I Want Superheroes to Destroy The World
Fulano de Tal
As a young boy I dreamt of being a superhero. If it wasn’t for an extremely realistic understanding of my lack of martial arts skills, I might have grown up to be like Phoenix Jones and other real-life superheroes. I didn’t yet realize that my childhood dream was molding me into the perfect capitalist subject. I swallowed whole the morals served to me in superhero movies, cartoons, and comic books: superheroes defended society from villains who were constantly attempting to destroy it. The message was the same regardless of the particulars of the universe: society was a good thing worth preserving.
It wasn’t until late in high school when the Communist Manifesto was assigned course reading that cracks in that moral foundation began to form. At the same time, I was growing bored with the comics of my youth–their plotlines began to seem too simplistic and lacking in nuance. I stumbled across Japanese anime like Akira, Ninja Scroll, Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop, and Berserk that were filled with protagonists who weren’t always on their best behavior and didn’t always know what was right. These animes made X-Men, Spider-man, Batman and all the rest less palatable. Later, in college, when I started to consume more sophisticated western superhero media, such as Watchmen by Alan Moore, the cracks widened further, but the moral foundation still remained. Superheroes could be complicated and corrupt, but preserving society still had to be superior to any unmentionable alternative. It wasn’t until I began reading anarchist literature that the western capitalist moral underpinning everything produced in this society became unavoidably clear. Superhero media was no longer good clean fun. It was a mode of indoctrination. What these heros were constantly defending was actually, as bell hooks aptly puts it, imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.
From Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) to the last Avengers movie, superhero films rehash the same basic story – Good vs. Evil. At its most basic, this type of story deals with a villain who is attempting to destroy civilization in some way and the hero attempting to stop the villain. The hero usually has a speech or there are cut scenes that refer to all the innocent civilians who will be killed if the villain is allowed to carry out his plan unimpeded. These speeches or scenes rarely if ever contain references to society’s marginalized (incarcerated, poor, homeless, gender nonconforming, etc.). The hero saves the day, the evil plan is stopped, and life is allowed to carry on. This basic formula is carried out more or less throughout the superhero and the wider action film genre. The audience is led by the film to feel the day is saved because the hero is victorious, and the villain is defeated and as normality is restored. For example, half the population is returned when Thanos is defeated at the end of Endgame. The underlying message of the films is normality/the status quo is good. Disruption of this system is evil and should be stopped.
And what of the villains in these movies? They do not exist in a vacuum. They are as much a product of their society as the superhero. Some stories give us reasons for the anger that the villains feel, others leave this a mystery. An example of a villain with a background that explains his reasoning is Magneto from the X-Men. Magneto is a German-Jew who survived the Holocaust and later was hated for his mutant powers. Because of these experiences he develops a hatred for non-mutants. In The Dark Knight the Joker’s background is a complete mystery. There are no flashbacks. The only aspect of his background that is discussed are the scars on his face. The Joker is an unreliable narrator, as he gives two different reasons – his father cutting his face in one instance and he cut his own face in the other. In both cases we have individuals with what seems like a combination of personality traits and circumstances pushing them in antisocial directions.
Hero or villain
The narrative tells us those who preserve the current condition are heroes and should be honored. Whatever extrajudicial actions these heroes take should be tolerated. For example, in The Dark Knight (2008), Batman uses surveillance technology to spy on the entire city of Gotham to find the Joker. What makes characters, such as the Batman, heroes is their ability to maintain the status quo. They are heroes within the current system and of the current system. Were people to decide to radically change society and the hero to decide to continue to fight to preserve the system abandoned by the people the hero would no longer be a hero. The hero would be a villain. He would be a tyrant forcing people back into a system they decided no longer worked for them.
Why would fighting to preserve the current society make heroes villains? To this question I would reply, what sort of society are heroes working to preserve? It’s usually the current neoliberal capitalist society. A society with massive issues that heroes claim to oppose. Injustice, inequality, violence, corruption, etc. The mere act of preserving a system, even the best of systems, is a violence on its underclass. Preservation not only helps those in power remain in power, but it acts to crystalize that power. Crystalized power only grows with time. It does not stagnate. Here we find one of the realities hidden by a system that seeks to preserve itself. It purports to be the same system throughout time, but this is a lie. There are constant shifts in power. Given enough time power will begin to concentrate with a few.
