The Bad Politics of Superheroes


#1

In a New York Times review of The Incredibles, A.O. Scott made a curious observation: “[the film] suggests a thorough, feverish immersion in both the history of American comic books and the philosophy of Ayn Rand.” He wasn’t alone in this belief.

An excerpt from an article titled “The slippery politics of The Incredibles and other superheroes”. A much more coherent and thorough writeup regarding this topic than this post is going to be. I highly recommend giving it a read.

I’m mostly making this thread because I want people’s opinions on the topic of the politics of superpowers/heroes. I’ve got a lot of ideas relating to this swirling around in my head right now, I’ll probably reply to this post with…something.

But for now here’s a bullet list:

. Superheroes can never be “super”, they can only ever uphold the Neoliberal, Global Capitalist order of the world.

. The default political alignment of ALL “heroes” is just Centrist-Liberal. It literally can’t be anything but because Conservatism viewed through the lens of superpowered characters can only be viewed as evil as Conservatism always should be viewed as. much more importantly though, “heroes” can NEVER be Left of Liberal because that would instantly make a good number of “heroes” your enemy. You can’t be a Socialist and be friends with Batman. You can’t be an Anarchist and friends with Tony Stark. If you have any conviction whatsoever you have to fight them. We can never have a hero who is Black or Muslim or Female or apart of any marginalized group, that makes the liberation of said group apart of who they are. Because doing so would make them the enemy of the status quo. And if you’re an enemy of the status quo, you’re an enemy of the “heroes” who fight to protect it.

. Japanese “Battle Shonen” seems far more egalitarian. In series like Naruto, Hunter X Hunter, and One Piece essentially anyone can become what we would recognize as “Super”.

I’d love any and all feedback on this.


#5

It’s probably with noting that Brad Bird is an admitted Objectivist, and that’s been a theme in a slew of his films (even his Mission: Impossible entry).

My honest opinion on this is that superheroes (existing superheroes, anyway) exist as many things to many people. Superman was created by Jewish writers, at the height of WWII and the Holocaust - to them, he represents the goodness of power, an antithesis to the German “Übermensch” who uses his considerable strength for protection and aid. Batman was created as a stalking, dark detective - not a hero as much as a horrible caped vigilante, capable, for better or ill, of using tactics no lawful detective ever could. He brandished a rifle and employed lethal scare tactics in hunting foes as if prey.

And over eight decades and change, these characters have been warped and changed by authors and artists and public perception and adaptation, to the point that you can find canonical evidence to prove pretty much anything you want about Superman, or Batman, or Wonder Woman. The concept of “superhero” as a whole can only be defined personally, as the fictional examples we have are numerous, varied, and self-contradicting in ways that there’s no “one” definition - even of individual characters!

So it’s especially relevant to me that the politics of The Incredibles are Randian, because director Brad Bird abides by Randian principles. It also hurts me to read “you can’t have a hero who rallies against the status quo,” because as long as there exist superhero authors who rally against the status quo, their heroes will, too. Kamala Khan wouldn’t exist if G. Willow Wilson wasn’t angry at representation of Muslims in comic books. She wouldn’t be so embraced within the fiction if her character didn’t share some of that anger. I can probably list hundreds of examples of superheroes whose job it is to call out both the methodology and ideology of other superheroes.

Hell, there was a whole mainstream movie about this very concept - in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the key conflict was between Captain America and S.H.I.E.L.D., because they “protect the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be”. And, of course, S.H.I.E.L.D. was revealed to be corrupted by Hydra - the MCU’s stand-in for Nazis - making Captain America’s worry that the status quo was toxic even more justified.

