What’s Wrong with Superheroes?

Having recently railed against the popularity of superhero movies, I was struck by the themes in the new animated film, Incredibles 2, a satire of the superhero genre.  One major theme is about people’s problematic desires for superheroes.

A speech by the villain summarizes the critique of people’s dependence on superheroes.  She says:

“Screenslaver interrupts this program for an important announcement.  Don’t bother watching the rest.  Elastigirl doesn’t save the day; she only postpones her defeat.  And while she postpones her defeat, you eat chips and watch her invert problems that you are too lazy to deal with.  Superheroes are part of a brainless desire to replace true experience with simulation.  You don’t talk, you watch talk shows. You don’t play games, you watch game shows.  Travel, relationships, risk; every meaningful experience must be packaged and delivered to you to watch at a distance so that you can remain ever-sheltered, ever-passive, ever-ravenous consumers who can’t free themselves to rise from their couches to break a sweat, never anticipate new life.  You want superheroes to protect you, and make yourselves ever more powerless in the process.  Well, you tell yourselves you’re being “looked after.”  That you’re inches from being served and your rights are being upheld.  So that the system can keep stealing from you, smiling at you all the while.  Go ahead, send your super[heroe]s to stop me.  Grab your snacks, watch your screens, and see what happens.  You are no longer in control.  I am.”

New Yorker critic Richard Brody summarized the critique this way:  “What are [the villain’s] gripes about superheroes?  They’re part of a larger rant against a society that chooses ‘ease over quality,’ and that is rendered passive by the fusion of entertainment and technology.  She criticizes Americans for choosing easy dependence upon superheroes over firsthand action and experience, and she assimilates that dependence to other sorts of entertainment-induced passivity: ‘You don’t talk, you watch talk shows; you don’t play games, you watch game shows.’  Likening the practical, fear-motivated craving for rescue by superheroes to the realm of entertainment, she relies on a new device … to take over the minds of civilians and superheroes alike and to wreak havoc that, needless to say, the Incredibles must prevent.  …

“’Incredibles 2′ invokes a political world in nonpolitical ways;  it’s a vision of apolitical, quasi-unanimously acclaimed virtues that are assured by the supreme powers of innate and doubt-free strongmen and strongwomen who intervene only in emergencies.  It’s a nostalgic vision of total power of a local minimum that echoes sickeningly with the nostalgic pathologies of the current day ….”

The Guardian’s critic Steve Rose writes, “‘The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena,’ says Videodrome’s media messiah Brian O’Blivion.  If that is the case, we haven’t caught up.  Time and again our screen heroes confront evil on a physical battlefield, with weaponry and superpowers.  Even The Incredibles 2 resolves its media crisis with an action climax.  But, in the present world, our threats are increasingly immaterial:  fake news, social media propaganda, trolls, hacking, viruses and a US president whose worldview is shaped by Fox News – his own Screenslaver.”

The superhero genre generally assumes that the superheros really are the “good guys” (and occasionally gals).  But some supposed heroes in real life are not good guys.  For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin is portrayed (and widely accepted) in Russia as a hero.  But he’s no good guy.

The same impulses that make people crave fictional superheroes to solve all our problems also reflect the desire for real-life strongman dictators who “take care” everything, providing security and moral superiority over “others” in exchange for surrendering our political participation, rights, and freedoms.  It’s a Faustian bargain that’s a horror in real life, not just in the movies.

3 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Superheroes?”

  1. Interesting points. The debate between privacy and ease is something we deal with everyday through passwords and codes.
    But spoilers John, spoilers! ( ;

    1. Thanks, Kelly.

      We also deal with these issues in our dispute resolution world when people would prefer to hand off decision-making to lawyers and courts rather than retain the power themselves.

      BTW, I added a spoiler alert — though this doesn’t give away a lot, for those who haven’t seen the movie yet.

  2. A less apocalyptic version of the problem is our longing for strong political leaders to save us from (what we see as) the political infidels.  In this dream, we wait passively to be rescued by our political saviors.

    The passivity properly criticized in the movie perpetuates our problems. Many of us don’t politick, we watch politics on tv.

    Of course, good leadership is essential.  In our democratic process, active citizen participation is even more important — especially in times of great political conflict like the present. 

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