I don’t really like comic books or comic book movies. There. I said it. It’s not so much that I don’t like comic books as an art form (I’ve enjoyed a few graphic novels, especially the Sandman series). What I don’t like is the comic book genre that has taken over Hollywood and the entire geek universe: Superheroes.
How can a nerd like me, a fan of most things science fiction, not like what is today the biggest nerd industry, one that almost single-handedly made it cool to be a geek?
It boils down to three things: power, individualism, and elitism.
Superheroes are about power. Granted, they use their power for good, lest they become Supervillians. But I wonder if this fascination with power is healthy.
Growing up, I was picked on for being fat and for being weird, but I never got into fights. Part of it was that I was usually bigger than the other kids, but I’ve also always been content to take a little verbal abuse to avoid physical violence. I ignored bullies until they went away, and in my case that actually worked. So, I didn’t form the adolescent revenge fantasies that I suspect fuel quite a bit of the fascination with Superheroes. I’m not sure if you need that fantasy to relate to Superheroes, but it probably helps.
It’s no surprise that the biggest Superheroes are American: Superman (who’s more American than an immigrant?), Spiderman (just a kid from New York), Batman (depressive, brooding, one-percenter), Iron Man (funny, brooding, one-percenter), and Captain America (do I really need a parenthetical remark?). There’s nothing Americans love more than a rugged individualist, especially if he’s a man (I’ll let fans of Wonder Woman and other female Superheroes correct my errors here). Superheroes usually single-handedly save the world. Secret government agencies, love interests, and sidekicks add to the story, but they aren’t doing much of the actual saving-the-world work.
I don’t mind Superhero teams as much, like those loveable mutants, the X-Men (although I’ve always been puzzled about the name given that half of them are women). The Avengers movie was entertaining and at least shows the value of teamwork.
Maybe it’s not so much that I mind narratives of power and individualism; maybe my problem is that most Superhero stories are so gauche about it. Superheroes might help people deal with a hostile world by creating a fantasy in which the powerful are decent human beings (or aliens, or mutants, or whatever), but there’s also something discomforting about giving one person that much power.
I am in no way saying that Barack Obama is a Superhero, but the almost cult-like frenzy with which many of my fellow liberals adored him in 2008 kind of disturbed me, almost as much as those same liberals’ cooling toward him today confuses me (a centrist Democrat turned out to be a centrist Democrat – who knew?). The cult of personality in the form of our worship of celebrities – the “Superheroes” of the media – can be a harmful thing, especially when it splits people into “better” and “worse.”
Social ills are complicated, but if there were one bad idea at their root, it would be the elitist idea that some people are better than others. While Superhero stories can be taken as an invitation to think about each person’s talents and how she or he must choose to use them, I worry that in the end Superhero stories boil down to the same old message that some of us are better than the rest.
I guess I hope that we can do better than to wait for powerful, superior individuals to solve our problems, especially when the line between Superheroes and Supervillians is so thin.