What we see is either heroes who knowingly participate in propping up such a system, helping to maintain the issues they claim to stand against and aiding those in power to crystalize their power or heroes who have so completely bought into the ideology of the system that they are completely unaware of the injustices baked into it. In other words, the hero is a subject whose imagination is limited by the system just like the rest of us. This of course is true of most of the storytellers behind the superhero narratives.
Stability in the time of the plague
We are forced to see that our identities are intimately intertwined with the current system. The system is us and we are the system. It uses our imagination to feed our imagination. Do we really desire the state as it is? Has it shaped us to desire the “stability” it offers?
The stability the system offers is one that comes with not-so-hidden costs. We need look no further than our pathological desire for a return of the system to its former glory (read as fictitious) than the current pandemic. While on social media or in conversations with friends and family you might notice them say something like, “I can’t wait for things to go back to normal” or “When will things go back to normal?”. There’s obvious hopefulness for better days in such statements, but underneath the hopefulness lies a sense that the system is permanent. We will never be without the system. And underneath that is the anxiety of the possibility of having to go without the system. When they say, “I can’t wait for things to go back to normal”, they are also saying, “What if it never goes back to normal?”, “How can I live without the system?” There’s an inability on our part to dream up a different system. One that follows through with its promises to the masses and not just to the wealthy.
In hero movies we never see the hero save the day and then push further for reform. We don’t see Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark giving away significant portions of the money they make in their corporations to charity. Bruce Wayne lives in a city that is overrun by crime. It’s likely much of that crime would not exist if there were true equity among people. Instead, he puts untold amounts of his money into military-grade weapons and gear to fight crime instead of fighting the roots of the crime.
Instead of putting in place things like universal health care and universal basic income the United States has ignored caringfor its underclass. It has instead pushed them into greater levels of poverty. As of the writing of this article the federal eviction moratorium is set to expire at the end of December, 2020 only adding to the growing misery and inequality. It has given out exactly 1 check to the populace that was not enough and has recently approved a second stimulus bill of even less money. “The squad” in congress who many see as real-life superheroes has done nothing but put on shows of defiance. They promised to make the world a better place, but have only worked to preserve the current world. There are no true heroes in positions of power in government.
Like their comic book counterparts, the extremely rich like Jeff Bezos have done nothing to help the millions of jobless, hungry, sick, and soon to be homeless consumers who have made it possible for them to hoard more wealth than they will ever be able to spend. Instead, they stockpile supplies in bunkers or invest in plans to move off the planet. The free market does not produce heroes.
Where do we go from here?
For a better world to exist we need to imagine a better world. Some of the first socialist thinkers were utopian thinkers. They and their ideas fell out of favor because they were thought of as unrealistic. Perhaps we need to go back and resurrect some of their ideas. Inventors have often been inspired by Science Fiction and have made great advancements. Why are we, as a whole, so resistant to borrowing from Utopian narratives? Certainly, there is no perfect system, but that doesn’t mean we should continue to perpetuate one that has proven itself so unsuitable that it has led to the destruction of the very soil we stand on, the water we drink, and air we breathe. Likewise, we should take care not to pollute our imaginations with entertainment produced within its confines. Entertainment that glorifies continuing with the world as is.
At the risk of being overly prescriptive I suggest we dream up a different sort of hero narrative. Instead of heroes who would act as a vanguard, why don’t we dream of groups of people who work towards impossible futures? Imperfect collectives or communities helping each other survive the continuous onslaught of empire. If that’s too far afield how about producing stories that completely subvert the genre? Stories where superheroes assist in the capture of individuals or the dismantling of organizations attempting to live ideals that are anti-capitalist? Water protectors, forest protectors, violators of copyright, queer kinship communes and autonomous squats.The current superheroes might be blind to their allegiance to the status quo, but I’m hoping their fans won’t be.
Fulano de Tal is…. It doesn’t matter who I am/we are. Let the work speak for itself. Considering becoming a writing collective, if it hasn’t already happened.