Are Superheroes Fascists?

Writing at Salon, Richard Cooper expresses dismay with recent superhero movies. Here’s a sample:

I was reminded of this by Jor-El’s speech in “Man of Steel”:

You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.

How, though? Those watching him can’t fly, topple buildings or fire heat rays from their eyes. What else does Superman do other than these purely physical feats? The 1978 version of Jor-El warned: “It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history. Rather let your leadership stir others to.” Can you really inspire others with steel? At this point it’s interesting to reflect on the real-life leader who chose a name meaning “Man Of Steel”: Stalin.

Fascism also reduces the role of anyone who isn’t Superman to that of an adoring onlooker. Anyone who has ever daydreamed about heroic activities as a child might remember the passive role the imaginary spectators take on while you rescue them, display superpowers or battle your antagonists. As China Mieville said of Frank Miller’s earlier celebrated comic-book miniseries “The Dark Knight Returns”: “The underlying idea is that people are sheep, who need Strong Shepherds.” Throughout Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the people for whom Batman is fighting are absent. There are some awed children, and a couple of people foolish enough to think that they could dress up as Batman, but they put in no more than fleeting appearances.

Fascism also relies on people who must be crushed. The Batman films — and indeed the entire Batman mythos — are based on the idea that what criminals really need is a damn good thrashing, because it’s the only language these punks understand. The vicarious thrill in seeing Batman yell “Swear to me!” at some pitiful creep who swears to God he doesn’t know anything is for the nasty-minded child in all of us: an innocent pleasure until you start to think about the politics. Always lurking in these movies, too, is the assumption that whether or not we should torture people is actually a question, surely the most obscene symptom of the cultural shift toward right-wing ideas in a liberal coating (seen also in “Homeland” and “Battlestar Galactica”).

Cooper makes some interesting points, but I also think he is overlooking something pretty obvious. Let me build up to my point with a few anecdotes.

A while back, a casual acquaintance of mine decided I must be a political neoconservative. This conclusion was based on my refusal to condemn Harry Potter for using the cruciatis curse against one of his enemies. This indicated my support for torture, you see.

There was an episode of the original Star Trek in which some aliens on planet something or other decided they wanted to better understand the concepts of good and evil. So they gathered together four exemplars of evil (as I recall, Genghis Khan was one of them), and four exemplars of good (Kirk, Spock, Lincoln, and some other Vulcan) to fight it out. It was a pretty forgettable episode, but there was a memorable moment near the end. After the inevitable victory by the forces of good, one of the aliens points out that in the end they resorted to the same tactics as the forces of evil. “How are you different?” the alien asks. Kirk asks the alien what he offered the forces of evil to make the cooperate. The alien says he offered them what they wanted most: money, glory, power, fame. Kirk replies, “You offered me the lives of my crew and the safety of my ship. There’s your difference.”

And then there was the political science course I took as an undergraduate. It was a course in political ethics. Included in the extensive reading list were several novels and short stories. One day, the professor asked us why we thought he included so much fiction. We stared at him. Then he explained that fiction is a wonderful vehicle for illustrating and clarifying ethical dilemmas. In the fictional world of the story, the outlines of the situation and the motivations of the characters can be stipulated unambiguously. There’s far less of the messy grey areas that plague the analysis of real-life situations.

So what has Cooper overlooked? It’s not fascism when an unambiguously good guy kicks the ass of an unambiguously bad guy. It’s not the nasty-minded child within us that cheers when Batman says, “Swear to me!” Rather, it’s the mature, decent adult that celebrates good triumphing over evil in a movie, since it so often fails to in real life. And it’s not right-wing to understand that good and evil are real things, and that there are some people in the world who really do need something more than a stern talking-to.

And then there’s the fact that within the fictional world of the movie, the superheroes really are legitimate objects of admiration. Batman is a prime example. Bruce Wayne is richer than God. He could live a life of leisure and relaxation and not worry at all about the little people beneath him. Instead he goes to considerable personal cost to fight for people even when, High Noon-like, they are not always worthy of such sacrifice.

Likewise for Spider-Man. He hates being Spider-Man. He is not out there lording his power over the little people and longing for the admiration of his subjects. Instead he is motivated by his uncle’s last words to him: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Am I not supposed to admire someone whose faultless moral compass leads him to fight the bad guys, at considerable personal cost?

