Sunday, March 15, 2009

More Fun With Superheroes and Politics

My post on the ultimate underlying message in Watchmen spurred some fun comments, including from Ron, who asks the eternal question:

hmmm...Is Superman a liberal?

Others have tackled this question, including those in charge of the heroes at the moment. However, there is an inherent simplicity that people often miss, which is touched on by Joe M:

I do suppose that that action is the logical extreme of super-heroism: hero is special and is therefore allowed to act outside the rules for normal people for the benefit of those normal people ; once you've placed hero outside the rule of law for the greater good, this kind of utilitarianism would be the end result, yes?

Almost. While superheroes do act outside "the rules" for normal people--for example, wearing their underwear outside their tights--they don't act outside the law, or at least not much. The Batman, for example, will do some B&E, but not much beyond what any TV PI might do. It's not against the law (yet) to stop a crime.

Traditionally, heroes and superheroes capture the criminal--but leave them to the law to prosecute.

So, what is the political framework of the masked hero genre? One might be tempted to suggest Objectivism, since John Galt is a sort of superhero.

But you have people who worked for--or were blessed with--abilities beyond that of normal people. They use those powers on a local, individual level to make others lives better. They don't work for the state, but they do work with law enforcement agencies. They sacrifice personal lives for the good of the community, but not because they're compelled to by an external authority. Rather they feel their ability to help translates to a responsibility to help. (This is a conservative value that has a perverse expression in the statist's "you must do everything you can for the government, and accept whatever the government says you deserve in return".)

Ultimately, then, what you have is a full-on conservative paradigm--classical liberalism, really. Until the '70s and '80s, the masked vigilante operated on the principle that society was okay, except for a few criminal types and some organized crime rings. Even Spiderman, hounded as he was, had his most pernicious opponent in a corrupt tabloid journalist, not society per se.

Of course, comic book writers come in all political stripes, and like the rest of the arts have been seriously corrupted by statist ideologies, but even so, the very concept of the powerful individual using his power in a way to benefit society while not being under control of a ruling body is inherently conservative.

It's no coincidence that when heroes are driven underground (Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, The Incredibles), it's the state that drives them underground. The state says, "No, you can't be special."

I don't believe the USSR had superheroes. First of all, crime is not a problem in the worker's paradise. Second of all, the glorious grand-poobah doesn't need any help. Third of all, those gaudy outfits are a sign of western decadence. (Set me straight if I'm wrong on this.)

Even the "soft" fascism of modern "liberals" is anathema to the superhero paradigm. After all, why are some blessed with powers and abilities that others don't have? Doesn't that indicate unfairness in society? Why does Batman go every year to "Crime Alley" to beat up poor people? Why doesn't Superman use his super-powers to spread the wealth around a little bit? He can make diamonds, why not diamonds for everybody?

The masked vigilante works by correcting aberrations in society. Society is okay, basically, but it can perverted by the dishonest. But once corrected, people are free to go about their business.

One of classical liberalism's strengths, as well as its ultimate undoing, is that it creates a framework in which ideas can be freely expressed. Freedom of speech includes speech that undermines freedom of speech (the very concept of "hate speech", to say nothing of gay activist and feminist groups agitating for repressive Islamic societies). So, with the genre firmly established in freer times, comic books are now free to speculate in ways that undermine their future.

And naturally, some do.

The difference between Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns is that the former says, "Man needs a super-powered guardians or he'll destroy himself" (a truly statist message) where the latter says, "The more things go off the rails, the more heroic everyone has to act."

But is Superman a liberal? Some people say so, because he fits the trappings of a liberal. Yet, he could easily achieve liberal goals and never does. A theme echoed by the Donner movies and found in the comic books I've read is that Superman has a respect for individual freedom. Individual freedom is supreme: In that sense, he's positively libertarian; he won't use his powers to take freedom from others. That's a line for him, just like not killing is a line for Batman. (Superman is really an analogue for God, isn't he? His power is "nigh" limitless, but he only grants a few miracles.)