…I’ve already said a lot, but the other angle I have on this is that not all superheroes are written as role models. Not every author has written Batman to be a good man, or a noble man. Tony Stark, as Iron Man, has a popular story called Demon in a Bottle, about his struggles with alcoholism. Peter Parker infamously made deals with (one iteration of) the devil, Mephisto, which isn’t typically associated with rationality. Villains, especially recently, have become allies, or tragic figures - they gain new motivation, with justifiable outrage that paints the titular heroes in shades of moral ambiguity - or as outright monsters. Heroes turn on each other, betray each other. And frankly, superheroes can, have, and should be portrayed as deeply flawed, as wrong, and they will learn and change and, as their authors have, as their publishers have, as their readers have, adapt and evolve and become what is wanted and needed of them. It keeps them both more real and more interesting - and, importantly, more relevant. Watchmen wasn’t written because Alan Moore thought heroes could be better, it was written because he was confident they couldn’t.

And this only really covers “mainstream” superhero - those appearing in family films, in animation, in comic books published by Marvel and DC. By the time you get to Spawn, or to Judge Dredd, the aim of the fiction changes considerably - be it satire, or counter-culture, or introspection. I’ve seen people call Hellboy a superhero. Whether intended to be or not, I think that says a lot about how we make personal connections to the concept - Hellboy is an absolute outsider, who rejects pretty much every establishment of the status quo by merely existing.


#6

My biggest problem, all said and done, is that there is very little age-appropriate superhero fiction (that springs immediately to mind, anyway) that is introspective enough to be critical of “superhero” as a concept. X-Men gets pretty close, with more and more sympathetic characterizations of Magneto (X-Men has a lot of other problems, mind). Hmmm. I don’t know. Certainly the current slate of child-friendly films leans more on problematic politics, of heroes as police, but then, that Spider-Verse film isn’t far away and Miles Morales is its protagonist, so who knows. (Also, I don’t watch a lot of programming intended for very young children, so this is all guesswork on my part.)

Do the TMNT count as superheroes? Does Casey Jones count as a superhero? Cos he’s pretty radical, all said and done. Do… do Jedi Knights count as superheroes? Like, is Rey a superhero? What is a superhero?


#7

I think it’s inductively accurate to say that superheroes can only be neoliberal or global capitalist in their inferred and explicit politics. Superheroes are our empowerment fantasies, @AnnD has already noted the history of Jewish writers and comic book writing during the Holocaust in this thread and I think that’s a great frame through which to view them. We want to be empowered against our situation, to be able to act to change things we ordinarily couldn’t.

The fact that superheroes offer solutions consistent with neoliberal values says more about the state of our fantasies and the degree to which we have internalised the dominant structures of power present in our society. We seem to fantasise to be individually powerful, to be enabled to act according to how we want rather than how we can.

This is why some of the most popular superheroes: Batman, Iron Man etc are independently wealthy capitalists. Our fantasies do not necessitate that we be special or have some ability unique to us, neoliberalism already tells us that this is the case. What matters is that we can individually change what we can’t about the world, and you just need to be rich to do that in today’s world.

This is why I say that the assertion that superheroes can only conform to neoliberal values is inductively accurate. Superheroes sell a fantasy of empowerment, but the only individual power we can observe in a capitalist society is the power of the rich, the physically strong and the armed.

We fantasise this way because it’s all we know. Even a superhero with leftist politics would still be compliant with this neoliberal fantasy as they would still be one person, acting autonomously to change the world.

While superheroes are absolutely an artefact of the superstructure, I think their popularity says more about our societies’ Stockholm syndromic relationship with capitalism than it does about monied interests attempting to peddle a fantasy agreeable to capital.


#8

Superheroes are a super complicated field for this sort of stuff and it depends entirely on what decade you’re focused on to discuss them. These days they are absolutely leaning into centralist tropes because of the majority of writers behind them (see Nick Spencer, man who says punching nazis is bad as he writes a fucking event that ends with good Captain America beating up Nazi Captain America). However, it’s differed decade by decade. We’ve had hippie eras (The New Gods), vigilante eras (late 80s and early 90s), mythology eras (2000s Justice League), Objectivist eras (very early Spider-Man and Ted Kord era Blue Beetle pre-DC buyout), and even a running line of leftist thought (particularly with Green Arrow and a few villain central stories if you dig).

