Originally published on themisanthropope.tumblr
If I lived in New York City, I would have one supreme hatred, and that would be superheroes. Honestly – those be-costumed do-gooders, leaping around in spandex, jumping off buildings and attracting all kinds of mutants, terrorists, supervillains and other nefarious plots to take over the human race. I’ve been having a bit of a Marvel and DC geek out recently; it was supposed to be an insomnia cure but instead turned into a bit of an obsession. I’ve watched New York get smashed up by the Green Goblin, attacked by aliens and generally decimated before Iron Man and Co took them all out in a manner which annoyed physicists the world over, and if we take the not inconceivable leap of logic that Metropolis and Gotham City are thinly veiled versions of New York, then Bane, the Joker and General Zod have all done their bit to dismantle the place as violently as possible. God knows what it must be doing to the property prices…
What unifies most of the superheroes of the popular imagination is their roots in urbanity. Yes, Iron Man can fly around the world, and, yes, the Hulk spends a lot of time jumping around the desert in Ang Lee’s underrated adaption, and, yes, Superman is so mobile that he can spin the world around in order to turn back time (the physicist of the world are now plotting murder), but the fact of the matter is that most superheroes tend to stick to their cities. Can you imagine Batman trying to track down the Joker in the jungle? Or Spiderman wondering around a field in Norfolk, wondering whether Dr Octopus is hiding behind a nearby molehill? Superheroes are a phenomenon that has grown out of the urban environment. So what does this mean from a critical analytical perspective?
For one thing, the city, and its inevitable problems, tends to factor into the development of the superhero from ordinary citizen to caped crusader. Crime plays a part; the city for superheros is a corrupt, crime ridden dystopia, the structural flaws, the corruption at the top of the city’s social strata tends to feed down into an explosion of petty crime. Both Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker witnessed loved one’s gunned down by criminals, and this motivated them to take up a dual life style to fight crime. It’s interesting, though, that in the case of Spiderman or Batman, it isn’t really the petty criminals who become the focus of the hero’s righteous fury; we might see Batman take down a mugger every now and again but the real enemies are the Falcone mob, or the myriad of supervillains. The criminals are fairly easy to identify – it’s the bad guys with the guns and the bombs who need to be defeated; not the corporate interests, the media moguls who perpetuate discrimination, the abusive husbands and boyfriends, the homophobia and racists and imperialists of every day life. On the one hand, it is possible to interpret this as a politically progressive move – the superhero is born out of the crime of poverty and corruption with a need to resolve it, to become its dialectical antithesis. Yet, the political critique falls short at this point. We don’t often see superheroes fighting dodgy landlords, loan sharks, corrupt politicians, sweatshop owners, the everyday villains who cause oppression to millions under neoliberal capitalism.
Why the need for fantastic villains? There has been much interesting scholarly work on the psychoanalytic factors of the supervillain as dialectical opposite, and, indeed, product of the hero and his (cos, let’s face it, the majority of them are men) actions. Superhero stories have taken on this analysis as a major aspect of their plot-lines; a thread running through the Batman comics for decades now is that the Joker is simply a reflection of the Dark Knight, irrevocably compelled to acts of violence and mayhem as antithesis to the superhero’s attempts to keep order. Yet does not the fact that the supervillain must be fantastical, or otherworldly, suggest a shift away from real world, materialist political concerns? The enemy is in someway a supernatural and exceptional figure, the kind who can only be opposed by an equally supernatural or exception hero. The concept of a mass movement as a form of political resistance to oppression or evil never really occurs.
Where a mass movement appears in the world of the superhero, it is seen as negative, a bastardization of a true social mass movement, a citation to an ideology and political imaginary of the right. David Graeber has written convincingly of how Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of the “Dark Knight Rises” (part of one of the most commercially successful film series of all time) functions as a neo-liberal doctrine against the Occupy movement. Nolan himself was quick to play down the interpretation, despite the fact that the film itself used a viral advertising campaign entitled “Occupy Gotham.”
This brings me back to the role of the superhero and the city. If a hero is put on the spot, asked what their role and function really is, they often give answers relating to ideals of order. Indeed, the costumes and masks worn by superheroes articulate a kind of uniform, which, whilst unique, suggests a detachment, a distinct personality and position in the social structure, on the side of an authority. But what is order, really? The Gotham of Batman or the New York of Spiderman are, if we think about it, so anarchic, so crime-ridden by supervillains and organised gangs, that the superhero becomes a reactive entity. The superhero is always playing catch up, responding to the crimes, occasionally putting the bosses or the supervillains behind bars, but never tackling the very source of the crime: poverty, inequality, institutional corruption at every level. The superhero is a product of the city in that he resolves the madness of the city, but its contradictions, the very cause of its madness, it never dealt with to the extent that matters can progress.
But still, why do we read stories of superheroes and supervillains if we know that this an unrealistic display? Slavoj Zizek in “A Perverts Guide to Ideology,” presents us with a possible way to answer this question, through an ideological analysis of horror films. The power and appeal of horror films is that they simplify a myriad of horrors facing modern humans:
We fear all kind of things…The function of the shark [in the film Jaws] is to unite all these fears so that we can in a way trade all these fears for one fear alone. In this way our experience of reality gets much simpler.
Horror films, then, construct new subjects, the universal figure of fear – the serial killer, the giant shark, the demented redneck with a chainsaw, and thereby conveys to the viewer, within their fright at the proverbial bogey man, a sense of comfort. This simplified epistemology means that we only need fear one thing, one monster, one disaster, as opposed to a myriad of forces outside of our control.
In Jaws or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the object of fear is defeated, and though the battle to do so is often bloody, the result is the viewer as epistemic subject is safe. Their relationship with the word is clearer. Zizek explicitly draws out the political implications of this simplification of fear by applying to ideology in Nazi Germany.
You have a multitude of fears and this multiplicity of fears confuses you. You simply don’t know what’s the meaning of all this confusion and you replace this confused multitude with one clear figure: the Jew, and everything becomes clear.
The Nazi ideological machine removed the burden of epistemology from the individual agent; it then reinscribes the knower’s world with a simple answer to a myriad of questions. The adversary, the cause of misery, the enemy, is revealed as “the Jew, and everything becomes clear.” The political implication of this epistemic structure is that the individual subsumes their ability to know to a wider ideology, which, in turn, ties to them into achieving the goal of that ideology, which has, simply and effectively, made known to them their fears. Ideology in this sense, Zizek states, is “a kind of filter. A frame, so that if you look at the same ordinary reality…everything changes…it’s not that the frame actually acts anything; it’s just that the frame opens the abyss of suspicion.”
In this sense, superhero stories make us feel better – the enemy is often a single figure, often terrifying and seemingly unstoppable, but it’s ultimately fine, because we have the caped crusader on our side. Superhero stories uphold an ideological framework which whilst entertaining, need to do more to challenge us to think critically about the nature of the world, and realise that we do have to contend with a multitude of fears and threats.
I have, I admit, made a few generalisation in this post – feel free to call me out on them if you think I’ve made a grossly silly point.