wholepeace

SUPERMAN NEEDS LEX LUTHOR: The Problem with Superheroes

In PeaceAble, Politics on December 9, 2016 at 12:34 pm

Another superhero movie, another blockbuster. America seems to really love its costumed crusaders for truth, justice and the American way. Of course, in this case the American way would seem to be to hope a superhero comes along to take care of the problem. The superhero myth is a powerful one, but there are at least five serious problems with it.

  1. They don’t really exist. So we have to create them.

Okay, by the time most of us have reached the tween years we are fully aware that Superman and Spiderman and Batman and the rest are just comic book stories. But that doesn’t keep us from wishing they did exist; perhaps even wishing that we could be bitten by a radioactive spider, or have a lot of cool, clever gadgets to hang on our belts and make us invincible. Since neither of those things are ever going to happen, we look for substitutes for our superheroes: soldiers, explorers, inventors, policemen and firefighters, of course; but also politicians, celebrities, sports figures, the equally mythological American cowboy, and whatever larger-than-life personality has currently captured our attention. For some people, even their religious figures are cast as superheroes to be called upon in times of crisis.

And in the absence of a clear superhero, individuals may rise up and try to claim the title. The politician will present himself as the only one who can solve all the problems, vanquish all the enemies; and he doesn’t even need to say how it will be done, only convince us that he, and he alone, can do it. The NRA tells us that there are superheroes among us, good guys with guns, who are our only defense against whatever new evil may suddenly threaten us.

  1. Superheroes require supervillains.

Just as superheroes don’t really exist, neither do supervillains. When we create superheroes, or they create themselves for us, there arises a simultaneous need to create supervillains to justify the superheroes. Our supervillains can be individuals, such as Hitler; or a nation, such as Russia; or vague entities, such as multinational corporations and international cabals and the illuminati; or whole groups of people who can be quickly identified by some simple, single characteristic, like Muslims, or liberals/conservatives, or the Black Lives Matter Movement; or corrupt police, or the KKK, and so on. They can even be the more difficult problems in our society, te ones that have no easy answer, like poverty, disease, bigotry and violence. One thing is certain, though. Our supervillains will always be a characteristic of the “others,” those scary people who are not like us, and are scary precisely because they are not like us. We are encouraged to see the other as supervillain by default. And once the supervillain has been identified, we rally behind the superhero to demand their destruction.

 

  1. Superheroes and supervillains tend to inhabit a dark and dangerous world, and the problems and the solutions are nearly always about the exercise of power rather than the exercise of intelligence.

I remember the superheroes of my youth as generally clean, morally unambiguous figures. The people they served were a lot like me, ordinary folk who lived quiet, uneventful lives until some supervillain came along and created a disaster that only the superhero could resolve. But the fact is that superheroes were always vigilantes. They operated outside the constraints of law. The police both allowed and encouraged them, cooperated with them, but it was clear that the superhero could do what the normal authorities either could not or were not allowed to do. But even with that, the superheroes seemed to respect their own powers; they rarely killed an adversary, and almost never killed on purpose.

As time went on, however, things took a darker turn. Gotham City became an increasingly dirty, depraved, and crime-ridden environment; and Batman’s character and costume got darker along with it. But even with the greater moral ambiguity that suggests, there was no moral ambiguity about the need for the hero to win; and to win by whatever means necessary; and those means became increasing violent and deadly, as did the supervillains. What was once the need for a superhero to defeat the occasional supervillain – and extraordinary event that interrupted the normal flow of the average citizen’s life – became a constant need for superheroes to fight back against the constant threat of powerful and deadly supervillains in a darkly dangerous world of evil.

But in such a world the supervillains can never be actually defeated. If they could, then the superhero would be out of a job. The villains have to be so powerful that all we can do is hold them at bay for a while, and make sure that our superheroes are well armed for the battle that, if it isn’t happening right here and now, will surely come. And if we defeat one supervillain, there will be a ready supply of others. Eternal vigilance is necessary in a world where the problems cannot actually ever be finally resolved. Fear ceases to be the natural response to extraordinary events, and becomes the constant condition of our lives.

