Superhero Politics in the Real World

The politics of Superheroes, and how they act as metaphors for the real world has always been an interest of mine. After all, I’m a huge fan of superheroes, and I believe that every work is inherently political. And when a guy fights for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way;” or wears a stylized American Flag as a costume, well, things can’t help but lean towards politics.

Besides being in the middle of an election year; today also marks the midpoint between two of the biggest Superhero film releases of all time, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Captain America: Civil War; both of which are versus movies that pit heroes and ideologies against each-other; so I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing a lot recently. And while I believe that these fictional characters can all legitimately represent political ideals and beliefs, and that arguments about morality as gleamed from superheroes are totally valid, all discussion about this topic has to be meditated by the simple and unobjectionable fact that the world that superheroes exist in is not our own, and does not follow our rules.

I’ll elaborate with an example. I love Superman. He is my favorite superhero of all time, and the one I believe to be the most important, both culturally, and as a moral figure. I believe that Superman will always choose to do the right thing, and will always be capable of doing everything necessary in order to get the perfect outcome. That said, if Superman really existed, I would be terrified of him. In our world, an indestructible, all-powerful alien could only be perceived as a threat, and I would wholeheartedly back any and all actions taken to find a vulnerability in Superman.

And this, I feel, is the sort of thing that Zack Snyder, David. S Goyer, Chris Terrio, and everyone else involved in Batman v Superman was trying to convey. That in our world, a Superman could not do the right thing all of the time, and would be perceived as an international threat. And that is exactly why the movie failed, why a movie with that sort of philosophy regarding superheroes, especially Superman, could never work without being at least somewhat satirical. What they couldn’t see, or didn’t want to see, is that a Superman who isn’t perfectly good all of the time isn’t Superman. That as much as we might like the idea of it, a Superman could never exist in our world in any recognizable form. And that is because the world in which Superman was created into, and the world that Superman must exist in, is one determined by its own rules and a system that needs a Superman to solve its problems.

Even if trying to ignore Snyder’s own leanings towards objectivism, one must admit that BvS operates under the assumption that all people, including Superman, operate out of their own self-interest, and that everyone, including Superman, can be morally or otherwise fallible. In some (superficial) ways, this is very much like our own world. It’s perfectly reasonable to suspect that people will act in their best interests, and because of that subjectivity, people with power should be treated with suspicion when they propose action as they might try to use it to the harm of others.

But this is not the world Superman lives in, and those are not the rules by which he operates.

In-universe, Superman gets his powers from Earth’s yellow sun, and his abilities allow him to, essentially, do whatever he needs to do to save the world. But narratively, as a fictional character, Superman’s powers derive from the people – the creators and the audience. Superman does not act in his self-interest, he acts in our interest. Superman (and Batman and much of DC comics’ characters) exist in a world where much of the world’s legal, monetary, and other power is held by self-interested villains who wield that power to oppress others. Heroes exist as a lone resistance to overwhelming private and corrupt governmental powers, and we need these heroes to fight for good because the fictional citizenry of that universe is utterly incapable of defending themselves. And the reason that the heroes in these stories win is because (in a well told story) we have sympathy for that fictional citizenry, and want the hero who fights to defend them to beat the villain that acts in self-interest to oppress them.

In that way, both in and out of universe, Superman (and other heroes) exist only as actors of the public interest. Heroes, and Superman especially, are defined by their ability to always be there to sacrifice themselves and their interests for the public good. Superman acts out of an ideal altruism, ultimately possessing no motivations not given to him by a larger public. In-universe, Superman exists and fights tirelessly for truth and justice because Clark Kent has a total empathy for all human life and realizes he has the ability to prevent most harm that could come to people. For us, Superman exists because we want to believe that someone with ultimate power would use it for the benefit of all people instead of their own self-interest; because we want to believe that given the opportunity, goodness will always triumph over evil. Superman’s victories are not his own, they are ours. Basically, if we didn’t believe that Superman, as a character, represented what we believe to be the best of humanity, we wouldn’t want him to win. He wins because we want him to; because him winning is our better, altruistic selves winning over self-interest and greed.

This same sort of argument transfers over to the second big Hero Versus movie this year, Captain America: Civil War. Given my real life political leanings, I would probably find myself on #TeamIronMan. As a group of living weapons with the potential, and a history of causing great damage to people, and the world; I believe that, if they existed in our world, the Avengers should have to operate under some sort of united government oversight. I believe that power of that magnitude would have to be mediated by a publicly elected body, same way as expected of any actual military.

However, considering the narrative that this movie seems to be setting up from previous films in the MCU, and promotional materials, I find myself on #TeamCap. Because, throughout the MCU, the government has been shown to range anywhere from inept (in the case of wanting to nuke Manhattan in The Avengers), to literally being secretly run by Nazis (as discovered in Winter Soldier). We’re also told by the films that Steve Rogers is an incorruptible and benevolent moral figure who always has the right judgement, and uses his great power responsibly and with the public’s good in mind. In-universe, Cap is as morally infallible as Superman, so any attempt to mediate that through a demonstrably corrupt system, government or otherwise, would be to the public’s detriment.

All of this is, I guess to say, that symbols as powerful as superheroes are not as immediately politically cut-and-dry as you might expect from stories were initially meant for children. That, yes, they do often exist in simplified terms of good and evil, and right and wrong; but under that are systems that depend on a belief (in arguably naive notions), of idealism. That someone can believe in, and even look up to a character like Superman who uses his infinite powers to always do the right thing for the right reasons, without advocating for real-life superpowers like governments or corporations to act without oversight or limits no matter how many times they claim its the “right thing.” I.E. I want Superman to do what Superman thinks is best because I have faith he actually knows what’s best and will act towards that. I think that a president should operate under a system of checks-and-balances because I don’t have faith that they aren’t working in their own interests over that of the people.

And maybe it’s another reminder that while these heroes will never exist, that does not mean that the ideals they represent aren’t worth working towards.