We’re moving away from our usual politics and rhetoric today and lightening the mood. It’s been a tough few months for the nation, and this week has been no different, so we wanted to take a break and talk about something a little bit more light-hearted, but still kind of interesting, and maybe a little important. So here is your nerd-alert before we go any farther. Because we’re going to get pretty geeky today. We’re going to look at pop culture today and have a little fun. This week I want to talk about superheroes.
And I’m not using that term poetically or politically, though we’ll get to that at some point. I don’t mean like certain people have acted heroically throughout the last year. I mean action figure, blockbuster, comic book superheroes.
And I say this is light-hearted, but at the same time, is it? Superheroes are escapist, to be sure, but is there more to them? Do they say something about us as individuals? About our cultural moment? Or, more perniciously, are they statist or military propaganda? What messages do these stories tells us? As with all messages, they are worth thinking about.
When I was little, I wasn’t hugely into superheroes. But I didn’t dislike them either. Wonder Woman was my favorite, of course. I used the watch the show with Linda Carter over at my grandparents’ house. And I watched The Incredible Hulk – the one where they changed his name from Bruce Banner to David Banner. They did that because they thought “Bruce” might sound a bit too gay, so you can go back and watch that show with that in mind and see any number of issues. I watched the Spiderman cartoon. And I regularly watched this cartoon that had Spiderman, Firestar, and Ice Man. I think it was called Spiderman and His Amazing Friends. If you ever watched that shoot me a tweet or a message because sometimes, I think I am the only one who ever saw this thing. When you put it all together it sounds like I really WAS into superheroes, but I never asked for action figure toys or played superheroes (unless you count He-man). Some of that may have been because of the strictly gendered nature of my household growing up. I wasn’t allowed to play with boys’ toys so maybe I thought superhero stuff was off limits. I don’t know. But none of this was ever an obsession. It was just part of my general media in-take.
What was missing from this mix was Batman and Superman. I knew they existed when I was really little, and I knew their general abilities and what they were about, but they weren’t part of my experience until a little later. I didn’t get to know them until I got a little older.
But I grew up on Batman movies. Yes, there were Superman movies along the way, but people my age had Michael Keaton as our first Batman and have never looked back. We have matured on a steady diet of the Caped Crusader from the time we were children to our middle-aged years. And Batman has gone through a variety of manifestations. Each one grittier than the last. Current Batmans would be unrecognizable to the campy Adam West version of the 1960s. And like many people I loved it. Batman was my favorite because he was dark and flawed. I loved Batman because he was gritty and gave me a complex narrative about a questionable hero that gave me lots of questions to think about. Compared to Superman’s flawless persona Batman seemed infinitely more interesting. Batman gave me something to think about.
But as I got even older, and I came to understand the world better, I started to question my loyalty to Batman. Who is Batman? What does he do? What are his goals?
When looked at through adult eyes Batman’s grittiness comes across as immaturity at best, cruelty, or narcissism at worst. Bruce Wayne is a multi-billionaire who spends a good chunk of his fortune on a revenge plot for his parents. His parents had spent their fortune investing in Gotham – revitalizing the city and addressing the systemic problems that plagued their community. Wayne could make way more of an impact in Gotham following in his parents’ footsteps and using the bulk of his considerable fortune investing in education, infrastructure, programs to help the homeless, and other programs to address systemic problems, but instead he spends his time and energy beating up the poor and the mentally unstable in the streets of Gotham at night. All so he can get revenge. Bruce Wayne doesn’t need the Batmobile. He needs therapy. This “darkness” I found so appealing in my younger years is actually unhealthy instability. And his politics are so questionable. He chooses to fight one person at a time when he has the ability to change the system.
And consider the Rogues Gallery for a moment. He would have a much easier time defeating some of these villains as Bruce Wayne than he would as Batman. Mr. Freeze is a scientist who becomes a jewel thief because he is looking for the perfect diamond to run his machine that is keeping his sick wife alive. Mr. Freeze is literally doing everything he does for the sake of his ill wife. Bruce Wayne could have avoided a lot of trouble if he had just funded some research. Poison Ivy is basically an eco-terrorist. She’s out there trying to save the planet. If Wayne had funded some green initiatives and done his job as a corporate citizen and made Wayne Enterprises a carbon neutral organization, we might could have avoided a lot of this mess.
But Batman has to make it all about him and his issues. He’s not interested in doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He’s interested in taking out his issues on convenient targets in the most violent way possible. I just don’t think I can get behind Batman, anymore.
So what about Superman? Is he as boring as I always thought? Can somebody flawless and basically invincible even be interesting?
Here’s the thing about Superman – there have been recent Superman movies, and they have not done well. Where Superman flourishes (outside of comic books) is TV. There have been a number of successful Superman television shows, and there is even a new one on now that shows promise, as well. What’s the difference? Why is Superman so much more successful on the small screen than the silver one?
