by Lewis A. Beach
"We’d do well to avoid the dubious morality of Superman, which is underpinned by allegiances to state power and fetishist patriotism."
The superhero genre is immersed in politically subversive symbolism, but rarely does solidarity through direct action appear in the literature.
That’s not to say that this doesn’t happen, nor that writers and publishers are ambivalent towards protests for social justice. However, the history of the genre is somewhat bereft of any hope of collective resistance and relies upon the heightened abilities of individuals to save the day.
Superheroes tend to collaborate with law enforcement and civic representatives; they seek to maintain order, remove obstruction and curtail crisis in large metropolitan settings.
When placed in a short, linear comic book story, committed to the binary moral framework of good verses evil, the actions of the superhero/es necessarily tend towards the good. Therefore, the side with whom they align become the gate keepers of good by virtue of association with the heroes.
A number of the popular superheroes adored by fans globally originate from a culture torn apart by depression and world wars, only to be reconstructed by the social reform of FDR’s New Deal and the defeat of the Nazis. These historic successes affirmed the founding doctrines of the United States as a protector and disseminator of freedom, liberty and justice.
These tropes bled into the popular culture of the time and are perhaps most apparent in the superhero comic books of the 40s and 50s. Ideals that were most prominent during the ‘golden era’ of comics haven’t altered much over the years. Though comics are a medium well adapted to mirroring changes in culture and politics, the core values of some of the most popular superheroes remain stuck in the postwar era.
Superman serves the State
Let’s take perhaps the most popular of these superheroes, Superman, and try to understand his mission for our modern sociopolitical epoch.
Superman epitomises liberalism’s deference to US hegemony as the telos of political and ethical struggle—viewing itself as the zenith of Enlightened liberal benevolence.
Superman serves the state by reinforcing its existing power structures and maintains the status quo, supplanting collective action. Pitched as a symbol of citizenry: unwavering in his civic duties, while manufacturing consent and encouraging subjugation to the system.
A literal strong-arm of the law, he is unconcerned with the socioeconomic conditions that lead to crime. He provides generalised, physical solutions to all problems by tackling the nefarious symptoms rather than trying to cure the systemic ills of society.
Though Superman has been depicted a number of times in Action Comics and elsewhere, as standing against police brutality, it’s still difficult to see Superman aligned with protestors. As a powerful apparatus of the state, it’s out of character for him to protest law enforcement rather than support it.
If the superhero genre is to say anything about the political and socioeconomic issues that kindle the flames of civil unrest, or indeed show solidarity to causes for social justice, its creators and fans need to consider the conditions of alienation and hyper-individualism enforced by neoliberalism. Enriching the genre in this way will give creators a framework and backdrop from which they can tell relevant and perhaps even emancipatory stories.
Fans need to understand that, without reflecting society as it truly is, this genre will perpetually churn out products like Superman which reinforce ideologies that reproduce systemic oppression.
Ideological crisis management
A successful example of a superhero product that understands the ideologies of neoliberalism comes from, ironically, Amazon Prime.
The Boys, is a show about a billion-dollar conglomerate, Vought International, which represents people with superpowers and brands them as superheroes.
The show provides analogous representations of the ways corporations manipulate consumer consent and wreak collateral damage in their hunger for profit and brand supremacy.
The series opens with a depiction of ideological crisis management. One of Vought’s superheroes, A-Train—whose power is super speed—accidentally obliterates the girlfriend of the lead protagonist