The archetype of the superhero has gone through numerous shifts since its inception in Action Comics #1 in 1938. Like much of the early history of comics, the appeal, genesis and audience was largely within the immigrant population. Earlier comic strips appealing to immigrants were largely vaudevillian hijinks organized around the family-think the Katzenjammer Kids. Their appeal was in the lighthearted way they poked fun at the accents and cultural mores of the people who had little hope of assimilating.
Superman is different. Superman could not have existed before 1938. Superman is of course a subverted aryan power fantasy; that the main distinction between the seemingly powerless Clark Kent and the godlike Superman comes mostly from letting a slight kink in his dark hair loose points toward the subtext of Judaism. That he’s able to be all powerful only when he tucks the kink away shows that the fantasy is one of assimilation. Superman is an isolated immigrant. Superman as a fantasy, at least initially, isn’t much different than Walter Lippmann’s arc when he consciously de-ethnicized and deterritorialized himself as a Jew to support and prop up the cynical anxieties of the ruling elite.
The next major superhero, Batman, represents the opposite pole of the ruling class-vigilanteism, the slaveholder’s revolt. His enemies represent ethnic stereotypes codified in physiognomy as much as those of Dick Tracy. He comes from money and doesn’t need superpowers because money is enough of a superpower in and of itself. He is purposely sexless; he has an ancient butler instead of a love interest, he adopts a child instead of going through the disgusting physicality of sexual intercourse. Of course Batman did have periodic love interests but none of them ever stuck in the public imagination in the manner of a Lois Lane. The sensuality of the body has always been the cultural property of the poor and oppressed.
Batman fights small time criminals but rarely ever systemic injustice. He’s barely a vigilante; he steps outside the law to enforce the social place of the police in a way the police can’t. He can be more effectively normative than the state. He can enforce the surveillance state without the annoyance of process. His beating up a criminal is what defines them as a criminal; their “evil” is usually barely fleshed out by the writers. The Joker’s seeming “anarchistic” “meaningless” evil springs from the same mechanisms that allow a large portion of the population to claim Dylann Roof wasn’t a white supremacist but just “pure evil”. It is no accident the defining Batman comics came from Frank Miller, an outright fascist. Batman is the Republican.
The sheer volume of production in the comics industry means there are of course hundreds, possibly thousands of forgotten or secondary characters. Some might wonder “why aren’t you discussing female superheroes at all?” I don’t discuss this because there haven’t really been any; female superheroes largely exist as copies of male characters drawn up as psychologically safe sex objects.
This may be changing but as the superhero exists as the deep structure impulses undergirding the overarching hierarchies of power in a misogynistic society, their existence can hardly address the actual experiences and challenges of women any more than Rosie the Riveter could. The superhero is normative. The norm of the society is the repression of women unless they assimilate as aspirational carrots.
The superhero, being based always in the fantasy of assimilation imagined either from the bottom up (Superman) or the top down (Batman) in various configurations changes as the specifics of the politics of assimilation and aspirational ideologies shift. Because American capitalism requires the feeling of never being satisfied with one’s position, these fantasies have immense power and broad reach. They can be transposed in various keys all the way from outright neoconservative fantasies of genocide (The Punisher) to parables of the confused and blind “well meaning” authoritarianism of the classic liberal (Spider-Man.)
Superheroes predominate in the United States because their “goodness” is circumscribed within the boundaries of American exceptionalism and the justification of authoritarian ideology. This is why the Marvel Civil War comics seemed so utterly ridiculous. This is why the attempts to satirize these values in something like Watchmen failed to register as anything more than “superheroes growing up.” The only part that could register consciously is “hey, they curse and smoke and have sex now.”
“Foreign” superheroes like Colossus or Captain Britain exist merely as puppets miming the cultural values of America garbed in a usually laughable accent or literally their country’s flag. So the obvious question then becomes: How does the recent trend of major budget superhero films with reach beyond what their floppy paper predecessors could’ve dreamed of fit into the overall question of assimilation?
There are several manners in which they do this that only seem novel the way Jeff Koons sculptures do in relation to the commonplace objects they imitate-they’re bigger and more money is swirling around them. The most critically respected superhero film of the current wave, The Dark Knight is an obvious conservative parable of the Bush years, or rather the whitewashed narrative of the Bush years. The privileged child, acting on the expectations of his parents, faces “pure evil” (“Some people just want to watch the world burn”/”The terrorists hate us for our freedom”) by ramping up use of paramilitary equipment and absurdly expensive surveillance systems to take on this depoliticized evil and leaves having done the “right thing” despite a plummeting approval rating (“The hero we deserve”, ironically becoming this after the fall of Harvey Dent, the former DA and therefore as close as the film comes to an embodiment of the values of due process.) The Marvel movies are rarely this explicit but even there the US military actively did huge favors for the production of the Iron Man films. They saw their propaganda potential-the larger public did not.
Part of why the present is the time of the superhero the empty inertia of the flow of money. Part of it is dialectic pushback. Popular cinema has always been closely hewed to how Freud considered dreams-wish fulfillments. In the face of the emptiness of the authoritarianism of the present, the superhero represents the unfulfilled wish of the comfortable feeling that the authoritarian impulse and machinery is benign and wants to protect us from, as Malcolm X put it, “the chickens coming home to roost.”
Slightly more interesting is the aggressive resistance to interpreting these texts as political objects. But like sporting events, television or videogames, superhero movies exist as “apolitical” spectacles. Because political implications are inescapable, “apolitical” just means “basking in the inertia of the present”. They are therefore reactionary and useful to the existing power structure as firewalls to involvement and consciousness.
This firewall exists in two directions. Let’s draw a relationship to the politics of the workplace. Consumption of “entertainment” under capitalism has, since the advent of television, mirrored the scheduling of work as Adorno pointed out. Further, it works in direct relation to work as “relief”, or as I said earlier “wish fulfillment”. Of course, wish fulfillment only exists as a mirror of the unfulfilled wish and so the relation between entertainment and the dynamics workplace is more direct than is generally assumed.
The workplace tries at times ludicrously to protect itself in its own internal “apolitical” firewalls though rarely with the success of “entertainments.” “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a perfectly logical outgrowth of the society as a whole. Most workplaces and social outings work on the implicit agreement: “Don’t ask me anything, in exchange I won’t tell you anything.”
And so it is with the public’s relation to the superhero film. There is a great cultural demand for, to borrow a phrase used by Richard Poirier in describing early literary attempts to create American identity “a world elsewhere.”