A world without superheroes | Pakistan Today

A world without superheroes

  • Encouraging a hyper-individualistic, neoliberal worldview

I’ve never liked Superman, and I won’t get into arduous platitudes about this beloved comic character and our childhood memories of him. Marketed globally as a universal male archetype – literally Super-‘Man’ – Clark Kent is a muscular white male with a chiseled jawline, deep and authoritative voice, and a red underwear that he wears over his costume like an old bodybuilder.

Another feature that’s remarkably ‘masculine’, is not taking orders from anyone. He has informants and allies, friends and lovers, but he ultimately does what he feels is right. He flies wherever he pleases, beats up whomever he likes, and rarely answers to authority.

Does that sound like a country you know?

In case the ideology behind Superman was too subtle, someone went ahead and developed the ultra-nationalist Captain America “Commie-smasher”. A watered-down, more balanced version of Captain America was selected to appear in theatres. This is primarily because Hollywood understands that it is no longer catering exclusively to an American audience; and that millions of viewers in China, for instance, would not be eager to buy tickets to see a white man smashing commies.

There’s growing criticism of the superhero genre based on the theory that it invariably promotes power-worship. It encourages a hyper-individualistic, neoliberal worldview. Some people are better than others, and it’s up to them to ‘take care’ of the lesser people as they see fit.

Consider the basic plot-points of every superhero movie you’re ever seen. It usually involves a person – nearly always a white man – who’s just naturally special. He’s either inherited a lot of wealth from his parents, like Batman. Or acquired his powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. They work hard and test their will, but that effort is generally directed at honing and controlling the powers that they naturally possess; like the British crown prince undergoing rigorous training on how to be a proper monarch.

Little is said about the masses that the superheroes watch over. The ordinary people are reduced to mere objects to be destroyed or saved by powers much greater than them. The only thing that stops a powerful villain is a powerful superhero. The people just stand by, their mouths wide open in amazement, watching the higher beings exchange punches, kicks, and plasma beams up in the sky.

We don’t need powerful saviors, and never have. They don’t need the elite to wield great power on behalf of the masses; we need equality for the masses so they can save themselves

This perfect neoliberal allegory reinforces the idea that any change – for better or worse – must come from the hands of powerful celebrities. We, the ordinary mortals, can either strive to join the elite and stand above everyone else; or play our role as cheerleaders for the celebrities who would bring about the positive change.

The masses are often denigrated as ignorant, idiotic, or even obstacles to justice. Batman is “not a hero that the city deserves, but a hero this city needs”. This could well be the slogan of the US army in Afghanistan, and their supposedly benevolent fight against the “Tally-ban”.

‘Civil War’ – the movie – comes refreshingly close to addressing the problem of superheroes’ lack of accountability. It’s worth repeating that these are entities that go wherever they please and neutralise whatever they like, in the interest of the ‘greater good’ – mirroring American hegemony and the foreign policies of its allied colonial states. In ‘Civil War’, the world democratically chooses to put a leash on the ‘Avengers’ – the organisation of American superheroes – and significantly limit its autonomy. Appropriately enough, it is Captain America who disregards the international agreement, and goes renegade because he knows better than anyone what’s right or wrong. Disturbingly enough, the narrative tend to favor Captain America, framing his stubbornness as a lesson in defying authority and listening to one’s own conscience. It is never emphasised that the ‘authority’ in this scenario is the democratic decision of people around the world.

It’s not much of a conspiracy theory to suggest that CIA has often intervened in mass-media and the messages they convey. This influence has been established through numerous international sources, and widely discussed. But regardless of whether this ideology is being continually broadcasted by sinister design or sheer coincidence, we know that it’s there and that’s problematic enough. It is so pervasive in the superhero genre that even Black Panther – widely regarded as the most progressive of the superhero movies – cannot imagine a world beyond imperialism.

We don’t need powerful saviors, and never have. They don’t need the elite to wield great power on behalf of the masses; we need equality for the masses so they can save themselves. We’re told that the history of civil rights and positive political change rests on the shoulders of superior individuals, when they’ve always been powered by unnamed protesters, activists, and campaigners.

It is time we stop being impressed by wealth and power concentrated among a few individuals, while the rest of us are reduced to hapless cheerleaders for the celebrities of our choice. And it is time we become wary of stories that glorify this imperialist worldview.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.