Why We Still Need Heroes

I am not sure how I stumbled across it, as I was so appalled by its content that I chose to quickly navigate away from it in disgust, but a few days ago I wound up reading some silly person’s column on Workers.org about why Americans should abandon their super-heroes. The column, titled “We don’t need superheroes,” tries to make a connection between fascism, classism, and super-heroes. Writer Caleb T. Maupin writes that in The Dark Knight Rises, “the police are portrayed as useless and restrained by civil liberties. So, in their place, like a caped George Zimmerman, Batman goes out to protect ‘law and order’ when oppressed people are duped into rising up.” Maupin then goes on to echo the tired argument that The Dark Knight Rises is pro-1% propaganda before reminding us all that a very small minority of wealthy people run everything, as if any of us had forgotten.

Maupin ends his column by saying that the solution to America’s problems is not to hold out for a savior figure but to band together and “seize society.” He then props up working class revolutionaries as “self-sacrificing, heroic individuals” before reminding us again not to wait for a savior. It’s really here that Maupin shoots himself in the foot. Surely he must know that super-heroes are a fictional phenomenon. People don’t go to Batman’s movies under the impression that they are watching newsreel footage of some valiant rich white man who is saving everyone. They go primarily to be entertained and, whether they know it or not, to be inspired.

Batman is a symbol, he is meant to inspire people. He is a man without super-powers who has decided to use the material means at his disposal to become more than a man, and he did it to help people. Nobody watches Batman films and then actually goes home and waits for a Batman figure to solve their problems. They watch them to see the difference one man can make, as depicted with fantastical elements and plots. Readers don’t put down their Batman comics and run around outside with a gun and an itchy trigger finger thinking that they’ll accomplish whatever it is that the police can’t do.

First of all, Batman is staunchly anti-gun, which completely nullifies the comparison to George Zimmerman as well as any belief that Maupin has seen the film that he is criticizing. Batman has also proven to dissuade others from taking the path of a vigilante without the (largely fictional) training and resources that only he himself can provide. The thesis of Batman is not “become a fascist, lawless authority figure,” it is simply an urban myth about a man with extraordinary means and talents that he employs for the greater good of his community.

One of the primary inspirations for the character of Batman is the pulp hero Zorro. The typical idea behind Zorro is that he’s a member of the upper class who lived in California in the 1800s and would secretly retreat to a cave at night, switch into some creepy black duds, and then hit the city as a swashbuckling hero for the downtrodden. Batman is, therefore, a 20th-century New York Zorro, plain and simple.

The main idea of these two heroes is not to paint the rich as saviors for the lower class, it’s to inspire imagination and to teach people that having wealth or status doesn’t exclude you from being morally responsible and helping your fellow man. The same can be said about the story of Robin Hood, a character who serves as the obvious inspiration for the Watson to Batman’s Sherlock Holmes: Robin, the Boy Wonder. Batman and Robin are more or less Zorro and Robin Hood. These are folk heroes that have rejected their social castes in order to help those less fortunate than themselves. (See also Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Buddha.)

So, at this point, I believe I’ve presented an acceptable counter-argument to Maupin’s piece. It is way out of line to say that Batman is a form of propaganda for the 1% and for gun-toting, fascist conservative wingnuts. But what’s even more out of line is the declaration in the title of Maupin’s piece that we don’t need super-heroes. We absolutely do need super-heroes. We always will. Super-heroes serve as escapism when times are tough, they inspire us to do great things when the chips are down, and they teach us important life lessons. They are not saviors – it’s still up to us to get our asses out of the fire – but they represent the idea of the savior within us all. They are our best qualities given form, and to paraphrase Grant Morrison, we can take any bad idea or mortal fear and pit it against the super-hero and the super-hero always wins. Super-heroes are the better idea; they are the embodiment of selflessness, rationality, responsibility, and compassion. We’re always going to need them.

[mild The Dark Knight Rises spoilers ahead]

Oh, and for the record, The Dark Knight Rises is not conservative propaganda or an indictment of the Occupy movement. It’s just a big dumb action movie. And if you want to get technical and connect the dots of half-baked political ideologies that are presented in the movie, you have to remember that Bane is not fighting for the 99%, he just says that to play to the sympathies of the middle and lower class while biding his time before the bomb detonates. He’s a charismatic terrorist / dictator, and he’s just trying to win people over by telling them what they want to hear before blowing everyone up. The movie makes this fact very clear. The true message of The Dark Knight Rises, if there is one, is that Batman can be anybody, and in the end, it’s a working-class kid, an orphaned cop, who (presumably) takes up the mantle of the Bat. And that is a pretty democratic theme, if you ask me.

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Mike Greear is a journalism graduate from the University of West Florida currently living in New York City. During his time as an undergraduate, he reported on everything from Presidential campaign stops to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, eventually working his way up to being the editor-in-chief of the University of West Florida’s student newspaper, The Voyager. Since graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire, reporting on crime and municipal stories in the city of Rochester as well as interviewing Republican primary candidates, before returning to Florida and freelancing for the Pensacola News Journal. He now resides in Long Island City, writing weekly columns for Sequart.org and hoping to break into the comics scene.

