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, Hughie, by running through her at an impossible speed. A-train had been Hughie’s idol—the subject of posters that wallpaper his bedroom. Yet in a moment of extreme violence and with little remorse on behalf of A-Train, Hughie sees through the veil of ideology.
His anxieties are worsened when Vought International offers him hush-money. More than compensation, it’s an invitation to rejoin the illusion of Vought International and ignore its malpractice. This realisation reorients Hughie’s life and sets up his character arc.
A similar example comes from Episode Four, in which Vought’s flagship heroes, Homelander (a pastiche of Superman and Captain America) and Queen Maeve (Wonder Woman), botch the rescue of a hijacked airliner full of passengers, and decide to let it crash into the ocean—killing all onboard.
Homelander and Maeve bailing on the trapped passengers is the perfect metaphor for bailing out the rich and powerful during the 2007/08 financial crisis and sacrificing public services upon which much of society depend to foot the bill. Homelander and Maeve, in saving themselves at the cost of many, in fact benefited from the tragedy by working it to their own ends, much like the politicians and bankers who protected their interests during the crisis.
In the show, Vought International plans to expand its interests through military contracting. On reporting the tragedy of the doomed airliner, Homelander insincerely laments a delay in intel, hinting that had there been better collaboration between Vought and the military, they might have saved the aircraft. The manufactured outrage causes the government and military to yield to public pressure and amalgamate Vought International with the military.
Superheroes and disaster capitalism
The Boys also helps us to understand the theory of “Disaster Capitalism.” Comprehensively covered in the book The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, Disaster Capitalism is the idea that governments and powerful institutions use moments of disaster and crisis to liberalise economic regulations and smuggle through controversial policies.
Depictions of superheroes like Superman resisting the forces he always sides with typifies the ubiquitous symbolic gestures of corporations that want to appear woke. They are empty solutions to the problems caused by the very entities and institutions that generate them.
We’d do well to avoid the dubious morality of Superman, which is underpinned by his allegiances to state power and fetishist patriotism.
The Boys urges us to look beyond individual, powerful entities for salvation. It reminds us that we need to change the system collectively, while confronting us with the reality of how insurmountable such a project is.
The harrowing, almost nihilistic messages in The Boys is a welcome anomaly in the superhero genre. It’s critique of neoliberalism is one of the best examples of relevant political critiques in pop culture.
If more products in the superhero genre follow suit and reject the idolisation and individualism inherent in the genre, more people will start to understand that a one-size-fits-all solution to complex socioeconomic problems is insufficient.
Only through collective action and real solidarity can societal change arise. The first step is to show and explain the contradictions of neoliberalism, look beyond its ideological vails, and provide critiques with mass appeal.
To these ends, The Boys is a profound cultural reference and an example of how a critique of capitalism can be popular and resonate with people.
Lewis Beach is a writer and Master's student whose work uses the media and culture as tools to read into the ideologies of neoliberal capitalism from a progressive, anti-capitalist perspective.