The reason we’ve hit a rut is that the big two primarily hire the same mediocre white guys over and over who can only navel gaze at their own mythology or fail to examine their own political viewpoints and their implications. Even then, we’ve somehow still ended up with the lines of the new Ms. Marvel, Gwenpool and the increasingly queer Deadpool, and an entire arc of Superman deconstructing DC’s history of racism towards Asian-Americans.

I think it’s better you shape this argument to focus on superheroes in film, because that’s definitely where the major centralist/objectivist stuff has been most visible (I mean, Zack Snyder is an objectivist and his Superman movies spouted objectivist talking points).

It’s a real shame because a lot of these characters came from marginalized groups and outright leftists, from Superman being created by two Jewish brothers, to literally everything Jack Kirby ever did beyond just art.


#9

separating for a moment the creators’ actual intentions when creating superheroes, the fundamental concept of a person who is inherently Better (whether by birth or by hard work or whatever) is at least extremely calvinist, if not outright fascist, and even if they’re a ‘benevolent ubermensch,’ the narrative pleasure of the text still comes from identifying with this superior human. i got basically no time for superhero stories.

all the best stuff which has come out of Caped Hero narratives is the second order stuff, in my view; it’s people telling relatable human stories or creating non-hegemonic characters who they can identify with. i think that’s rad, but i always find myself thinking “well, why not just abandon this premise and tell those stories straightforwardly?” (the answer being because that’s hard to sell and it’s fun to play with fantasy, but still, you’re hanging onto the bones of something very flawed)

how people receive superheroes and use them as rallying points for a community is interesting to me. superheroes and superhero fiction more generally is incredibly not.


#10

That idea itself has already been deconstructed countless time with just Superman stories alone. What makes these character interesting is their human elements, flaws, and beliefs, not their powers. It’s why when you see someone talk about Dragonball Super these days, nobody really gives a crap about power levels but make jokes about the mundane lives of the cast when they’re not fighting gods. It’s why one of the best Superman stories ever made is about him standing up to other superheroes who have given up on ideals for a better world. Hell, it’s what made The Dark Knight Returns a classic, despite Frank Miller’s garbage politics, because it brought Superman and Batman down to the level of flawed men.

The worst superhero stories are the most straight forward good versus evil stuff, with no complexity. The best ones force these characters to challenge what they believe in and what they stand for, or just show a normal day in the life.

Superheroes have changed year after year after year and completely dismissing those sorts of stories because of the initial concept is really reductive. There’s a shit ton of criticize, but also a lot of interesting stuff to explore (especially Grant Morrison’s better stuff that explores the impact of stories).


#11

that’s what i was getting into in my second paragraph, friend! the second order stuff of human stories is the interesting part, but it’s hung on such a fundamentally flawed premise that i just can’t get into them at all, especially as all that Human Story stuff almost always eventually dissolves into Let’s Punch The Evil Til It Stops.

as with any genre as long-running and over-explored as superheroes, there are undoubtedly countless examples you can give of stories which question the premise, but to what end? the dominant superhero narrative is still basically the same, and it’s culturally dominant in a way which i find incredibly frustrating, honestly. give me something new, not this pre-chewed gristle with a little extra flavour dust on it this time.


#12

Here’s where a massive divide becomes evident, I think. Representation is important, It’s also not against the status quo in any meaningful way. Because in the Neoliberal status quo you can be a woman, a brown person, and a Muslim and still be human on a base level. In this same Neoliberal hell people who don’t view women, brown people, and Muslims as people can (and do) gain power and enact change to reflect their world views. And in this same hellish system, the norm isn’t to recognize these people as the enemy as you should. It’s to compromise with them.

I’m not saying that Kamala Khan doesn’t matter. I think the exact opposite, and this is where that divide I mentioned earlier becomes most evident. Because where do you go after meeting that base reminder of humanity, essentially? Where do you go after “Hey guys, non-White/Hetero/Cis/Male characters are people too!”? Because I don’t think anyone has gone anywhere further than that.

