Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Superhero as the Ubermensch and the Trope of Good Vs Evil

With The Avengers movie out, I thought I would make a little time for reflection on pop culture. Though there is no dearth of analyses that isolate recurring themes and root them in certain aspects of the human experience, I hope that my own critical variation on this process will not seem too stale. I am not trying to expound some brilliant, novel take on the superhero genre, but rather trying to fit this phenomenon into my own societal narrative (which I have been detailing in this blog).

What strikes me most about the superhero genre is the particular role played by science and technological progress. Superheroes are often portrayed as either career scientists or brainy dilettantes, and the acquisition of superpowers generally occurs as a byproduct of experimentation (or in the case of some - Iron Man, Black Widow, Captain America etc. - through technological “enhancement” of the body and/or the use of advanced weaponry). It is the perfect narrative of Progress. Man is surpassed through science and technology. It is obvious how this derives from and feeds into the Ideology of Progress.

To that end, it is no coincidence that supervillains (e.g. Doctor Doom, Loki, etc.) sometimes practice sorcery (making them representatives of the horrors of pre-modern life). Yet, more often than not, supervillains are as much scientifically-inclined, technologically-enhanced supermen as their superhero counterparts (making them adequate rivals). In the comic book world, what separates Good from Evil is primarily a matter of individual psychology. Supervillians usually have some traumatizing back story that explains their psychological and moral impairment. Furthermore, since supervillians often represent, with varying degrees of subtlety, communists, Nazis, dictators, terrorists, industrialists, and psychopaths, comic book stories construct worlds in which the evils of society are in no way structural, but rather are completely personal. The only way to combat Evil in these worlds is by recourse to violence. The message is clear: it is hard to prevent people from developing psychopathic personalities; the only way to save society is to develop superior “weaponry” to use against these Evil-doers.

I have already written about violence: its seeming necessity within the bounds of the current system, its supposed naturalness, its strategic attribution to personal factors such as religious beliefs, ethnic identity, and even individual psychology. I noted that violence is fundamentally structural and, in other posts, I have argued that the enigmatic violence of Nazis, dictators, and terrorists must be understood in historic and political-economic context. It is clear what the comic book portrayal of Evil does: it obviates an understanding of history and social structure and justifies the use of violence. This tactic, in general, is very politically useful. For example, 10 years ago Saddam Hussein was described as an “evil-doer” and a member of the “Axis of Evil,” but rarely as a puppet of Western interests in the Middle East.

Now, that is not, of course, to say that the superhero genre is a creation of some base political interest. As I have argued before, ideologies may have an appeal all of their own – after all, they do tend to be totalizing narratives that can simplify and explain human experience (and that is satisfying). Questions of origin are rarely productive; it should be enough to say that the ideological realm and social reality are mutually sustaining. That is the idea of the dialectic. Of course, in Marxist tradition, the answer to the origin question is that material reality is ontologically prior to ideology. Still, ideology does have a life of its own that cannot be reduced to the relations of production. Here, though, is the Marxist trump card: one may still critique ideology for the view of social reality that it promotes. This is where I would say that the superhero genre, while innocent, is generally not helpful to the cause of social transformation.

I also have a kind of random question to throw out there: are all superheroes white? Just wondering…

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