The sad reason we love superheroes, and the cure

Summary: Here is why we love superheroes, a sad reason pointing to our biggest weakness. Understanding the problem points to a cure.

“All fantasy should have a solid base in reality.”
— Max Beerbohm’s novel Zuleika Dobson: Or, An Oxford Love Story (1911).

Superhero on roof - Dreamstime-111070697
ID 111070697 © Jamesteohart | Dreamstime.

Super-empowered individuals (using Tom Friedman’s neologism) have always played a large role in American myth. It is a long list. Nathaniel “Natty” Bumppo, the frontier hero in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales. Tarzan (1912), Zoro (book 1919, film 1940), The Lone Ranger (1933), the libertarian hero John Galt in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and James Bond. When it comes to our heroic myths, it’s always High Noon. We are just bystanders – ignorant, passive, perhaps even cowardly – while heroes do all the work.

powergirl

During the Great Depression, our dreams took a new direction. We invented comic book heroes such as Green Arrow and Batman – rich Jesus figures who sacrifice themselves for the peons. And actual gods like Superman and Thor.

“It’s individuals, and individuals alone, who matter. {Heroes} do great things. And they do them alone. This is Hollywood’s …enduring, conservative belief.”

— From “Hollywood’s Real Bias Is Conservative (But Not in the Way Liberals Often Say)“ by Elias Isquith in The Atlantic, 9 January 2012.

These fantasies have seeped into our beliefs about the real world, as described by Charles A. Beard in his great classic “The Myth of Rugged American Individualism“ (Harper’s, December 1931).

Until now these dreams existed in creative tension with our true greatest strength: people working together to build America. The Mayflower Compact, the Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, wagon trains, cattle drives, unions. And mutual organizations from Franklin’s Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire (our first property insurance company, 1752) to the Boy Scouts of America.

Other organizations fought for our rights during the generations after the Civil War: unions, progressives fighting for clean food and water, activists fighting for civil rights for Blacks, women, and gays. Groups of brave people working together against giant powers, often sacrificing all they had – eventually gaining enough popular support to make their reforms happen.

Clint Eastwood

Our greatest triumphs came from our tight social cohesion, such as during avoiding totalitarianism during the Great Depression and WWII (in which we mobilized more than Britain and Germany). Alone we are weak before the awesome power of wealth and large predatory entities (public and private). We are dust in the wind.

Teamwork and powerful institutions used to populate not just our history books but also our legends. Such as Marvel Comic’s SHIELD, E. E. Smith’s Triplanetary, Robert Heinlein’s Space Patrol, and U.N.C.L.E. (as in “The Man From”).

No longer. During the 1960’s and especially the 1970’s we became alienated from our institutions. Organizations that should have led us into the future, like NASA, failed us. We learned that institutions which should protect us, such as the FBI and CIA, were often criminal oppressors. Institutions that we admired, like the military, often displayed gross incompetence.

Now organizations most often appear in fiction as irrelevant, inept, or evil.

Our response is not a commitment to reform of these institutions, whatever the cost or effort. Ignoring the great problems facing our nation, we retreat into fantasy. As the punch line to the Russian joke goes, we pull down the blinds and pretend we’re moving. We dream of having superheroes fix our problems. The Blue Fairy will solve everything – if we believe in fairies.

“A dream is a personal experience of that deep, dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society’s dream. The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group.”
— Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth (1988).

Conclusion

Our confidence that one person can make a difference is (and hopefully will remain) a core part of the American character. But this must remain in balance with its opposite, our ability to work together. Otherwise, we’ll be sheep, controlled by powerful interests beyond any individual’s ability to influence.

The ability to balance contradictory values is a distinguishing strength of western civilization. Freedom and equality. Science and humanities. Nature and art. Human rights and multiculturalism. The periods in our history where we lost that balance, as we have today, usually end badly.

We can do great deeds in the future. We lack only the will to put aside the fantasies of children and act together as citizens. We need stories that help lead us to a better future. Otherwise, our ruling elites will treat us as children to be ruled with a firm hand.

