Superheroes Are a Great Terrible Idea

Matthew Derman

There are lots of stories about superheroes helping out with natural disasters, military operations, diseases, hunger, and the other countless problems of the world. But there aren’t very many superheroes who only do that stuff and leave the crime-fighting to someone else. Why not?

As a kid, falling in love with the idea of superheroes is easy. They’re visually gripping, they feel their emotions intensely, they live in worlds with straightforward moralities. Plus there is the appeal of breaking the rules, of getting to do whatever you want, that appeals to children and to the children in us all. Wouldn’t it be nice to anonymously punch the people who you disliked? There’s still a part of me that reads superhero stories because of the draw of that particular fantasy. Trouble is, trying to apply the superhero approach to real life is impossible, because there is such a tremendous disconnect between the two.

Looked at pragmatically, the whole notion of costumed vigilantism is patently ridiculous. Even if someone was somehow granted the superhuman powers of one of these comicbook characters, to create a second life around it and use it for above-the-law violence is just about the least safe or sensible thing a person could do. Yet, within that pile of logical flaws can be found the value of superhero stories in our own lives. They aren’t directly relatable, but they do offer an examination of the very human struggle of trying to maintain agency vs. learning to live with the parts of life that are out of our hands. Because even with their incredible abilities and maniacal focus, superheroes only ever get so far. By appreciating their limitations and shortcomings, by acknowledging and embracing what a truly stupid thing being a superhero actually is, we can remind ourselves that nobody is perfect, and that everyone needs a little balance and perspective to keep their sanity intact.

By now, of course, superhero fiction itself has openly admitted that using a code name and disguise to fight crime while still maintaining a second, “normal” life is not a sound way to live. There are many series specifically devoted to poking holes in the superhero genre tropes. Right off the top of my head, there’s Ex Machina, Brat Pack, The Intimates (and lots of other stuff written by Joe Casey), Enimga, Kick-Ass and, lest we forget, the big one, Watchmen. Marvel’s Civil War event was an attempt to discuss the impracticality of superheroes in a world so wrapped up in terrorism. And by now, doing a Batman story that paints the Dark Knight as disturbed and mentally unstable is as common as any other interpretation of the character, and far more common than many.

So it’s no secret that superheroes aren’t always playing with a full deck. Still, it’s worth remembering as we continue to consume new stories, because as common as it is now to be honest about what’s wrong with superheroism, it’s still far more common to paint the characters as classic, demi-god-like saviors fighting the good fight and deserving praise. The problematic bits are swept under the rugs of awesome action scenes, skintight outfits, and soap-opera-style melodrama. Those rugs need to be lifted now and then, by creators and fans alike.

The most common aspects of a superhero story are the double life, the special powers/skills, and, perhaps most essentially, the violence against criminals. Each of these is a serious problem, dealt with in maybe the worst possible way by the heroes themselves. The stress of leading two lives, wearing a self-imposed mask all day long in order to later put on a literal mask and become your “real” self, isn’t a lifestyle that can be maintained indefinitely by anyone. The turmoil of a dual life is something that’s been explored not only in superhero fiction, but lots of other fiction as well, not to mention plenty of psychological texts. Eventually, people screw up, the masks slip, and things come crashing down. Or, worse, a breaking point is reached and the person snaps, getting lost in one persona or another and, either way, removed from our reality entirely.

Of course, in a longform superhero narrative, there’s no room to have the protagonist suffer a mental breakdown, so the pressures of being two people at once are either underplayed or, more frustratingly, they’re a constant but stagnant nuisance. The hero regularly stumbles over all the lies he or she must tell in order not to be exposed, but never really changes in any noticeable way because of it. It becomes an unrealistically never-ending issue they must deal with on top of everything else. Fortunately, in recent years, the trend has been to do away with secret identities, and that’s a positive direction in which to move. Rather than continuing to tell stories about supposedly heroic figures who lie to everyone they love about who they really are, more and more often the characters are “outing” themselves in the name of transparency and public trust. They legitimize themselves in the eyes of the people by being willing to use their real names, and the mental health benefits must be enormous, since there’s no longer an undercurrent of dishonesty in the heroes’ lives. Readers get a little bonus, too, since it also removes the need to tell anxiety-inducing “Unmasked?!?” stories that used to be such frequent interruptions to the regularly scheduled comicbook programming.