What this all boils down to, unfortunately, is the misuse of the labels "liberal" and "conservative". The only political struggle that matters is whether you're for freedom or for coercion. Are you a statist? Are you convinced that the government could make everything right if only it had more power? As I've written, nothing in a free society keeps all the laudable goals of socialists from being achieved.

When Superman starts collecting taxes and throwing people in jail for economically oppressing the masses, I'll believe he's a "liberal". If a masked vigilante agitates for statist government, he's just a clown (I'm talking to you Green Arrow) or a mouthpiece for an artist who's swallowed some propaganda.


  1. [Apologies for the length. This is when it would prove useful to have a blog of my own.]

    While superheroes do act outside "the rules" for normal people ... they don't act outside the law, or at least not much. ...

    Traditionally, heroes and superheroes capture the criminal--but leave them to the law to prosecute.

    Now if we're talking Spiderman tying up some thugs while they're robbing a candy store, sure. But I'm not certain that you can draw a hard and fast line here ; I'm not certain that you can establish that the super-hero is, in fact, subject to the rule of law.

    An example from The Dark Knight: Batman goes to China and abducts a crooked businessman--does he get prosecuted for kidnapping, or for breaking any of the myriad other laws he surely did while on that operation (destruction of private property, assault, &c)? No. That would seem to make him outside the law. His actions, not okay for other people, are somehow okay for him because we trust in him to "do the right thing."

    It seems then that the super-hero with respect to his super-hero-ness (super-hero qua super-hero, hereafter the ideal super-hero) is not accountable to the law or to the state.

    Could we say, however, ideal super-hero is accountable to something else? Society as distinct from the state, perhaps? How would that work? If society rejects super-heroics (a common trope in these stories, I believe), then does the ideal super-hero stop super-heroing? Or does he continue in his activity for the benefit of those who only reject him out of ignorance/fear/&c?

    So what evidence do we really have to show that the hero is accountable to anything other than his own conscience?

    And if the hero is only accountable to his own conscience (for the greater good) we have Watchmen: the logical extreme of super-heroics.

    Make sense? It seems to me that the super-hero can be said to act outside the law, but I'm not sold on that position ; I'd be happy to be persuaded away from it. More could be said, of course, but I'll leave off here and pass the discussion back to you.

  2. "I don't believe the USSR had superheroes."

    Oh, they tried sort of, this would have been at the very tail end of the Soviet era, or possibly during the CIS days, so it appears there never was a comic book culture in Cold War era Soviet Union, unless you count Octobriana, but that's probably a hoax.

  3. Joe M--

    I'm really talking about the comic-book-heroic-genre as originally established, trying to make the point that this very libertarian framework can be used in any number of (self-defeating) ways.

    Anything from the past 25 years is suspect, as the model has been established, and can now be deconstructed. Watchmen couldn't be written without--doesn't make sense without--a history based on the notion of the powerful individual righting wrongs.

    Now, that kidnapping you're referring to in The Dark Knight is really just "extraordinary rendition". He's acting as an unofficial agent of the government. Since we actually do this, and since he does it working with the police and district attorney, it's hard to say he's operating outside the law. (And we do have people who do that, at least for the Federal government.)

    By the way, the two recent Batman movies are contradictory: In the first movie, Batman lets Ra's al Ghul die. He says "I won't kill you but I don't have to save you" which is wrong: The Batman does have to save those he can. So in the sequel, he looks sort of foolish going through all this trouble to keep The Joker alive.

    As to your larger point, whether something akin to the Watchmen is the logical conclusion to heroism and super-heroism, I say, no, although it's possibly an inevitable subervision of the paradigm.

    The far more likely conclusion is the one found in "Dark Knight Returns".

    I don't think it's really supportable--from the comic book tradition, anyway--that masked vigilantes are above the law, since I'm pretty sure all of them have done prison time at some point.

    In any event, all serve some sort of code. Most famously, there's "truth, justice and the American Way". But Green Lantern, e.g., is actually a cop.