“People need stories, more than bread, itself. They teach us how to live, and why. …Stories show us how to win.”
— The Master Storyteller in HBO’s wonderful Arabian Nights.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.  See all posts about heroes, about reforming America: steps to new politics, and especially these…

  1. Can Americans pull together? If not, why not?
  2. The philosophy behind the legend of Batman.
  3. Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?
  4. Why don’t our dreams of a better world inspire us to act?
  5. We like superheroes because we’re weak. Let’s use other myths to become strong.
  6. Inspiration. The missing element that can reform America.
  7. Where we can find the inspiration to fix America?
  8. Make a better future. Pick up the War Arrow.

The best possible ending for a lone hero

Here is the conclusion of Rollerball (1975), a new-born hero in a world without heroes – a world designed to prevent the rise of heroes. At the end, James Caan’s character is a heroic survivor – battered, alone, and vulnerable. Nowhere to go but in circles. Skating around and around.

What kind of sequel could we write for it? Nothing inspiring. Caan could retire with a large pension, perhaps hitting the speaking tour for fat fees.

15 thoughts on “The sad reason we love superheroes, and the cure”

  1. The word needed here is “Narrative” There is one both which we believe and which is not benevolent.
    Caitlin Johnston talks about it a lot. We need to get with it and stop voting to sustain it as we do now. e.g.;

    WaPo Warns USA Needs More Narrative Control As Pentagon Ramps Up Narrative Control

    New post] Notes From The Edge Of The Narrative Matrix

  2. Ah, Power Girl, revealing the OTHER sad reason why we love superheroes…

    That aside, have you read much of Terry Pratchett? He had a good line about myths. From his book, “Hogfather”, in which Susan talks to her grandfather Death:

    "All right," said Susan, "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need...fantasies to make life bearable."
    Really? As if it was some kind of pink pill? No. Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
    "Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—"
    Yes. As practice. You have to start out learning to believe the little lies.
    "So we can believe the big ones?"
    Yes. Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing.
    "They're not the same at all!"
    You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet you act as if there is some...some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.
    "Yes. But people have got to believe that, or what's the point—"
    My point exactly.

  3. The ability to balance contradictory values is a distinguishing strength of western civilization. Freedom and equality. Science and humanities. Nature and art. Human rights and multiculturalism. The periods in our history where we lost that balance, as we have today, usually end badly.

    A good observation.

    1. Tom,

      I haven’t seen “The Boys”, but the first season of “Smallville” gave a good perspective on the whole superpowers gig. All these people, men and women – young and old – get superpowers. Almost all use them badly, which seems realistic to me. Some go bonkers, which also seems realistic.

      It shows that the very special aspect of Clark Kent is that he uses his powers with restraint and for good. That’s what makes him “Superman”, and is something that each of us can do in our own lives (Batman has the same theme). Of course, I’ve never seen this aspect of the show mention. The fans and critics focus on the soap opera aspects.

  4. Larry, totally off topic message – get ‘The Madness of Crowds’ by Douglas Murray. Very perceptive book. Worth a review. When things like this appear we might be reaching peak ‘wokedom’.

    1. Henrik,

      I’ve seen surprisingly favorable reviews in the major media (such as this in The Times). I assume that’s because Murray is gay, and hence of a superior caste.

      “Then things like this appear we might be reaching peak ‘wokedom’.”

      That’s like saying that when people point to the dawn then the day is almost over.

  5. What about X-Men? Don’t they kind of break the mold as far as “lone vigilante heroes”? The whole premise is that there’s a whole species of people who are different, who want civil rights as people, and so they collectively band together to achieve their goals? Some do it the “right way” (the X-Men) others the “wrong way” (The Brotherhood) although in the end don’t we all really feel sympathetic to Magneto and his cause as well?

    Then you have the Fantastic Four, which is at its core, a story about family. I’m hoping Disney will be better at representing them onscreen than Fox did.

    I won’t bring up other superhero societies, like Justice League and Avengers, because they are a little more loosely knit. But I don’t know if individualism is the only right path for superheroes on screen.