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  1. (I tried to read the original article, but I stopped at the first paragraph.)

    Actually, we don’t need superheroes, just like we don’t need porn or sitcoms. Lots of people live happily without them. But they can be fun, and we have to spend our time somehow. And, hopefully, we take whatever we want from them.

    A true communist (and I’m not saying liberal or democrat) can’t accept a rich, exceptional individual working outside the system (and the government) as a hero. Just like a true Catholic can’t accept abortion. Sorry, but it’s a huge part of the dogma.

    The thing about our traditional, iconic superheroes is that they are so great, they have such a rich story, they have been around for so long, and passed through so many writers/ artists, that they can’t be reduced to dogma anymore.

    These characters become more right and left with the times. They can become more or less spiritual. They become more or less serious or aggressive. So you can spin them any way you want.

    Is Peter Parker a democrat? I like to believe so, but… He never (okay, I haven’t read Spider-Man in many years, so give me a break if I make a mistake here or there) gave any money to charity (he never had any money). He never got a dime from the government either, he worked his ass “to succeed”. His girlfriends never had an abortion, and he never positioned himself in favor of gay marriage or the legalization of pot. He’s very strong and fast, he could build popular houses, but he doesn’t.

    Yeah, he fights rich men. But he doesn’t fight Norman Osborn because of how Osborn treats his workers (as Superman used to do, in the very beginning), they fight because Osborn wants to kill him and become a crime lord (in my world Gwen Stacy will always be an adorable girl who would never allowed an old creep to touch her). Spidey is fine with nice rich people like Tony Stark.

    Batman? Well, for a long, long time he was basically protecting banks and jewelry stores. Oh, and those many rich men who were always threatened by the villains of Gotham.

    On the other hand you can see these guys as true heroes who do all they can to help their fellow men. They are always in the right side, they look for justice, and that can automatically mean social justice. Clearly such a nice guy like Peter Parker can’t accept that a child is hungry because his parents have no money. As I’ve said, you can take whatever you want from them, because they’re huge.

    The other day I was reading an old Avengers issue, written over 30 years ago by Jim Shooter, and in it Jarvis and Captain America talked about how some silly people didn’t believe in the Dream and wanted a Big Brother to guarantee that they would all succeed. That’s right-wing propaganda! Was/ is Shooter a conservative? Maybe, I don’t know, I don’t care. Are the Avengers or Cap right-wingers? Hell, no!

  2. Another fine article, Mike! Thanks for sharing. And Mario–many good points where I am in full agreement with you.

    Batman IS a very dangerous and troubling superhero when looked at from the perspective of a socialist or Marxist perspective. Ultimately, we trust in Batman’s decision-making as being moral, and this justifies his behaviors, which place him outside of the law–even if he is generally viewed as upholding the spirit of law regardless of breaking the letter of it. He is of the uppermost echelon of society and does use his vast resources to enable himself to enforce his vision of how he believes Gotham should operate. Again, we as reader as well as the general public within the comic accept this because it happens to coincide with our generally held morals and codes of conduct. However, Ra’s al Ghul serves as an excellent example of yet another member of that echelon who behaves similarly to Batman; only his failure is in acting upon beliefs that are NOT in line with the community. For people like Marx, trusting in the higher moral judgement of the upper class was highly problematic and undesirable (to put it mildly).

    This isn’t lost on comic creators either. Miller’s DKR plays upon this in the tension between the law-enforcing Superman and the Batman, who believes in the use of might–even if he doesn’t adopt the weapons of his enemies & kill them–to make right . Moore’s Killing Joke plays up the idea of one person having a bad day while the other did not get pushed enough to cross a certain moral line. But I think Moore is raising the issue that the line is still there and there is still potential for being pushed across it. Mark Waid brings all of this to bear in Kingdom Come with the inherent dangers of fascism for superheroes (so it’s not just Batman in this instance).

    Yet, while I think there is *some* merit in examining our superheroes from this perspective, it also overlooks the need people have for participating in myth-making. Society’s have the opportunity to pass along their culture to future generations through engaging in storytelling and these stories can often includes who serve as representations of the best traits and ideals for that society. While we may not have men who can literally fly in the air and lift buildings, we do have lofty aspirations that enable use to achieve far greater heights than previous generations and empowered us to do far more good than ever before. Literature and myth-making help us to do this. Religion also provides a somewhat similar venue, and anyone familiar with Marx will immediately recognize the problems he found with religion as it served as a distraction from the material world for the masses. While I am not in the business of getting into writers’ heads, it does seem Mr. Maupin is taking a rather similar approach here in seeing how the fantasy of this heroes distracts us from some of the more practical concerns their existence raises. It’s a fair point and one that should be both discussed and acknowledged. However, his criticism is lodged in an admittedly brief and cursory article, and this severely undercuts his point through his failure to recognize what these characters represent in a mythic sense.

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