This is why I either hate or don’t care about Black Panther. And no this isn’t a “Killmonger was right” kind of thing. Because it doesn’t matter if he was or wasn’t. What matters is that T’challa is definitely wrong. His solution to the problems of the Black diaspora in North America is to make it easier for Black kids to get into STEM.


#13

If there’s one thing I want people to takeaway from this thread, it’s that I think we deserve better power fantasies. We deserve power fantasies. We deserve a People’s power fantasy. And I think I need to write a comic about this now. And no, I don’t mean some new Watchmen type thing. Subtlety is overrated.


#14

Watchmen was not subtle in the slightest, nor was Fight Club.

The problem is that we live in a society where critical thought is all but ignored in everything in public space. You have to do a Children of Men and end with a ship named hope or future or something and still even then someone will project a completely different, backwards, reductive view on it.


#15

agreed - and as a fan of both fight club and watchmen (or, to put it another way, A Basic Boyfriend) i do get frustrated with the way those pieces of media have been wildly misinterpreted - but i think we need to learn from that lesson.

one of my worst and least-popular opinions is that if your media can be sincerely appreciated by the group it was attempting to critique, you’ve failed on some level. fascists love judge dredd and rorschach, and for all my endless posts and tracts about how they’re wrong, it’s not making them feel any less seen or represented in the media, and thus emboldened.

now, having said that, something having ‘failed’ doesn’t necessarily mean we should throw it in the trash or cease to like and enjoy it, but if we posit the job of criticism as trying to contribute to a better media future and thus a better world - absurdly high-minded, i know, but why not shoot for the moon - then we should always point out that failure and hope that folks do better next time.


#16

The amount of people I’ve seen try to use Children of Men as an example of why being anti-immigration is good is insane.


#17

American History X has the same problem.

“Hoping” isn’t enough though. There are always lessons to be learned from things regardless of how much of a success or failure they are. The biggest problem with current media criticism is that, the people doing the critiquing almost never go into what they think should have been done instead.

Using Watchmen, Fight Club and Children of Men as examples. They’re not actually subtle, but they don’t beat the audience over the head with whatever point they were trying to make so the message of these stories have been lost on a lot of people. So my takeaway is that these stories failed because they weren’t hyper-literal. They left too much room for interpretation.I know that sounds cynical, and maybe even defeatist. But I’m not trying to say that audience’s are incapable of understanding the messages of these stories. I’m trying to say that there’s probably a hyper-literal middle-ground where you can beat the audience over the head with whatever point you’re trying to make, while not treating them like children who need their hands held from start to finish.


#18

agreed completely.

the really difficult example i have, which is possibly the most immediate counter-argument to my own position honestly, is This Is England. if you haven’t seen it, it’s a social realist drama about skinhead culture and white supremacism in the UK in 1983 - really good and worth a watch if you’re interested.

it’s not a subtle film in condemning the monstrous actions of those involved. despite that, there was a clique of extreme hard right lads in my high school, and they fucking loved that film. somehow, the incredibly unsubtle message of the film completely went over their heads, and they spent their time watching a clip of the lead skinhead screaming at a pakistani shop owner with delight. i’ve no idea how you make something which would even begin to reach that type of person.

no real end point or conclusion to this post unfortunately, just lamenting that Making Media Is Hard. hopefully we can figure it out!


#19

There was an article I read a year or so back trying to unpack why certian movies (they were using Fight Club as an example) with pretty clear messages get latched onto by the toxic people they critique. (Ill be back to dig the article up later, im on my phone and out right now)

The conclusion the article came to was that there must be a level of willful ignorance in the toxic reads of Fight Club, because it’s unreasonable to not see the critique. I do think that to some degree people are willfully ignoring certain parts of that movie, sure, especially as people get older and are expected to view things with a little more of a critical eye. But I don’t know if that’s completely the viewers fault, and it probably falls somewhere inbetween that and whats being discussed in this thread: that sometimes there is room for that shitty reading, but its usually at the exclusion of most other aspects of the narrative.

