The Dangerous Inner Lives of Superheroes

So the new Age of Ultron trailer is out, and it looks like standard stuff at this point.  Being the middle part of a planned trilogy, it has elected (unsurprisingly) for The Empire Strikes Back route, going darker, more serious, and, yes, even a bit pretentious.  I know I’m in a pretty small minority when I say Empire is easily my least favorite of the original trilogy.  It might be the “darkest” of the original trilogy, but as I’ve said before, “dark” doesn’t equal “maturity”.  It’s safe to say that the theme of this one will be the Avengers getting their comeuppance after the triumph of their previous film.  In the original comic books, Ultron is an evil robot built by Hank Pym and one of Pym’s greatest mistakes.  No doubt, this new Ultron will be a creation of Iron Man, and the Avengers, instead of sweeping in to save the day will be stuck cleaning up their own mess.  I would be incredibly surprised if it doesn’t end with the Avengers being officially disbanded and a strong downer (read “mature”) element.

But then I remember that, despite that, this is a movie featuring the Hulk fighting Hulkbuster Armor (which to my knowledge has never ever beaten the Hulk, so maybe he should call it Hulk-irritating Armor), where a god, a supersoldier, and a guy who is really, really good at archery all team up to keep an evil robot from destroying humanity.  Low expectations aside, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is incorporating every gonzo element of the superhero genre, and this looks to continue expanding that idea.  If it pulls an Empire, I’ll probably be cool with it if the Vision shows up and is really awesome.

With the continuation of superheroes into the mainstream and no sign of it slowing down, this is as good a time as any then to share my thoughts on the superhero genre.  It is perhaps my favorite genre.  It’s definitely the one I grew up with, like a lot of young fantasy fans.  It isn’t without its flaws.

I’m not the first (or the millionth) to observe that superheroes often represent a strange brand of heroism.  One of might makes right and preservation of the status quo.  They accidentally (or even on purpose sometimes) equate physical power with justice, and most superheroes, by their nature, are devoted to keeping things from changing.  They usually have good justifications for that, but it doesn’t change the fact that it isn’t unfair to call much of the superhero genre escapist power fantasies devoted to the defeat of anyone who dares to break societies taboos.

This isn’t always a bad thing.  If Dr. Doom wants to enslave all of the Earth to his iron will, then when The Fantastic Four stop him, it’s a black-and-white issue.  Lex Luthor (even in his current corrupt executive form) is a guy with questionable ethics, willing to do whatever he thinks he can get away with, in pursuit of his own power.  Bad guys like Loki or Galactus operate on such a different scale that much of the real world parallels fall out the window.  Yet even when these villains are clearly wrong, the message is always the same:  The systems in place are already as good as they’re going to get and any change is a bad thing.

As a longtime Thor fan, Loki has always been an interesting character to me.  I’m not talking about the movie version, which is okay, but way too whiny and insecure for my tastes.  The comic book version of Loki is a complex character wrestling with his own egotism, insecurities, and incredible power.  He seeks the throne of Asgard, and yet is constantly told he is unworthy.  Meanwhile, he watches everyone declaring Thor’s awesomeness as Thor continually turns down the throne when offered to him.  That has to hurt, and one can hardly blame Loki for finding that insulting.  This is Marvel’s Asgard, after all, where Ragnarok breaks out with surprising regularity.  And Loki has been a great ally on more than one occasion.  And let’s not pretend as if Odin has always made the right decisions.

Okay, so a lot of this is accidental politics.  The reason Loki isn’t on the throne is because he’s more interesting as a villain than as a king.  The reason Thor doesn’t claim the throne is because he’s more exciting running around the universe, fighting bad guys, than serving as chief administrator for a kingdom.  But accidental or not, the message is clear.  Odin sits on the throne, and any0one who thinks it should be different is wrong.