    Again, it's more like superheroes are bounty hunters or private investigators, with special "license" in some areas.

    If you really wanted to go deep on it, though, we'd have to start looking at the various eras, because attitudes change over time, and the issue has been tackled and resolved in the medium itself in various ways.

  4. XWL--

    That had to be pretty late if it featured the Ninja Turtles, which were created in '84 and weren't really kiddie fodder until '87.

    I agree that Octobriana looks like a hoax.

  5. Blake:

    That makes sense. I suppose that I've seen so much of the "dark" heroes that I've lost touch with what you point out is the traditional moral framework.

  6. Nah, the Dark Knight wasn't all that dark when he started, not in the way that's currently interpreted. (Though he did take a few years to find his feet as a character.)

    The edginess only works because it's playing against a pretty well established black-and-white good-versus-evil context.

    Which, actually, is why it works less and less. People don't have the expectations they used to, so there's less to play against.

    It's only the truly iconic heroes that represent the "old school" so, you know, if you changed Superman's character to be like one of the Watchmen, that'd still be pretty shocking.

    But if that changed Suerpman permeated the culture, that edginess would cease to be, and Superman would lose his iconic status.

  7. if you changed Superman's character to be like one of the Watchmen, that'd still be pretty shocking.

    But if that changed Suerpman permeated the culture, that edginess would cease to be, and Superman would lose his iconic status.

    Love that categorical imperative.

    Perhaps another way of framing this discussion would be this: a super-hero is just that: a hero who goes beyond other heroes. So while I was focused on the "super", your argument rests entirely on the concept of a "hero", which, being a label of moral approbation, carries with it certain limits.

    So what you're saying, then, is of heroes that "they sacrifice personal lives for the good of the community, but not because they're compelled to by an external authority. Rather they feel their ability to help translates to a responsibility to help", and that this is a conservative (classically liberal, w/e) ideal that isn't compatible with certain strands of liberalism (statism, w/e).

    Then all you have to do to make a super-hero is intensify the heroism (and maybe throw in some supernatural abilities just for fun).

    So we might then say that even though the Watchmen may do super-heroic deeds (e.g., the airship fire-rescue mission), they are not super-heroes because they are not characteristically heroic (to speak generally)--rather, they are just super-men: the same goods and the same bads, just amplified.

  8. That is exactly right and I believe the whole point of Watchmen. (Apart from the misanthropy and nihilism, that is.) It's also characteristic of the general degradation of archetypes that pervaded film in the '60s.

    It wasn't unconscious, either: There are a ton of movies from the time about "the last hero". The cowboy also became an anti-hero. But the heroic/action stories probably suffered the least, because in order for most action to be entertaining, you need to be able to take a side.

    (Romantic-comedies have never recovered. Where they were originally built on strong men and women butting heads with trying to resolve how to co-exist, they ultimately became stories about neurotic, barely functional people.)

    But the Watchmen are literally just people in masks whose greater purpose has given them no occasion to rise above petty concerns.

    I mean, seriously, can you imagine Superman dealing with the Silk Specter's daddy issues while the earth was at stake? Or, better yet, Batman?

    Art critics always fault the action narrative for not delving into the Freudian muck. Such stories where the characters are not neurotic (or don't wallow in neuroses) are considered "childish" or "shallow". Which tells you something about art critics.

    In the action tradition, it's the villains who wallow in that stuff, if it's presented at all.

    In this art-critic-approved tradition--which is not just coincidental with the demoralization of our society--heroes are just like everyone else, no better, no worse. (There's some cognitive dissonance there.)

    Then all you have to do to make a super-hero is intensify the heroism (and maybe throw in some supernatural abilities just for fun).

    Well, isn't that true? Soldiers do heroic things all the time. Isn't the reason that The Batman holds such sway over the generations is that, theoretically, if you just tried hard enough, you could be him?

    What purpose does it server to send a message that even if you made yourself the best you could be, you still wouldn't be very good? That you'll still spend your days soaking in ennui or hating your parents or just plain not giving enough of a damn to change the world, even though you could?


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