13 June 2013

The politics of superheroes, again.

"Some people will read all this and say: "You're over-intellectualising. You're reading too much into it." This may be true. But these charges are always made by people who never over-intellectualise anything, who never read too much into things. They are made by people who want you to take The X-Men seriously, as legitimate fiction. And then when you do, they say that you are over-intellectualising."
- Joe Queenan

The superhero genre began during the Great Depression. During World War II, it was obligatory for superheroes to be shown beating up America's fascist enemies and announcing their antipathy toward fascism. On the radio, Superman was called the "champion of equal rights" and the enemy of intolerance and prejudice. Once he went on television, those epithets were replaced by his commitment to "the American Way." Since then, it seems, critics have often felt an impulse to label superheroism a right-wing phenomenon. The Batman of Christopher Nolan's trilogy was sometimes called a fascist by people who seemed to know little about fascism except that fascists were violent and often wore uniforms. In a milder tone, and for the occasion of the release of Warner Bros.'s high-stakes Superman reboot, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, killjoy critic Joe Queenan of The Guardian -- the same British paper that gave us Edward Snowden -- argues that all superheroes are Republicans.


It is a genre dominated by the thoroughly unoriginal notion that you cannot trust the government. Even when you can trust the government, you cannot trust all of it. And even the branches you can trust aren't much help, because they are incompetent. To save humanity, one must rely on a bootstrap operation headed by a dedicated go-getter and self-starter. At heart, all superheroes are Republicans.

By Queenan's standard all movies are Republican. I know I haven't seen any recently in which government authority was extended the trust or the presumption of competence Queenan apparently prefers. I might make an exception for Zero Dark Thirty, but I don't think it would be very encouraging to our critic. Meanwhile, let's not make the rather dispiriting assumption that individual initiative is a Republican trait. Neither the Democratic party in the U.S. or the broader left worldwide will make much progress until we see more individual initiative, however collectively implemented, from their ranks.

To be fair, I do think that Queenan meant that line partly as a joke. His analysis strikes closer to home later in his article. Despite that crack, he writes that "the rise of superhero movies signals the triumph of the neurotic over the maverick." He argues that the genre caters to a sense of helplessness and a fantasy of redemption through some miraculous empowering event. Recalling the genre's Depression origins, Queenan argues that a similar anxiety (or outright pessimism) prevails today.

If movies are a reflection of society's most cherished hopes and deepest fears, then superhero movies perfectly capture the planet's current mood of uncertainty and dread. Today's global economy is a disaster, unemployment is ravaging the economies of both the developed and the developing world, and the threat of terrorism stretches from Kabul to Moscow, from London to Boston....Superhero movies are made for a society that has basically given up. The police can't protect us, the government can't protect us, there are no more charismatic loners to protect us and the euro is defunct. Clint Eastwood has left the building. So let's turn things over to the vigilantes. Superheroes need not obey laws or social conventions; they go where they please and do what they want. They pose simple – usually violent – solutions to complex problems. Superheroes operate in a netherworld just this side of fascism.

Alas, Queenan couldn't make it through the piece without using the f-word, and The Guardian itself introduces the article by describing superheroes as "sexist, semi-fascist bores." As I've said in the Batman context, vigilantism is hardly "this side of fascism" when the vigilantes -- the superheroes, in these cases -- have no political agenda, at least in terms of seizing control of the state. My big problem with this constant critical resort to the "fascist" charge is that it recognizes something that's actually there, but distorts it. The distortion is the portrayal of the superhero/vigilante impulse as something essentially rightist. It'd be more accurate to describe it as authoritarian, an echo of an impulse that found expression from both right and left at the time of Superman's birth. Siegel and Shuster's creation is contemporary with the the Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union (Stalin's own nom de revolution is often translated as "Man of Steel") as well as the fascist challenge to the international order. Reading the old stories, I find myself reminded more of show-trial Stalinism than of fascism by Superman's eagerness to coerce confessions from people by dangling them from the skyscrapers or threatening to drop them as he flew through the air. The apolitical fact is that in desperate times, when systems are presumed corrupt, people want to see someone cut through all the barriers to simple justice -- if not by all means necessary (most superheroes quickly evolved codes against killing) than with more forcefulness than comic book readers are capable of. If there's anything "right" about the archetype, it's the underlying assumption that a special, uniquely gifted individual can do what a mass of people can't or won't. But the ideal superhero is less Mussolini than Cincinnatus, the Roman dictator appointed by the Senate who promptly gave up power and returned to private life when his task was finished. Every superhero with a secret identity is a kind of Cincinnatus if that means he doesn't want to be a superhero, or even a public figure, every hour of his life. George Washington regarded Cincinnatus as a role model and was hailed as an 18th century Cincinnatus when he resigned from the Continental Army instead of making himself ruler of the United States after the Revolutionary War. The old Roman is a problematic role model; while you might want to give someone his powers, you may not trust anyone else to renounce those powers when he's done with them. Likewise, the superhero can be seen as a model of disinterested benevolence -- he expects no reward for his labors and would rather not be recognized and adored by everyone he meets -- but that doesn't mean that superheroes are an altogether healthy fantasy of a healthy culture. The problem with the superhero as a fantasy -- Queenan is more cogent on the problems of superhero films -- isn't a political, much less a partisan problem. The real problem may not be what we imagine in superhero form, but why we imagine superheroes instead of other ways to save ourselves.


Anonymous said...

As an aside, an interesting fact I ran across awhile back, is that originally (inspired by Nietzsche's philosophy)superman was envisioned as more of a Lex Luthor; a man of advanced intellect whose purpose was world domination)
"...Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, then students at Cleveland's Glenville High School, first conceived Superman as a bald telepathic villain bent on world domination. (from wikipedia)

Samuel Wilson said...

The idea took awhile to gel in Siegel's head. We just learned this week that Siegel had pitched Superman to Buck Rogers artist Russell Keaton in 1934, four years before Action Comics was published, with the concept that Superman was sent here not from another planet, but from Earth's own far future -- Buck Rogers in reverse. Look here for more details.

Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, what is "serious fiction" and who gets to decide?

Samuel Wilson said...

Fiction is serious in the eye of the beholder. Unless you believe that some fiction can oblige all readers to take it seriously, "serious fiction" is whatever a reader chooses to take seriously.

Anonymous said...

Let's face it, in Ayn Rand's millieu, John Galt and his cohorts did NOT stop the destruction of society. They hastened it by retreating. They did NOTHING to help the common man. In fact many of the workers in Hank Reardon's steel factory died in a firefight defending the factory while Mr. Reardon slunk off.

So what libertarians truly stand for is greed and cowardice. They had absolutely no plan or desire to create a better society unless that included the masses falling to their knees and kissing ass.