The Political Legacy of Superheroes
The Political Legacy of Superheroes

The Political Legacy of Superheroes

The world, including the political world, will always need saints to imitate.

March 1 st 2012
Appears in Spring 2012

Last summer, HBO released a documentary called Superheroes, which chronicled the exploits of fifty real-life, selfstyled superheroes across North America. One of these superheroes, Thanatos, has patrolled Vancouver for four years, mostly handing out bottled water and blankets to the homeless— but always, of course, while wearing his green skull mask to hide his true identity. Another, Phoenix Jones, a.k.a Benjamin Foder, was recently forced to unmask after being arrested for using pepper spray to help break up a fight outside a Seattle night club.

The documentary makes it clear that most, if not all, of these real-life superheroes have strong individual desires to promote public justice. They tend to see the political system, especially the police force, as broken, corrupt, or compromised, and so, for the sake of moral integrity and symbolic purity, choose to work outside of it. This is the political legacy of their fictitious forefathers, the greatest superheroes of the DC and Marvel comic book universes.

Superman and the Justice League of America

The DC Comic universe is older than the Marvel one, and so it’s there that we must begin if we want to get at the roots of superhero non-partisanship.

At the centre of the DC Comic universe is the grandfather of all superheroes: Superman. Though originally the name of a bald villain bent on world domination (yep) and based loosely on Nietzsche’s übermensch (a popular, though misleading symbol of German aggression during World War I), Superman was later completely re-envisioned by his creators, Jewish American cartoonists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The model for the re-envisioned Superman was himself a figure who had, at least the first time he was here in the flesh, no earthly political ambition at all: Jesus.

In Action Comics vol. 1, #1, published in 1938, Superman was sent from his home planet of Krypton to Earth and, on Earth, was raised by his virtuous adoptive parents, Mary and Jonathan Joseph Kent. Sometime later “Mary” was changed to “Martha,” but the allusions to Superman as a Christ-type endured and expanded. In the early 1940s, Superman’s real name was revealed to be “Kal-El,” where “El” is the Hebrew word meaning “of God” (as in either Elohim or Gabriel). At roughly the same time, his powers were explained to be caused by the Earth’s yellow sun, a timeless metaphor for God Himself. In the 1978 Superman: The Movie, Superman’s true father sends him to Earth, not so much to save his son this time, but rather to save earthlings. He tells him, “They can be great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason, above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.” And finally a decade later, DC had Superman die at the hands of Doomsday (in an event that sold more than six million comics), only to have him return from the dead to defeat the anti-Superman, Hank Henshaw and restore hope to the world once again.

Yet perhaps most relevant in all this is Superman’s absolute moral integrity, symbolically reflected in his code against killing. Like Jesus, Superman is depicted as being morally superior to all those around him, including those who are most expected to administer justice: the state and its coercive forces, the police and military. Where the world is broken, where “the world changed,” the anti-hero Magog tells—accuses—Superman in Kingdom Come, “you wouldn’t.”

Although America’s, and the world’s, politics are constantly changing, and though what once appeared white has become grey, Superman, as a Christ-type, continues to see things clearly.

Of course, some will say that Superman’s color clarity is to see white as red, white, and blue, and black as whoever stands opposed to America’s politics. These will ask, doesn’t his costume kind of look like the flag? Doesn’t he himself admit that he fights for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”? Isn’t he an arch-Republican and conservative, the very symbol of American nationalistic arrogance?

These objections are commonly heard, but confuse patriotism for politics. Christians have typically maintained that we have a general moral command to favour those closest to ourselves over others. For example, if there were two starving girls in front of me who were identical in every way save for the fact that one happened to be my daughter, and if I had only one indivisible unit of food to distribute, then I would act rightly by giving it to my daughter and would act wrongly by giving it to the other girl. To give the food to the other girl out of agape love would be a violation of justice and hence wouldn’t be agape love at all since, as Nicholas Wolterstorff has so beautifully argued in his book Justice in Love, love completes justice, never does away with it.

The command to favour those closest to ourselves, of course, decreases in potency the further we move away from our families, but nevertheless probably remains in a very mild form when we get to the national level. Hence, patriotism is rightly considered a virtue, even if a minor one. For example, we would rightly think a Canadian citizen somewhat flawed in character if he, for example, were to cheer for Team U.S.A. in the men’s hockey gold medal game rather than for Team Canada. Thus, I think it somewhat apparent that loving one’s country is a good thing—not as obviously good as bare Truth and Justice, but still a good thing—and that loving one’s country neither entails approving of its policies nor thinking it can only be improved through political channels.

Subsequently, to fight for the “American Way” doesn’t mean fighting in defence of America’s foreign policies, for example, though Superman did help the Allies fight the Axis powers during World War II. Superman, as raised by an American family, naturally loves America and her way of life, and, all things being equal, quite properly defends her.