I think it’s because Superman requires a narrative arc. Television shows can take the time to explore Superman’s humanity – which is what makes him interesting. A movie about this invincible god-like creature is kind of boring. We can’t identify with perfection. And making Superman dark just doesn’t make sense. But exploring him as a person has consistently been a successful venture. Because we want to know what makes Superman tick. We want to know how he is like us.
Personally, I’m waiting for the 21st century Superman story that shows just how political a character he really is. I mean, he’s an undocumented immigrant, he’s a journalist, so talk about being both important, but also at the crosshairs of the cultural wars, and he’s got a keen understanding of the rural/urban divide. Where is THAT story? They gave us hints of it a few years ago when Superman renounced his American citizenship because he could no longer just fight for truth, justice, and the American way, because he is a citizen of the world. Superman is not just an American wash of a strongman. But the movies try to play him that way, and that, quite frankly, is boring.
But we live in a world that is rife with superheroes. It’s not just divided between Batman and Superman. The MCU has basically taken over the entertainment world, it seems, so we have to give them some time. And Wonder Woman has made a blessed resurgence, as well. So let’s take a few minutes to talk about some of these other figures and who they are and how they operate.
First, let’s talk about Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is the creation of William Moulton Marsten, and she was his way of voicing his belief that women were superior to men and should be in charge. He also had weird ideas about bondage and punishment and that shows up A LOT in Wonder Woman comics. None of this is to say that Wonder Woman isn’t some kind of idealized feminine figure. She is. Marsten was just a little weird.
One way Wonder Woman is superior to both Batman and Superman is she has fought way more Nazis than either of them. Superman didn’t engage with Nazis because writers thought it would be belittling to see him beating up on Axis powers while soldiers were actually struggling and doing real fighting. Batman stayed behind in Gotham and occasionally fought spies or saboteurs. But Wonder Woman fought actual gd Nazis. And that is worth something.
There is also the obvious – Wonder Woman is a female superhero is a universe dominated by males. And she is just as strong, brave, powerful, and fierce. But at the same time she remains a force for good – she’s a pacifist at heart and believes in diplomacy. She is vegetarian. She’s an environmentalist. Her politics are good. Wonder Woman is working to make the world a better place in every way – by punching Nazis if necessary, but also by addressing systems of power. Diana Prince is pretty great, too. Wonder Woman went through some tough times. There was a period when she was relegated to just being the secretary of the Justice League because, you know, sexism. But she has always come back, better, and stronger than ever. When Gloria Steinem put Wonder Woman on the cover of Ms. Magazine she did so not just because Wonder Woman was kind of like a lady-Superman, which is cool, too, but because Wonder Woman represents a whole other level of power and bravery: one that takes on systems of corruption and oppression and is every bit the hero that her male counterparts are, but with the added burden of fighting misogyny. Wonder Woman understands injustice in ways that Batman and Superman never will. And she fights like she does, too.
But Wonder Woman isn’t the only hero to make a habit of taking out Nazis. Captain America was pretty much created to fight fascism. Mike Milford writes that Captain America’s whole raison de etre was to help convince Americans to join the war effort. The cover of the first Captain America comic showed Cap brazenly punching Hitler in the jaw. The Red Skull, Captain America’s enemy, was clearly meant to be a Nazi. This is important to understand in the current clime as the modern Red Skull is blatantly based off of Jordan Peterson, and Peterson is not amused. But, as critics and fans of comics alike have noted, if what you’re saying could easily be construed as Nazi propaganda, maybe don’t be mad that Nazis have co-opted you, and maybe re-consider what you are saying.
It’s easy to think of Captain America as just another boy scoutish – type Superman that is impossible to identify with. His ideal physique and impeccable character could make him difficult for us to get behind. After all, Cap at one point can pick up Thor’s hammer, and only those who are “worthy” can wield Mjolnir. Picking up Thor’s hammer isn’t a matter of strength; it is a matter of character. And if Captain America is so great, how can we understand him?
There’s also the ultra-nationalism that comes with Captain America that can make a lot of people uncomfortable and doesn’t play as well in 2021 as it maybe did in the 1940s. Only the most naïve of us would be completely comfortable with the idea of a genetically altered super soldier, and we live in a much more reflective time. Many Americans are concerned with coming to terms with our flaws and making America better, not just assuming America is the best of the best. A superhero draped in a flag, literally named after America, seems nationalistic and in kind of poor taste given the state of the nation right now.
But Marvel Comics has always been a bit smarter than that. Marvel has always known that one-dimensional characters like that will never last. And one of the ways to avoid one-dimensional characters is to give them context. For example, during the tension of the post-911 world there was a story arc in the Marvel Comics world called Civil War. This showed up in the movies, but in a really diminished way.
In Civil War the U.S. government proposed a Superhero Registration Act which would require anyone with powers to come under official regulation. Captain America opposed this legislation, probably because he had seen in his own life what happens when you require people to register themselves and put people on lists. He did, after all, start his life as a Nazi fighter. Iron Man supported the legislation. Iron Man, and those who supported the legislation became increasingly authoritarian throughout the story arc. The entire series revolves around the theme of freedom vs. security, which was playing out in real-time in the United States as we dealt with increased surveillance from our own government for the supposed safety of the populous. In the aftermath of the controversy and the chaos Captain American is assassinated.