And Cooper’s overlooking the significant fact that we are talking about fictional stories here. Those of us capable of distinguishing fiction from reality understand that you can indulge fantasies in fiction that you cannot indulge in real-life. Cheering Harry Potter when he sticks it to someone who plainly deserves it has no implications at all for what is appropriate in reality. In the movies vigilantes are like Batman. In real-life they look more like George Zimmerman.

There’s a reason superhero stories are referred to as “escapist” literature. What we are escaping is the ambiguity and grey areas, and relentless nastiness, of everyday life. Cooper mocks people who say, “What were you expecting, Citizen Kane?” but that’s actually a pretty good reply. There’s nothing immature about indulging a fantasy for two hours, and not everything has to be a deep commentary on the workings of our soul.

Cooper needs to lighten up.

Comments

  1. #1 konrad
    December 18, 2013

    Your argument relies on the idea that the concepts “unambiguously good” and “unambiguously bad” make some sort of sense, i.e. that characters can conceivably be known to have these qualities (at least in fiction).

    If on the other hand you start out from the premise that such extremes are impossible in principle (as they are in reality) and view your fiction through this lens your argument is a non-starter. I suppose it’s a matter of how good one is at suspending disbelief.

  2. #2 JimR
    December 18, 2013

    Reading fiction helps us understand other folk’s thoughts. Especially stream of consciousness narratives.
    http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/10/04/229190837/want-to-read-others-thoughts-try-reading-literary-fiction

    Superhero movies do tend to lack any nuance. Also movies are hard to do “I was thinking” narratives without getting too wordy. After all movies are primarily visual. Documentaries can provide minimal visual experience while verbally exploring whatever the creator desires. I expect to pay for the entertainment value of a movie, not necessarily so for a documentary.

  3. #3 MNb
    December 18, 2013

    I quite dislike the loose defintion of fascism used here by both Cooper and JR.

    http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fascisme

    1. opposed to traditional parties, both left and right;
    2. contempt for established institutions;
    3. worship of display of power and usage of violence to realize political goals;
    4. principle of leadership (Füherprinzip);
    5. political dictatorship;
    6. totalitarian state, ie complete control of society;
    7. extreme nationalism;
    8. survival of the fittest as the main principle of international politics;
    9. appealing mostly to middle class;
    10. liquidate of social classes and their antitheses.

    I find superheroes especially in movies very boring, but I don’t see how they must be fascists by definition.

  4. #4 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 18, 2013

    konrad–

    Your argument relies on the idea that the concepts “unambiguously good” and “unambiguously bad” make some sort of sense, i.e. that characters can conceivably be known to have these qualities (at least in fiction).

    Yes, my argument makes that assumption. I have no problem with that.

    An example of “unambiguously bad” is Bane taking over Gotham City for five months, and then planning to destroy it by setting off a nuclear bomb. An example of “unambiguously good” is Batman kicking his ass. See how easy it is!

    JimR–

    Like any other genre, there are good and bad examples of superhero movies. Some have considerable nuance, like Spiderman II and Iron Man III, while others are pretty bad. Nowadays there is such a glut of these movies that they are becoming formulaic and unimaginative. (The recent Thor movie comes to mind.) That aside though, I still think Cooper is overanalyzing things.

    MNb–

    I don’t see where I defined fascism at all. I mostly just pointed at Cooper’s examples and said that they weren’t fascism.

  5. #5 konrad
    December 18, 2013

    “An example of “unambiguously good” is Batman kicking his ass.” – Why does this make him unambiguously good? An evil character would have done the same (unless evil is defined as a selfless dedication to destruction, regardless of personal cost). The idea of Batman being good (let alone unambiguously good) is a premise that is never justified.

    Contrast with Watchmen for a more realistic (cynical) take. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0409459/

  6. #6 Christopher Kidwell
    December 18, 2013

    Biggest problem today is that people get into this ‘good’ vs. ‘evil’ thing, without realizing that outside of like….. 4 or 5 things, evil is totally viewpoint oriented.

    Unless you are causing physical harm to someone else without their permission (unforced permission), unless you are killing someone else, unless you are stealing from someone and it is not your last choice between you and death, unless you are forcing someone to do or not do something that they do not or do wish to do (unless they are physically harming someone else or causing a direct imminent danger of that)…… good and evil should be stated as “What I like and dislike”.