Nevertheless, because the American Way part of the phrase did, in the global popular imagination, become associated with aggressive Americanism across the globe, in the past decade the phrase has changed to see Supes fighting for “Truth, Justice and all that” (Superman Returns, 2006) or “Truth, Justice and the Universal Way” (Brightest Day, 2010). Even more significantly, just last year in Action Comics vol. 1, #900, Superman gave up his American citizenship, not because he stopped loving his country above all others (his costume still looks like the flag) but because too many American politicians wanted to use him to promote controversial American foreign policies. “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy,” he tells the Secretary to the President. “I’m an alien born on another world. I can’t help but see the bigger picture.” For Superman, as for us all, hopefully, serving the interests of one’s family and nation, though important moral considerations, shouldn’t be the only, or even the primary, moral considerations.

As shocking as this all has been to some Americans, this was a long time coming. Superman and the entire Justice League of America (JLA) have worked outside the American judicial system from the beginning, because while the American judicial system and military may (the key word here) be better than most in the world, they aren’t ideal, and Superman, as a Christ-type, is supposed be an ideal. Wonder Woman, too, carries nothing less than the Lasso of Truth, which helps her overcome so much of the complexity that plagues real-life moral deliberation and politics. Batman works with, but also outside, the Gotham police force, not only because it is diseased, but also because as one outside the system, the Dark Knight can act, as he says in Batman Begins, as “a symbol to shake people out of their apathy.” And finally the Green Lantern, who belongs to the Green Lantern Corps or the cosmic police force formed by the “omniscient” Guardians (modelled after Plato’s ideal rulers), is beyond national politics, again acting from a position of superior wisdom and power than those on Earth. The term “America” in the Justice League of America, in other words, is simply indicative of where most of the members live, rather than its political association.

In fact, the JLA is nicely contrasted with the JLI (Justice League International). The former is fully autonomous and almost perfectly wise and good, whereas the latter are the third-stringers of the DC universe—in effect, the stooges of the UN—who are shown to be manipulated by the world organization and forced to tow the party line on some issues that they may personally disagree with.

Now don’t get me wrong: both leagues would agree with St. Paul’s political vision, insisting that all “submit to governing authorities” (Romans 13:1; Titus 3:1) insofar as these authorities are agents of justice—“to bring punishment on the wrongdoers” (Romans 4:1)— and not insofar as they are unjust (Paul himself refused to worship the emperor as a god and even escaped from, rather than submitting to, the unjust King Aretas [2 Corinthians 11:32- 33]). Nevertheless, while the JLA feels free to disagree and act against any point they deem (in their near perfection) to be morally unacceptable, the JLI would, unless the injustice is tremendously serious, not be so free.

Lest we think Superman and the Justice League are tyrants, even well-meaning tyrants like Plato’s guardians, we must remember that in the DC universe, Superman and the League— the big guns of the DC universe—aren’t supposed to be like the rest of us fallen humanity. Yes, Batman is dark and complex, but his judgement and morals never are. The members of the JLA are more divine than human, and this is why their political legacy is in fact a legacy of trans-, but not anti-, politics. Superman and the League are moral symbols, not political figures, but their moral excellence is part of their political legacy, for they continue to inspire citizens of the world, including politicians, to be better than they are. Thus, Superman, flying with outstretched arms next to Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, says of global hunger, “It’s not my place to dictate policy for humankind. But perhaps the sight of me fighting hunger on a global scale would inspire others to take action in their own way.”

Captain America and the Marvel Universe

When we turn from the DC Comic universe to the Marvel one, the political legacy of the marquee superheroes is more nuanced—more human, we could say—yet the dominant trend is very much in step with DC.

To begin with, there is the issue of public disclosure. While all of the major superheroes in the DC universe—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Green Lantern—are masked or hide their true identities, this is only partially true in the Marvel universe. Iron Man, Thor, most of the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four—huge Marvel figures—are very open about their true identities, and the true identities of Captain America and the Hulk are known to the military. Of the big names in the Marvel universe, only Spider-Man is secretive.

Moreover, while no superhero in the DC universe openly supports a real-world politician, Marvel’s Spider-Man, for example, was depicted shaking hands with Obama during the last American election, which was perhaps a wink at the President, who has openly admitted to being a huge Spider-Man fan.1 Additionally, in an issue devoted to 9/11, Spider-Man is questioned by fellow New Yorkers as to where he was and why he wasn’t there to avert the disaster. Spider-Man’s response to all this was to hold back the tears, and then, throughout the story, to critique both the terrorists and Christian fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell, who, with the confidence of God Himself, blamed the tragedy on New York’s corruption.

Of course, superhero political commentary is part of the superhero legacy in both the DC and Marvel universes: Superman and Wonder Woman, for instance, fight Nazis just as much as does Captain America. But, though few will admit that any war is straightforwardly good vs. evil, few would disagree that the Allies were right to wage war against Hitler and the Axis powers. In other words, we don’t need to see Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America as political figures per se, so much as moral figures who happened to side with the U.S. in this conflict because the U.S. happened to be right. All three more or less wore (and both Superman and Captain America still wear) the flag, but this, as I’ve already argued, doesn’t mean they were, or are, political mascots.