It’s difficult to talk about what the right way to handle superpowers would be in real life because nobody actually has them (that we know of, anyway). However, there does exist a remarkably long list of examples of people who, one way or the other, found themselves in positions of power, and if there’s one irrefutable truth they can teach us, it’s that wielding that power like a weapon to force people into behaving the way you decide they should has never been the best way to use it. I’m not advocating letting supervillains do as they please, of course, or any criminals. I’m not even saying that, if people really did have superpowers, using them to fight crime would necessarily be the wrong move. But taking it upon oneself to determine who’s right and who’s wrong, merely because you happen to be stronger or faster or more capable than they are, is the worst kind of self-importance.

Yes, with great power comes great responsibility, but not automatic authority. If you want to go after people who are breaking the law, there are ways to do that, and I bet any police force in the world would be thrilled to have a cadet with superpowers. Is it more likely that Barry Allen would lose his job or get some kind of cushy special assignment if he told his superiors he could conduct high-speed chases on foot? I’m just saying there’s no reason having powers and fighting crime with accountability are mutually exclusive. Beyond even that issue, though, there’s the matter of not every superpower being best suited for going after bad guys. The fact that superheroes still do more of that than anything else is maybe the most absurd thing about them.

There are lots of stories about superheroes helping out with natural disasters, military operations, diseases, hunger, and the other countless problems of the world. But there aren’t very many superheroes who only do that stuff and leave the crime-fighting to someone else. Why not? Why does beating up villains have to be part of it? Even in a world where there were already a ton of established superheroes, like the Marvel and DC universes, you’d think some folks with powers would want to pursue other life paths. What is it about superpowers that most of the people who get them are into the idea of regularly participating in violence?

I know that part of it is that a comicbook about a super-doctor or super-philanthropist or super-environmentalist wouldn’t be as fun or sexy or action-packed as what we have now. It would basically be a different genre, a bit of magic realism and perhaps quite a good read, but not a proper superhero story. But I think that’s unfortunate, that the fisticuffs are such an integral part of it all, because it makes no sense. Also, it’s just a bad, negative, damaging message, when you get right down to it. Dealing with violent lunatics by sending equally violent lunatics to beat them up is not a sound strategy. Nothing gets solved, the cycle just feeds itself, the heroes and villains needing one another so that they all have something to hit. So even if I bought the notion that everybody with powers genuinely wanted to play dress up and put their lives on the line, I wouldn’t support that attitude. There have got to be better ways that their powers could be utilized, for fighting crime and to accomplish any number of other, more significant, big picture goals, too.

On the other hand, what do I expect, for everyone to know the exact best way to use their superpowers as soon as they get them? Should they sit on the sidelines, battling global warming, while some mad scientist overruns a city with his giant robot farm animals? Why am I even trying to apply real-world standards to the fictional realities in which these characters live in the first place? Because, for better or worse, I’m a life-long fan of superhero comics, and all these gaps in reason are as much a part of that fandom as anything else.

Superheroes may not be role models, but in their recklessness and selfishness and rash behavior, in their steadfast refusal to keep their feet on the ground, they bring me as a reader back down to Earth. For one thing, watching them fight to save a whole city or the entire planet or all of existence puts my own problems and stresses in a weird kind of perspective. More importantly, when I watch their chaotic lives unfold as they juggle their deceptions, abuse their power, and move from one brutal fight to the next without ever having an end in sight, superheroes act as a sort of cautionary tale, whether they mean to or not. I’m reminded to be myself all the time, because they show me that trying to be someone else is exhausting and not worth the risk.

There are so many things in this life I’d like to fix, from very personal problems to those that affect humanity at large, but I can’t try to save everyone all the time, because even if I had superpowers, there’d be too much for me to do. I avoid fights because I know they lead nowhere, and I try as hard as I can in any conflict not to merely assume I’m right, because nobody gets to assign themselves the role of judge and jury. I don’t imagine everyone else who loves superheroes sees them as walking, talking warning signs like this, nor would I suggest that they should. But I do think all fans should try to keep in mind that, as entertaining, exciting, and gorgeous as superhero comics can be, there are some unavoidable problems with the genre on a conceptual level. To get too caught up in the superhero way of life is a dangerous, delusional way to go, and as much as we love these characters, seeing them for the damaged individuals they are is key to appreciating their narratives from a healthy point of view.

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