Can Superheroes Save American Freedom?

YouTube screenshot/FilmSelect, Shutterstock/Anton_Ivanov

Travis Smith Political science professor
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Superhero stories are not just the amusements of a misspent youth; they have serious moral significance and can teach us important lessons about the happiness of individuals and the well-being of a free society that depends on people behaving responsibly. Could superheroes even serve as role models that can save American freedom?

Too many forces in our liberal democratic society today already inculcate irresponsi­bility, promote narrow self-interest and hedonistic indulgence, and foster sentimentality and wishful thinking. Our society too often sanctions timid passivity and outsized outrage—all in the name of compassion or justice. We either discourage or downplay everyday bravery, moderation, restraint, resil­ience, generosity, gratitude, decency, sociability, sacrifice, and the exercise of good judgment — all of the efforts that generate and constitute responsibility toward oneself and one’s community.

Freedom well used ought to spark some virtue, some relative excellence of character. So if superheroes can encourage some everyday ethical behavior—inspiring responsibility and integrity, living with resolve rather than resignation—while exposing some of our worst tendencies and misguided aspirations, then it is worth thinking about them critically. Because free societies require individual and interpersonal responsibility, and human beings need good role models.

There are three main types of superhero movies: those in which colossal battles are fought on a cosmic scale to save the world or guard the galaxy; those featuring admittedly fanciful characters with extraordinary talents and abilities on unusual adventures but depicted on a more humanly relatable scale; and those which cynically satirize heroism. The third type, such as the popular Deadpool films, can be amusing, but let’s not regard them as anything to learn something meaningful from. They don’t even pretend to want us to take them seriously.

Still, we might wonder what the first two types of superhero movies have to say about who we are or who we want to be. They correspond to two different attitudes toward social and political life, regarding how we should perceive and approach the problems we face.

In recent years, the best superhero movies, such as Logan, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Black Panther, are of the second variety. Their stories still abound with fantastical elements, but they speak to ethical issues recognizable to us: Who do we owe obligations to and to what extent? What is asked of us personally to meet those responsibilities directly? What kind of person does someone need to be to successfully fulfil their obligations? The ways in which these heroes face challenges like these is what makes them worthy of admiration and emulation. All it takes is a little imagination to render their stories applicable to us in or ordinary lives, with respect to how we should treat each other. Here the super-ness, even the heroism, of superheroes, may be read as metaphorical for qualities we all could and should exhibit—even though we don’t have metal bones, web-shooters, or heart-shaped herbs.

The first type of superhero film, however, reminds me of some of the most troubling aspects of our political life today. In them, dark gods, genocidal robots, and alien invasions imperil us. These threats stand in for the ways we have become convinced that the end is nigh and everything’s at stake, as if our situation were catastrophic and apocalyptic. The society we hold dear or have been working toward is unraveling and our dreams are dissolving. What are we supposed to do and how are we supposed to do anything? When our problems are pitched on a global or systemic scale, how can we feel anything but impotent, overwhelmed and outraged? When the villains out there are altogether bad, must we not demand that the fight against them be uncompromising and unrelenting?

Under those conditions, we ordinary people can’t do much ourselves but cheer or shout and vent in vain. We can see the enemy clearly, express our distress with anger and indignation, eagerly accusing and condemning. We clamor to see these imminent and grave dangers stopped. We then look to super-powered persons — either people we entrust with super powers or people we hope will prove super-powerful when so trusted—to do the work of saving us through the application of coercive measures. In politics, that means regulating, prohibiting, pursuing, persecuting and punishing. Needless to say, these efforts, like those cinematic battles, cause a lot of collateral damage. Here the role played by superheroes is less metaphorical and more analogical for what we too often expect from our leaders, elected or otherwise.

That type of superhero story is impoverished, as is the politics that resembles it. If superhero movie fatigue ever sets in, it will be on account of their bloatedness and inaccessibility — the distance of them from anything we can apply to our own lives, not to mention the horrific perspective on the world they represent. One has to hope that we will similarly become fatigued of this sort of politics too, wherein we feel helpless and live in fear that we’re doomed unless some presumptive savior vanquishes the evildoers out there and imposes justice on our behalf.

Travis Smith is an associate professor in the department of political science at Concordia University and author of the new book, Superhero Ethics (Templeton Press, June 2018).

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.