The parallel could be drawn with my favorite villain: Dr. Doom.  Doom is a supreme genius and believes he should run the world.  There’s no doubt that Doom is egotistical and power-hungry, but the question of whether he would be a good ruler isn’t an easy one.  Some writers have presented his home country of Latvaria as a prosperous, relatively happy place where everything is fine as long as nobody does anything to piss Doom off.  The problem with this portrayal is that it often undercuts the notion of Doom as a nefarious villain.  It’s not as if the leaders of real world countries are not capable of atrocities, egotism, and corruption.  Sure, Doom enforces his will with robots and death rays, but that’s superficial differences really.

I have no doubt that Doom has little care for his fellow humans, but the guy does enjoy playing at being “regal” which means noblesse oblige.  He’s also smart enough to realize feeding people is easier than suppressing constant rebellion.  To be sure, if Doom took over the world, there would be a massive rise in the number of Dr. Doom statues across the world and certain freedoms would be lost, but Doom would most likely be a benevolent overlord in his own fashion.  I’m not endorsing Doom for President, but given the dysfunctional nature of our own real world, I’m not sure how radically different it would be.

Yet this status quo remains even on a smaller level.  Batman won’t ever kill the Joker.  The story reason is that Batman doesn’t kill people.  The practical reason is that it’s hard to have a recurring villain roster when your hero kills his rogue’s gallery.  (The Punisher has never maintained a stable of recurring villains for exactly this reason.)  So Batman, protector of Gotham City, spends most his time maintaining a very deliberate status quo.  Sure, he’s Gotham’s protector, but he’s also its enabler.  This isn’t even getting into the real world questions of whether all the money he’s spent as Batman might be better served improving quality of life in the city itself or the rather absurd philosophy that it’s okay to beat the hell out of people just as long as you don’t kill them in the process.

None of these questions were ever meant to be asked of the superhero genre.  Some writers have asked them anyway and written some interesting stories by doing so.  But real world issues popping up in superhero stories is difficult territory, often better left unexplored.  I don’t need to watch Batman beat up on muggers because muggers are a real life problem, created by real life societal failings.  But killer clowns with deadly laughing gas, that’s safely in the realm of absurdity.  It’s not that the stories need be goofy or irrelevant to our own lives.  It’s just that the relevancy should be tangential, not in your face.  It runs the risk of belittling real world complexities and making superheroes look stupid.

The truth though, if we can admit it, is that there IS an aspect of power fantasy at work in nearly all superhero stories.  We are almost always asked to identify with an individual of great power who is the only one capable of righting wrongs and saving the day.  Bruce Wayne doesn’t stop the Joker by calling the police.  No, he dives in, fists first, and beats some justice into him.  And while I enjoy the action adventure and superhero genre, there are times when even I find that notion uncomfortable.  The Avengers is a great flick, but it boils down to a story about an army of evil outsiders invading the world and only a handful of righteous asskickers being capable of stopping them.  As escapism, it works.  As character studies and thrilling adventure, it works.  As a format designed to showcase a bunch of cool superheroes with amazing powers in cool fights, it works.  As a great way of dealing with real world problems, well, that’s a bit trickier.

True, there are times when physical force is required.  There are times when the only way to protect ourselves is with violence, and there’s little point in denying it.  The evil alien army that invades Earth in Avengers isn’t interested in discussion or negotiation.  They’re here to destroy us, and so we can destroy them in turn.  But what about the scene where Thor and Iron Man fight it out?  These are our heroes, and instead of talking, they immediately start duking it out.  This is superhero tradition, and it’s mostly there because it’s a cool reason to have a fight.  But it also highlights a problem with superheroes.  Even when dealing with each other, their first instinct is to punch and zap each other.  Even among themselves, violence often takes the place of otherwise civil discussion.

Avengers gets away with this a bit because Captain America shows up, puts an end to the fight by pointing out how ridiculous the fight is, but even then, this is more to highlight Cap’s leadership abilities rather than any comment on the assumed virtue of violence among these warrior gods.

It’s easy to say this is all overanalysis.  Indeed, it is.  But it’s only through overanalysis that we can safely enjoy fantasy.  Understanding the fantastic and ridiculous nature of Batman allows us to enjoy his stories without (hopefully) buying into the worldview presented.  The evil aliens of Avengers are a plot device, intentionally and cartoonishly evil, and we shouldn’t apply the same simplified Kill-Em-All attitude toward real life enemies.  We should be able to enjoy watching Thor and Iron Man fight it out without having to endorse the notion that the power of one’s fists determines the strength of one’s argument.