Indeed, in the latest Captain America movie, this is made quite clear in that Steve Rogers is a man who passionately wants to join the American military during the Second World War, not because he wants to kill Nazis, but rather because he doesn’t “like bullies.” Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, is selected to be the test subject for the Super-Soldier project, not because he is a mindless worshipper of all things American military, but rather because he is more virtuous than the rest: as Dr. Abraham Erskine tells Rogers, “You must promise me that whatever happens, you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” Though some see this movie as historical revisionism, it is actually very true to the original spirit of Captain America, who was outraged by the Nazi’s unjust treatment of the Jews, and was depicted punching Hitler on the jaw even before the U.S. entered the war. If Captain America had anything to do with inspiring America to enter the war, it would have been by showing America that Hitler was first and foremost a man with the wrong morals, rather than a man with the wrong policies.

Indeed, if Captain America’s primarily allegiance is still doubted, consider the Marvel comic event Civil War. During this event, the Marvel superhero community was divided over the Superhero Registration Act, which required all superheroes to unmask and register as American civil servants (with salaries, benefits, and all). Not coincidently, this Act coincided with the Patriot Act, which limited citizen’s rights to privacy in the name of national security. One group of superheroes, led by Iron Man, supported the act and helped the government capture and detain without trial (à la Guantanamo Bay) all those who opposed it. Mr. Fantastic, of the Fantastic Four, was also on board, and, mirroring the second war in Iraq, led his team to Latvia, a foreign country once ruled by Dr. Doom, and “liberated” it, only to find that the natives resented his liberation and saw him as a tyrant on par with Doom himself. And finally, Iron Man and the other registered superheroes even stooped as low as to recruit super-villains like the Green Goblin and Venom to help them hunt down unregistered criminals like Captain America, who led the opposition to the Registration Act, declaring the government’s law unjust, and eventually going underground to lead the resistance, saying, “Superheroes need to stay above [politics] or Washington starts telling us who the supervillains are.” Because Captain America is the moral light—the Superman—of the Marvel universe, it’s clear in the comics that Captain was in the right. Thus, after the events of Civil War played out, Captain was vindicated, and the other pro-registration supporters, including Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, and Spider- Man, all joined him in upholding the code of all the greatest superheroes: independence from government control.

The Legacy

Although the political legacy of superheroes is worthy of an entire book (and a very fat book at that), I hope that the general contours are clear. For the most part, the greatest of the superheroes—Superman in the DC universe and Captain America in the Marvel one—are great because they are symbols of moral integrity. Being so, their political legacy has been one that properly sees them loving their countries and working with their governments as much as they can, but also boldly acting against the government where conscience requires it.

But this isn’t all they are: superheroes aren’t merely political activists like participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement, nor are they simply about helping the homeless or pepper spraying minor criminals as with Thanatos or Phoenix Jones. The Occupy protestors and the real-life superheroes lack two key qualities that the best of the DC and Marvel universe possess.

The first quality is power. Superheroes fight— not just with words or worldly weapons, but with wonders—against injustice. They fight in ways that ordinary men and governments, because of their corruption or limited abilities, are incapable of doing. The ancient Chinese emperors needed te in order to implement the Mandate of Heaven, and the prophets and disciples of old did miracles—acts of power— to demonstrate the Truth of their message. Superman has invulnerable skin; the Occupy protestors have polyester tents. Wonder Woman has a magical lasso; Phoenix Jones, pepper spray. Captain America has an unbreakable shield; Thanatos has bottled water.

The second quality is moral perfection. While many are familiar with Aristotle’s understanding of virtue and the virtuous man, few are familiar with his understanding of godlike excellence and the hero or the man who “seemed not the child of a mortal man, but as one that came of God’s seed.” The reason, of course, for this ignorance is understandable: the Philosopher devoted no more than a paragraph to this superman. For Aristotle, the best a human being could ever realistically be is virtuous and magnanimous. Nevertheless, he never denied the notion of a true hero or superman, and perhaps if he could have traded places with Anna the prophetess, or even, per impossibile, the fictitious Jimmy Olson, he could have met one.

Sadly, we are Aristotles, not Annas, and so it’s doubtful that we’ll see any genuine superheroes in our lifetime. Nevertheless, the fact that we have men like Phoenix Jones and Thanatos walking the streets because they feel inspired to make the world—a broken world—a better place should stir in us admiration, not ridicule. True, we might feel better if such men—fallen men, as we all are—worked to reform the system from within, but we might still be encouraged by their motives.

The world, including the political world, needs, and always will need, heroes to look up to to motivate them to become more godlike than they are. It’s biblical to imitate the saints, after all.

Adam Barkman
Adam Barkman

Adam Barkman (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam) is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Redeemer University College. He is the author of C. S. Lewis and Philosophy as a Way of Life (Zossima, 2009), Through Common Things: Essays on Global Popular Culture (Winged Lion, 2010) and Above All Things: Essays on Christian Ethics and Popular Culture (Winged Lion, 2012). He is also the co-editor of Manga and Philosophy (Open Court, 2010), The Philosophy of Ang Lee (UPK, 2013), and The Culture and Philosophy of Ridley Scott (Lexington, 2013). Failing as a superhero (no powers, no muscles, and no cash), Barkman fights truth decay at Redeemer instead (though he secretly hopes that one day his three kids will don capes).


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