In places like Ferguson or Standing Rock and Malheur we are told that the end justifies the means, but it is always the people with the guns who, we are told, are standing up against the supervillain others who must be defeated or life as we know it will surely be destroyed. As long as we know who is the hero and who the villain, then the hero must win. But we express our shock and surprise when someone decides that he must be the superhero and shoots up a nightclub full of homosexuals or a church full of black people; or blows up an abortion clinic; because he didn’t see a superhero doing enough to rid the world of these supervillains and took on the job himself.

 

  1. Buying into the superhero culture interferes with the search for real solutions to systemic problems.

Why do we need spend time and money and our moral energy on finding reasonable and long-lasting solutions to problems if we can hold out hope for a superhero with a simple plan to swoop in and take care of it? What use is diplomacy if we believe that Captain America still exists somewhere and now has a nuclear weapon or a fleet of drones? Why do we need to rely on the justice system, the courts and the lawyers, when we have so many policemen with guns and tasers and billy clubs; and the presumption that their actions are justified? Why do we need to have our lives disrupted by protesters who want things we don’t want, when we have the National Guard with water cannons and dogs and rubber bullets and sometimes real bullets? And why do we have to put up with a government that sometimes does things that we don’t want them to do when we have our own guns?

Why do we need to really think about things like why we are ill or what is causing the stress in our lives, or how we might solve those problems, when we have a pharmaceutical industry always working on new superhero drugs to fix us? Why do we need to accept or tolerate our neighbors who are not like us, when that man over there is telling us that our problems are their fault, they are the supervillains, and he has the final solution? And why should we care how he does it as long as it’s done?

 

  1. The superhero culture prepares us to accept demagogues, war, a police state, and restrictions on our freedom by convincing us that we are individually and collectively weak and need to be saved.

We have been and are continuing to be acculturated to believe that all our problems are enormous; every conflict is a crisis; we are incapable of doing what needs to be done; .and we must therefore find a superhero to lead us, to fight for us, to keep us safe. But such leaders may be motivated to keep us only as safe as will keep us in fear that the superhero may go away and leave us defenseless.

When the planes brought down the World Trade Center, we told ourselves that it had united us as Americans, that it had restored our faith in or collective ability to come together at times of great tragedy. But we quickly looked for the supervillains, and for superheroes to lead us. And we chose as our heroes, those who would tell us who the villains were, and promise to defeat them. Then, with each new villain brought to what we were told was justice, more rose up, until the supervillain became an entire race, an entire religion, and anyone we could tell ourselves was one of them.

Whenever something begins to change and those changes make us uncomfortable, we are told that that discomfort is fear, that fear is a sign that we are under attack, and there will be someone – a politician or a priest or a pundit – who will tell us who the supervillains are, and offer to be our hero. They will describe dark conspiracies in terms of war and destruction. The crisis is present and we are in danger and only the tools of war will save us. Don’t try to understand, never compromise, do not discuss, never seek the peaceable solution. Anything but the destruction of the other, the supervillain, is weakness that will surely mean the end of us.

The thing is, it’s all a fantasy. But it is important to understand that it is a fantasy in which we participate with both our ignorance and our complicity. We do not question the fantasy and so we never learn the truth of the illusion. And we are unwilling to make ourselves uncomfortable, to face our problems together, to know the other, to confront our fears with reason. We don’t really want to deal with it all.

This isn’t the media’s fault or the politicians’ fault or religion’s fault. It’s not strictly the fault of the wealthy or the white or the male; though the culture gives them special place and therefore special responsibility. The media does not create the culture, but it reflects what we already accept as real and normal, and thereby reinforces and encourages the illusion. And the politician or the priest or the talk radio celebrity are there because we put them there.

Cultural truths do not change until we become uncomfortable enough with them to stop buying what the culture is selling us. Superheroes and supervillains will be with us until we can see that they are not real, they are not normal, and they are not the solution. When we come to the realization that we are stronger when we are not afraid of each other; that we can do this together, that we don’t need to send our superheroes destroy each other, and when we realize that far too many of our superheroes do not live among us, but rule over us; and that we may very well be the supervillains of choice tomorrow; then we can put away the fantasy and begin the real work.

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