  7. #7 Anton Mates
    December 19, 2013

    You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun.

    That particular speech is adapted from Grant Morrison’s “All-Star Superman,” which is about the least fascist version of Superman imaginable. That Superman is based on the Silver Age version–godlike in power, but incredibly compassionate, open and peaceful, a Kryptonian Jane Goodall trying to understand and assist humans without distorting their natural development. He never throws the first punch; he’s never even aggressive or defensive in his body language, because he has no fear of being hurt in return. He can afford to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

    “Man of Steel’s” Superman is a very different character, certainly, and the speech ends up sounding rather out of place as a result.

    How, though? Those watching him can’t fly, topple buildings or fire heat rays from their eyes.

    Sure they can. Superman lives in a comic book universe; there are other people with superpowers, and technologies that can do the impossible. One of the enduring themes of his stories is that his presence encourages the world to become as strange and wonderful as he is. Other superheroes are inspired to begin their careers, other aliens come out of hiding, scientists and inventors make incredible discoveries with his help. Metropolis is usually on the verge of becoming a futuristic utopia, although in a shared and ongoing fictional universe it can never be allowed to actually get there.

    What else does Superman do other than these purely physical feats? The 1978 version of Jor-El warned: “It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history. Rather let your leadership stir others to.” Can you really inspire others with steel?

    Well, he can do this.

    Superman is, generally, faced with challenges that can’t be solved purely by shooting heat vision or kicking a building over. It’s not his powers that we admire, although obviously they’re fun for escapism–after all, the villains have powers too. We admire his courage when he’s fighting even more powerful opponents, and his cleverness when he’s figuring out Lex Luthor’s super-machines or tricking Mxyzptlk or figuring out how to communicate with a Bizarro, and his kindness and humility when he rescues his 10,000th cat from a tree.

    Admittedly, you don’t see too much of this in “Man of Steel”–it’s the most violent and combat-focused Superman movie I’ve ever seen–but that’s not really the character’s fault.

    Fascism also reduces the role of anyone who isn’t Superman to that of an adoring onlooker.

    This is an odd complaint to make about “Man of Steel,” which gives the US military a critical role in defeating the Kryptonian invasion.

    As China Mieville said of Frank Miller’s earlier celebrated comic-book miniseries “The Dark Knight Returns”: “The underlying idea is that people are sheep, who need Strong Shepherds.” Throughout Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the people for whom Batman is fighting are absent.

    Well, sure. That’s Batman. Fighting a lonely war for the sake of undeserving, ungrateful sheep is kind of his job–at least for the particular vision of Batman being discussed here. That sort of hero can be very appealing to conservatives, but he’s still not a fascist; Batman doesn’t demand the loyalty or obedience of the people of Gotham, and he often opposes the forces of big business and government. (Bruce Wayne is the One Virtuous Plutocrat.)

    If feeling isolated and misunderstood made you a fascist, we’d need to reeducate most of the world’s teenagers.

    (Now, the Avengers movie? Fascist as heck.)

  8. #8 Gary Sturgess
    December 19, 2013

    I dunno, I kind of get the point a bit. It DID bother me that Harry and co were willing to use Cruciatus and Imperious curses on their enemies. I’m sorry if it’s naive, but “good guys don’t torture” is pretty much a line I’m not really willing to cross. That’s not to say that PROTAGONISTS can never do these things, it’s just that as soon as they do they are no longer good guys – they are, at best, anti heroes. There’s nothing wrong with anti heroes, if that’s the story you want to tell, but Harry Potter wasn’t supposed to be one (IMHO).

    Batman, on the other hand, is pretty much a text book example of an anti hero; in many conceptions, he’s essentially no saner than the Joker (just focussed differently).

    And Man of Steel lost me on two points:
    1. Absolute character assassination of Jonathan Kent. Worse than what Jackson did to Faramir.

    2. Superman Does Not Kill. Here’s a simple test – if your Superman script has no possible resolution other than Kal-El killing someone, then you go back and rewrite that script.

    Other critics have noted (and I agree) that we should have seen less wholesale destruction by our favourite boy scout and a little more saving civilians from the effects of said destruction.

    However, virtually any “realistic” take on superheroes does come to similar conclusions as far as their attitude goes. Watchmen is of course the ur-example of this, but (for example) Wild Cards reaches much the same conclusion. This is really not surprising. Vigilante justice is not something we should really want in the real world; it has historically not been particularly reliable at targeting. Due process may not make for an action packed movie, but all the restrictions that superheroes routinely ignore are there for a reason.