I think the same can be said about superheroes, to some degree. The individualist, super-powerful person definitely appeals to a fascistic ideal at a base level, and even when the stories we get told are so clearly deconstructing or critiquing that aspect of super heroics (edit: I personally love when this is done well, and don’t want to discredit when it is done well. I don’t think superheroes are inherently bad, either. I haven’t kept up with modern Marvel or DC stuff as much as i’d like, but from what I understand that stuff is generally very good), and are created by people who are very obviously far left politically, toxic people just latch onto the base and ignore the structure that actually makes up the “superhero”. I don’t even know what to do at that point. Do the stories need to improve? Probably. But if a specific portion of the audience is just going to ignore everything to find what they want, wont they also just do that for the next thing? Its a balance I struggle with a lot, especially when I make comics, even though I don’t fuck with the superhero stuff, really.


#20

I think you’re totally accurate in identifying the core elements of what superheroes are and do as problematic, or capable of being adopted by problematic viewpoints.

I had a really brutal discussion with a colleague who used to work in sales for a micro-finance company recently because he didn’t want to acknowledge how the basic day-to-day of his old job was manufacturing debt and misery. It’s not about what you believe or what you stand for, it’s what you do that ultimately defines your morality.

When you get right down to it, the integers of superhero-dom are much more compatible with right-wing ideals and behaviours. Violence is almost always the first resort, they often cooperate and have working relationships with the police, they believe their will gives them the right and obligation to use their power.

This is why so many people identify with Walter White, Tony Soprano, Don Draper etc and why toxic reads are so common. The messages of the text may say these are reprehensible people, but what they do is consistent with a right-wing person’s idea of how a powerful or capable person should act.


#21

I don’t follow superheroes particularly closely, but this made me think of possibly the most wildly-missed point in recent memory: Rick & Morty’s Pickle Rick episode. To recap:

  • Rick turns himself into an inanimate object, a pickle, in order to avoid attending the family counciling session he had promised he would go to.

  • He gets used as a cat toy, then gets washed into a sewer, where he is forced to trap and mutilate rats in order to survive and escape.

  • He then proceeds to utterly destroy an entire building and brutally kill everyone in it because it’s where he happened to come out of the sewer, and they weren’t sufficiently submissive to his demands.

  • He is then forced to find the family at the therapy office because he is on the verge of death. He went through all of this because he didn’t want to fulfill a promise to his family but didn’t have the guts to actually look them in the face to tell them.

  • To top it off, he reaches the office, where he is thoroughly and indisputably put in his place by basically the only character ever to appear on the show who is neither impressed nor intimidated by Rick: a therapist (and woman, to boot) whose specialty is in treating people who eat poop.

That is Pickle Rick, and major portions of the R&M fandom have somehow turned Pickle Rick into a superhero. It is mind-boggling. And this is without even getting into the Vindicators.


#22

Man oh man that is a confused episode, because they definitely believe in all their film superhero commentary, but I’m not sure what angle they’re trying to go with using Rick the way he was. I stand by my thoughts that season three was mostly a breakdown of Rick’s toxic view of the world and the family rising above it and propping him up by finally defying him after going through their own self critical moments, but that episode is just a mess.


#23

It’s interesting to me to see people talk about about how super heroes are inherently neo liberal or fascist because I think I’ve always thought about them very differently. As a kid I saw Spider-Man and I think considered him a kind of socialist fantasy long before I knew what socialism was. Spider-Man has these powers, so he uses them to help those who need it. As an adult I pay taxes hoping that the money will go to aid those less fortunate to me. Now that I’m older I can poke all kinds of holes in the fantasy. Vigilantism of this kind is unquestionably too dangerous to permit. Beating up petty thugs is about the worst way you can actually aid society. But something about the core kindness at the heart of the character really shaped me for the better in my youth, I think.