry point to a full-bore examination of the relationship between vulnerability and power.
Biopics have always laboured with plotlines that over-simplify in the name of joining the dots between famous events. But I never felt they neglected their biographical duty – critical examination – as much as the new breed of cultural superhero films do today in their rush to sell their cases to audiences reared on self-empowerment. At absolute worst, they're contextually weak, depoliticised and disingenuously neutral, as if their subjects never offended or crossed swords with anyone; chalk it all off at the altar of "personal development".
It's probably too much to expect the mainstream biopic – especially if it needs to sell internationally – to be radically creative in the vein of Todd Haynes's I'm Not There or Steve McQueen's Hunger, but the personal journey approach risks missing basic opportunities to be more insightful, or handle jarring perspectives.
But thorns like that only get in the way of the mantras of the age. It's lucky someone as smart as Aaron Sorkin is writing Sony's forthcoming biopic of Steve Jobs; otherwise I'd say he was ripe for the next cultural-superhero canonisation.
• Cloclo is out on Friday 22 June.
• Next week's After Hollywood will look at indigenous peoples on film. Meanwhile, what global box-office stories would you like to see in covered in the column? Let us know in the comments below.
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