We should.

Sadly, this isn’t always the case.  Even deconstructions of these power fantasies often fail to leave the right impression.  There are people who read Watchman thinking it would be cool to be Rorschach, though the story is unapologetic in its portrayal of Rorschach (and indeed all its characters) as troubled, deeply flawed, and unworthy of admiration.  There are still writers who love to write stories where Batman beats the hell out of muggers, even after the muggers have been subdued.  And in the end, there is a visceral thrill in watching the Incredible Hulk smash cars with his bare hands and Superman punch a spaceship through a building.

It is, I’ll admit, a difficult nut to crack.  Violence is a part of who we are, and indulging those tendencies in stories is a healthy outlet.  There’s also something really awesome about stories about fantastic beings in strange adventures.  It’s a very real sense of wonder that I think is worth preserving.  One of my favorite comics of all time is an all splash page battle between Thor and the Midgard Serpent.  It’s epic and titanic and full of amazing, glorious adrenaline fueled fury.  But it’s not the real world, and I never thought it was.

In my own stories, I find violence to be less enticing.  Too often, a hero’s virtue is found in their ability to kick ass.  This is why Nessy and Emperor Mollusk rank among my favorite characters.  Nessy, the kobold housekeeper from Too Many Curses, is defined by her organizational skills and positive, pragmatic attitude.  Emperor, the evil genius space squid from Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain, is certainly capable of violence, but he’d much rather solve problems with his intellect than destruction.  Though the two elements are often tied together in an admittedly unhealthy manner in his case.

(Excuse the plugs.  I do have bills to pay.)

And here’s where we get to the real issue.  We like violence.  We like to believe, on some primordial level, that if we just punched all the bad people the world would be a better place.  We have always been (and perhaps always will be) convinced that if we bust enough heads everything will be just fine.  Not to drag real world issues into it, but everything from politics to crime prevention to the countless wars across the globe are built on this notion that intimidation, threats, and power in the right hands are how to solve problems.  I don’t blame superheroes for instilling a simplified worldview in us.  Rather, I note that superheroes speak to the simplified worldview we already have within us.

The final question then is this:  Can we love our superheroes without feeding that simplified, might-makes-right attitude?  I honestly don’t know.  I, like most most people, like to believe that being a fan of superheroes doesn’t mean I have to believe in their most commonly presented philosophy?  But doesn’t everyone?  Don’t we all have our blind spots?  Don’t we all have someone, some person, some group that we’d like to punch until they stopped being a thorn in our sides?

We are, after all, only human.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. JB Sanders
    Posted October 23, 2014 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Comics were originally targeted at preteens and the semi literate, so all the stories were basically children fantasy tales with simplistic moral points that were easy for the developing mind to assimilate. Then comics fell on hard times in the fifties after congressional hearings and the creation of the self imposed comics code.

    Marvel changed things in the early sixties with more interesting characters and multi issue arcs that dealt with more socially relevant situations. That pushed their audience into high school and then college. When DC realized they were falling behind in the seventies, their answer was to go dark and gritty without the character development Marvel had established for their line. Later they did go the socially relevant route with Green Arrow, but the rest of their lines, for the most part maintained their gritty persona, with Batman doing it to an almost absurd level.

    One thing that DC did better than Marvel was the war comics. As much fun as the cartoonish Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos was, Sgt Rock and Easy Company was so much better when dealing with the environment of war and battle.

  2. charliechaplin
    Posted November 6, 2014 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Yeah right, I really agree with you A. Lee Martinez that being a fan of superheroes doesn’t mean we have to believe in their most commonly presented philosophy.

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  3. Bill Mallory
    Posted December 11, 2014 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    I would like to throw out the idea that reading about violence in our escapism does not neccessarily carry over to the real world. Maybe the reason we like tales of black and white, good or bad issues is because real life is made up of so many freakin’ shades of grey that it is nice to be able to read a simple tale where we can get away from the nuances and pretend life can be made better by beating something up.

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