  9. #9 Chris Laraia
    December 19, 2013

    The only superhero story I’ve encountered that seriously addresses these concerns is Watchmen. “Who watches the Watchmen?” In Watchmen, the vigilantes behaviors are displayed alongside the tensions of the Cold War in such a way that every acion, reaction and inaction becomes an issue of moral uncertainty and debate. It’s the Moby Dick of graphic novels. The main themes in the book are also expressed in the movie too. I highly recommend both.

  10. #10 deepak shetty
    December 19, 2013

    All my life I have grown up thinking superheroes are innately social liberals.
    @gary
    Batman, on the other hand, is pretty much a text book example of an anti hero; in many conceptions, he’s essentially no saner than the Joker (just focussed differently).
    It depends on which interpretation you read. if your Batman is Frank Miller/Jim Starlin’s batman then yes – if your Batman is Dennis O’Neil’s batman then possibly you wont have this extreme a view – if your Batman is an elseworld’s Alan Brennert – holy terror batman you’d have quite a different view.
    @Anton
    That particular speech is adapted from Grant Morrison’s “All-Star Superman,”
    You have good reading habits :)

  11. #11 Lenoxus
    United States
    December 19, 2013

    From a moral if not a technical/creative perspective, one of my favorite superhero films is Thor, because of the unexpected stakes of its climax. It’s also directed by Kenneth Branaugh of all people.

    SPOILER ALERT!

    At the beginning of the movie, we are shown that the ancient Norse humans were attacked by evil Frost Giants from space, but defended by the various “Asgardian” space-deities lead by Odin. Straightforward angels-versus-goblins stuff.

    In the last third, Odin’s adopted son Loki (having gone down a path of evil after be stung by the news of his true frost-giant parentage as the reason he could never be the king) releases some giants into Asgard. We figure his next target might be Earth, perhaps with Thor’s human love interest made to be a damsel in distress, and the Asgardians will have to defend us all over again. But it turns out that Loki’s plan is to use the space-portal to destroy the Frost Giants’ planet, mainly to increase his political standing among the war-happy Asgardian populace (and also to eliminate a troublesome rival power).

    Thor doesn’t even have to think twice about stopping Loki from committing genocide. I appreciate that we aren’t even shown the “good” Frost Giants by way of argument; it simply goes without saying that entire races shouldn’t be destroyed. Thor would make a better god than God…

    Anyway, I’d be surprised if there was a more “un-fascist” superhero film, apart from deconstructionist stuff like Watchmen. Of course, there’s still all the attendant dumb action stuff, including a scene where Thor beats up guard after guard to get his important hammer, and the archer assigned to maybe shoot him says “I’m starting to like this guy.” But the ending almost redeems it.

  12. #12 Windchaser
    December 19, 2013

    #11 – yes, Thor can be a pretty interesting movie when you get at it. Have you heard the description of Loki’s transformation in the movie as being a result of internalized racism? (At least, it explains why he shifts so much after finding out that that he’s actually Frost Giant (Jotun), and why he tries to kill off their planet to show that he’s a “true Asgardian”.)

    I highly recommend this, and it’s a quick read:
    http://sigridhr.livejournal.com/2333.html

  13. #13 sean samis
    December 19, 2013

    This is an interesting if somewhat airy topic. What would make Batman “unambiguously good” asks konrad. That Batman never acts with unnecessary violence and never for his personal benefit and at a risk to himself would make him (or anyone) “unambiguously good”. As the reference to Star Trek was meant to remind us: a reliable way to distinguish Good from Evil is its motivation.

    For me, the biggest drawback to these superhero stories is that many viewers forget that they are “escapist” entertainment; they think the people they don’t like really are unambiguously bad and deserve a good thrashing. Hence George Zimmerman, et al.

    Christopher Kidwell wrote that “ Unless you are causing physical harm to someone else without their permission (unforced permission), unless you are killing someone else, unless you are stealing from someone and it is not your last choice between you and death, unless you are forcing someone to do or not do something that they do not or do wish to do (unless they are physically harming someone else or causing a direct imminent danger of that)……

    Well, exactly. Evil is—at least—unjustified, intentional or intentionally negligent conduct causing a harm to others. That part’s pretty simple.