By making Captain America representative of not just America, but of America’s problems and our issues, Cap becomes a character we can appreciate. He’s not just nationalism. He’s part of the struggle. And the struggle isn’t always clear. Captain America is emblematic not of America, but of an America we wish we had, and that means things are hard. That means tough decisions have to be made. Captain America has to deal with difficult issues, and the newest Marvel shows aren’t shying away from those big societal problems because they are a big part of these characters.
And now I can’t let this go without mentioning Spiderman. Millennials have grown up on Spiderman the way I grew up on Batman. Spiderman is different than these other heroes, though. Spiderman doesn’t fight Nazis. Spiderman’s alter-ego isn’t an important person in society. Spiderman is a kid. A smart kid. A resourceful kid. But Spiderman is the only one of those that comes even remotely close to living a “normal” life. He struggles with money. He is awkward, and not because he is acting. He just wants to impress the girl. Spiderman doesn’t fight for the American way. He does his thing because he’s a good dude and his Uncle Ben taught him that if you have the ability to help, you should. Unlike Batman, he’s not out for revenge. He’s not fighting for political reasons like Captain America. He’s just trying to do the right thing because he was taught that that’s the right thing to do. And that’s a motivation that is pretty easy to get behind.
So what is the point of all of this? Why did I spend all of this time talking about superheroes and their motivations and what they’re about? There’s a two-fold answer, here, and it has to do with whether you think superheroes are worth your time or not.
Let’s say you like superheroes. Let’s say you like the comics or the movies or the TV shows – something about these stories speaks to you. I want to know what and why. Which characters do you like? I think your choices say something about what you appreciate and what you think about the world.
For example, I hate Iron Man. I know that is blasphemy to some people, but I think Iron Man is just the worst. But his superpowers are basically venture capitalism and toxic masculinity, which are pretty much my least favorite things in the world. He’s a weapons dealer and his role in Civil War is absolutely reprehensible. Iron Man represents so much of what I can’t stand, and no amount of RDJ’s charm can make up for the fact that he’s just a wretched character. That says something about me. That says something about what I value.
I’ve already told you my feelings about Batman. But if you ask me about Green Arrow, totally different story! The Green Arrow is a billionaire playboy, like Bruce Wayne, who spends his nights fighting crime in the streets of his home of Star City, but Green Arrow is different than other characters because in current comic book narratives he is a social justice warrior. He is more concerned with the plight of the poor and the marginalized than any other character in the superhero universe and I can get behind that.
And I think if I tell you these things – which heroes I like (or don’t) and why – I’m telling you something about myself. Because ultimately these are just archetypes. And we are simply finding parts of ourselves in them to like or dislike so we can act out morality plays in technicolor.
But what if you don’t like them at all? I definitely know people who don’t like superhero stories, and that’s worth talking about in and of itself. Some people think they are just boring, and that’s okay. Maybe you just don’t identify with them in any way. That’s fine. But for some people it’s bigger than that. I talk about superheroes in my propaganda and persuasion class and there is a reason for that. There are ideologies at play here. And maybe that’s a problem for you.
These are nationalistic, gendered stories. If you don’t like a lot of “yay, America” and machismo thrown in your face then maybe these characters aren’t for you. Of course, maybe television and movies in general aren’t, either, but that’s a whole other story.
But one of the biggest themes of these stories, especially in the movies, is militarism. These are stories of giant war machines. And often in conjunction with the U.S. government. If you’re worried about a martial or police state superhero stories might set off your alarm bells, regardless of what the characters do in the stories themselves. Because ultimately these are stories of battle and war. And they are glorified. In the comics it might not always be that bad – you may have a single hero vs. another single hero, fighting until one succumbs. But the movies, which is where most people are getting their diet of superhero stories, are stories of warfare.
In many of these stories the government is closely connected to the narrative. Sometimes for good or sometimes for ill, but these are often stories of government actors and military action. Superman and Supergirl work closely with the army. Batman works with the police. We all know about S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s not a far stretch to say that many of these stories could be construed as straight up government propaganda.
So I’m curious where you fall on this spectrum. Shoot me a tweet or an email and let me know your thoughts. Who are your favorite superheroes, or do you think these narratives are propagandistic and dangerous? Why do you like or dislike your choices?
And I would be remiss if I didn’t get serious for a minute and acknowledge that superheroes are fictional. We watch superheroes for a bit of escapism, but there are plenty of heroes in the world that deserve our recognition. Heroes like Darnella Frazier. Heroes like the teachers who are back in the classrooms right now with rooms full of students. Heroes like the doctors and nurses who have gotten us through the last year.
So what is a superhero? Escapism? Valuable insight into a person or culture? Dangerous propaganda? Some combination of all three? If you know the answer, you’ll have to let me know.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.