It’s hard to fathom now, but there was a time, a long time actually, when superheroes were the colorful embodiment of the American cause. In the comic book world, from roughly 1938, with the introduction of Superman in Action Comics, until at least 1975, superheroes were invariably drawn as arms of the American state. And although comic books fell out of favor in the mid-’70s, the characters they introduced lived on and even flourished on the small screen. There, too, superheroes worked hand in velvet glove with established political authority. There was, after all, a Bat Phone on Commissioner Gordon’s desk. Batman worked for the Gotham police. Wonder Woman worked for the U.S. Army. The Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman were themselves government projects.
Somewhere along the way, things changed.
State authority, once presented as a force for good, is now only a force. And it is a force that runs roughshod over the lives and rights of those it was designed to protect. Superheroes no longer serve as handmaidens to the establishment; they use their powers as much against entrenched political interests as they do against supervillains.
Consider Tony Stark’s assertion that he has “privatized world peace” as he testifies before Congress in Iron Man 2, crossing swords with Garry Shandling’s Senator Stern, a Hydra agent. Or Captain America’s perpetual unease regarding the growing power of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Or Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce in the same film, head of the World Security Council and himself a Hydra agent. Or General Ross in The Incredible Hulk, a military man whose sole goal, it seems, is to harness the power of the Hulk and turn it against America’s enemies, regardless of what that might mean to Bruce Banner.
Everywhere one looks in the superhero universe, one sees only the threat of the unfettered power of government. Even the example of one good man standing athwart the corruption, Gotham district attorney Harvey Dent, yields to darkness as he becomes the maniacal, coin-flipping Two Face. The lesson? Nothing pure can last when it is imbued with governmental authority. As Dent himself said, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
We have come to the point where no self-respecting superhero would align himself with this sort of power. Not by a long shot.
Why? Because the American people themselves are, relatively quickly and in growing numbers, coming to view the government as the enemy.
Pop Culture Imitates Life
With all due respect to Oscar Wilde, who famously asserted that life imitates art, it is pop culture that imitates our shared experience. Recent depictions of the superhero universe on the silver screen reflect the fact that Americans no longer trust their government the way they used to.
A recent Pew Research Center Poll confirms this trend of growing distrust. Today 27 percent of registered American voters think of the federal government as an enemy. This is up 8 points since 1996. Further, 22 percent express feelings of anger toward the government, while 57 percent express frustration. Only 18 percent say they are content with things as they are. A majority of the people, it seems, don’t think that the American way has a whole lot to do with truth and justice anymore.
This is not exactly a partisan issue, either. While Democrats have remained relatively stable in their outlook, with only 12 percent seeing government as an enemy, 35 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of independents now view the government as an enemy, up from 22 percent and 21 percent, respectively, in 1996. Most tellingly, only 19 percent of the total electorate thinks the government “is run for the benefit of all the people,” while 76 percent believe it is “run by a few big interests.” Lincoln’s government of, by, and for the people is, in the opinion of the people themselves, a thing of the past.
And is it any surprise? With warrantless NSA searches, anonymous drone strikes abroad that target and kill even American citizens with no due process, police who specialize more in asset forfeiture than in fighting crime, and a host of other abuses and usurpations, it is a wonder this loss of faith took as long as it did.
This is the society reflected in the recent spate of superhero movies. We have come a long way from Superman’s battle with airborne Nazis in the pages of Action Comics in 1941, or Captain America’s punching Hitler on the cover of the first issue in his series. Gone is the moral certitude of a simpler time, when heroes and villains were very clearly defined. In its place we find only postmodern power, which operates on us all but is ultimately tamable by no one man. Not even a superhero.
James R. Harrigan is director of academic programs at Strata, in Logan, Utah.
Image by BagoGames via Flickr.