    Gary Sturgess wrote “ “good guys don’t torture” is pretty much a line I’m not really willing to cross.” That is a difficult topic, but if good guys can kill with justification, then they can torture with justification. What we have not figured out is when, if ever, is torture justified? Certainly no one wants to be tortured, but no one wants to be killed either. That’s a topic worthy of its own thread.

    sean s.

  14. #14 eric
    December 19, 2013

    Those of us capable of distinguishing fiction from reality understand that you can indulge fantasies in fiction that you cannot indulge in real-life.

    While I agree there is nothing harmful about enjoying such stories or cheering for the vigilante superhero when you’re reading/watching them, I do find the fact that so many of them are vigilantes to make the genre somewhat tiresome and uncreative. I get tired of reading about the same sort of I’ll-punish-the-bad-guy-myself vigilantism over and over again.

    To be fair to the genre, my friend and I have had the same conversation about fantasy fiction and feudalism. There’s nothnig wrong with cheering for some good character to be king, but the fact that 99.9% of the fantasy books out there assume feudalism as a system can make the genre overall be really, really tedious. (And in both genres, there are exceptions. I’m not claiming every single superhero or fantasy novel has these traits; its just that the vast majority of them do.)

  15. #15 Gary Sturgess
    December 19, 2013

    @sean: if you’re talking about purely the effects, then one can make the point that being tortured is less bad than being killed (though I’d not necessarily say that was a no brainer; we put down pets that would otherwise continue to live in extreme pain, and there are cases where even the most adamant opposer of euthanasia would at least be forced to reconsider).

    However, the situation is important. When good guys do kill, it is typically in self defence or to prevent the deaths of others – “in the heat of the moment”, as it were. A good guy that has reduced the villain to helplessness, and then chooses to kill him anyway, is no longer a good guy (he may or may not still be the protagonist, of course, and this needn’t mean that he has started a path to becoming irredeemably evil).

    Torture, on the other had, can only proceed after you have reduced your victim to helplessness. In other words, at the point where you’re able to torture them, killing them would also be a non-good act.

    There are of course (as you raise) practical questions as to the efficacy or justification of torture as well, but from a strictly moral standpoint it is, at the very least, taking the position that the ends justify the means. Such an attitude may not be necessarily villainous (though there are several great villains with exactly that motivation), but it is certainly not a typically heroic attitude.

  16. #16 sean samis
    December 20, 2013

    Gary;

    Regarding your first two paragraphs (in #15), I generally agree.

    Although “the ends justify the means” is routinely regarded as a suspicious idea, recourse to that is in fact quite routine. Killing someone to save an innocent life fits the pattern: the end is to save life, the means is to kill the “bad guy” and the ends justify the means.

    Where the disconnect comes in is that the ends really do need to JUSTIFY the means; justify the mean by the need and lack of reasonable options; justify by means being proportional to the urgency of the ends. Not all ends justify whatever means one wants; evil acts usually have an end, but lack a legitimate end or an end whose urgency does not justify the means employed.

    sean s.

  17. #17 james ainoris
    brooklyn ny
    December 22, 2013

    I would say the original intention of superheros was anti fascist..since most comic book writers were jewish and written during ww2. It is intersting since the beginning of time jews were attacked and terrorized especially in christian europe. The Maharal Rabbi came up with idea to create a super human protector called a Golem….which defended the weak and defenseless people…it comforted young children when pogroms were occuring.Check out the story of the Golem…some say it was real in kabblah..Shalom jim ainoris

  18. #18 james ainoris
    December 22, 2013

    I think the Golem was the first suoer hero…from the 1700s

  19. #19 sean samis
    December 22, 2013

    Are not “avenging gods” superheroes also?

    sean s.

  20. #20 Pierce R. Butler
    December 23, 2013

    Superhero stories are almost always, by definition, highly elitist.

    That, and the dichotomous nature of the plots and characters, and the emphasis on violence, produces multiple overlaps with fascism. Without a strong pull in the opposite direction, that tendency tends to take over the story.

    Alan Moore, as mentioned above, explores these concepts regularly (nobody’s mentioned V for Vendetta yet?!?). The earliest such fictional exploration of this question I know of came in Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel Gladiator. For a more recent, and literarily superior, novel of a superhero’s moral dilemmas, try Michael Bishop’s Count Geiger’s Blues.

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