    1. Rogue,

      Yes, there are superhero groups. But they were and are a small fraction of the genre. As described in this post, the iconic versions of these myths were as outsider loner heroes.

      “The whole premise is that there’s a whole species of people who are different, who want civil rights as people, and so they collectively band together to achieve their goals?”

      To what are you referring? The X-men were not working for civil rights in the comics, so far as I know. But I stopped reading the comics before the whole Mutant Registration stories. But by then I believe the circulation of the comics was a shadow of what they were before they became Leftist projects.

      In the films, the X-Men did not band together to work for their civil rights.

      Look at this from another perspective. Groups like the Avengers, Justice League, and X-Men are not institutions – like SHIELD, or unions, or the organizations that fought and won the civil right struggle. They are more like pick-up basketball teams. The latter were real organizations.

  6. John Michael Greer has some interesting thoughts on the subject of superheroes having taken over our fictional media:

    “Apparently for decades now — since about the time I got bored, for entirely different reasons, with most of the latest offerings of fantasy and science fiction — those genres have been packed to the point of nausea with endless retellings of the same basic story. You know that story already, dear reader, even if you’ve never opened the cover of a single fantasy or science fiction novel. It’s the story of the Chosen One: the spunky, unfairly treated kid or young adult who’s far more talented than anybody else and who’s been marked out for a big shiny destiny. Maybe he has a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead, maybe she’s got unparalleled numbers of macro-handwavians in her blood, maybe — well you can fill in the blanks for yourself.

    “The character in question doesn’t have to do anything or learn anything to get assigned the status we’re discussing, by the way. No, the Chosen One is the Chosen One because he or she or fill-in-the-pronoun is the Chosen One, that’s why, and that’s also why the entire plot and, in too many cases, the entire cosmos revolves around that particular character.

    “What’s more, the Chosen One is always special. He or she or what have you is always set apart from the rest of humanity by being specially special in some excruciatingly special way that alone can solve whatever problem is central to the plot, and vaporize whatever Evilly Evil Lord of Evilness is causing the problem out of pure pointless malice. (That’s another neurotic twitch central to too much modern fantasy, but it’s also a subject for a different conversation.)

    He doesn’t think it’s deliberate propaganda; he finds it to be the product of the ideology of the industrial world’s managerial caste, the people who earn absurdly large salaries deciding which novels are going to get picked up by the big corporate publishers, which scripts are going to be turned into Hollywood films and publicized from here to Tatooine, and so on. I disagree. I think it’s a deliberate effort to induce helplessness and despair in the hearts of ordinary people, to ensure that they don’t take up any meaningful resistance to the managerial caste. After all, none of us is a superhero. So just give up. There is no alternative. Bollocks! Don’t mourn. Organize!

    1. Stanley,

      There are many examples of the “chosen one” in fiction. But there are more who are not. Look at DC’s stars: neither Superman nor Batman is a “chosen one.” Look at the DC hero TV shows: Flash, the Arrow, the Atom, Black Canary, etc. No chosen ones.

      Ditto on Marvel: Spiderman, Iron Man, Hulk.

      Many of these are average people whom accidents have given superpowers – the opposite of the “chosen one” meme. Or they are regular (not super) people who have assumed the role of savior (eg, Zoro, Batman, Arrow, Iron Man).

  7. To understand fully what is wrong with this article, I invite you to read the Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. It takes Howard Roarks, rugged individuals, to make a positive change in the world. In real life, look at Steve Jobs, and Kalanick (Uber). People think as individuals, not as groups of individuals. Groups of individuals are exactly that: a set of people who are thinking independently and happen to share a common view on a certain thing. But no group has ever innovated. An individual innovates, and the other people help him if they themselves think he is onto something good. Just like we don’t digest food communally, we don’t think communally. The mind and stomack belong are per individual.

    1. Boris,

      Those are odd examples. Apple is a dot in the history of computing. Its big break was being first to market with a cell phone. But others were close behind, and erasing Apple from history would not change the present materially.

      Uber is a giant money-losing demonstration that Wall Street is broken. As tech innovations go, it is trivia. Application of apps to taxis – like everything else – was inevitable.

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