Saturday, November 30, 2019

some notes on superheroes: reactionaries & revolutionaries


The Washington Post sometimes publishes a column by one Sonny Bunch, executive editor of the conservative Washington Free Beacon. Bunch's opinions are seldom inoffensive to right reason, and I don't ever know why I click on them. Nothing he's written has ever lingered in my recollection—with one exception. Back in January, he wrote an op-ed titled "Environmentalists make good movie villains because they want to make your real life worse." Though this would be perfectly sufficient (and perhaps preferable) as a tweet, without the nine paragraphs of redundant elaboration, let's look at a couple of excerpts:
Radical environmentalists have really been taking it on the chin at the multiplex. They are perfect villains for our times: well-intended enough to often seem somewhat reasonable, but meddlesome busybodies whose hopes and dreams are to radically reduce standards of living in order to effect some utopian scheme or another that will return the world——or worlds——to an unsullied Eden. 
Thanos, the villain (and protagonist, really) of the $2 billion-grossing megahit, "Avengers: Infinity War," was basically an omni-powered Paul Ehrlich. Driven insane by his home planet's self-immolation after a series of resource wars...Thanos used the Infinity kill half of all living things.
Again, this is Ehrlichian in its madness: The author of “The Population Bomb” argued for years that the planet is overpopulated and that famines will wipe out a significant portion of humanity. It could still happen, I suppose...but, frustratingly for the doomsayers, life on Earth keeps getting better despite the "overpopulation" our precious blue orb continues to shoulder....

Environmentalists make a useful villain because their malevolence can be obscured by a patina of reasonableness. Global warming and other manmade problems are going to end the world if we don’t do something——so just about anything is justified! But their villainy resonates with the masses because they actually do want to make life worse for people, for the most part.
Laying aside his specious remark about life on Earth getting better and better, let's grant that Bunch is the rare right-wing troll who, despite his best efforts of bad faith, puts forth the germ of a lucid and useful point amid all his self-confident boneheadedness. That point has little to do with the nagging and doomsaying of real-life environmentalists, and everything to do with the conservatism evinced in our pseudo-mythical heroes' exploits on page and screen.

The X-books constituted my first experience with superheroes. I was an eight-year-old boy in 1992; it was unimaginable that I wouldn't pick up issues of X-Men and X-Force off the drugstore spinner rack or put the action figures on my Christmas list. But I didn't take a deep dive into the 'mythology' of any superhero franchise until Cartoon Network began airing episodes of Batman: The Animated Series late at night. And it was on Batman that I was introduced to my first eco-terrorist supervillain: Ra's al Ghul.

Without going into too much exposition: in his two-part debut, Ra's and Batman form a temporary alliance and go on a globetrotting hunt for clues to a kidnapping. While they're traveling on the ground through Malaysia, the following conversation takes place:
[Ra's al Ghul:] Look at it, detective, one of the last of the rainforests. The world depends upon its oxygen, yet the rich see only profit in its destruction. You who belong to the overclass have much to answer for.
[Batman:] Bruce Wayne donates millions of dollars a year to preserve these forests! 
[Ra's al Ghul:] Which are being depleted at the rate of 120,000 acres a day. Does your money solve this problem? No. It will take more than wealth, it will take power. And, I fear, ruthlessness. Humankind must be forced to serve the planet instead of its own appetites. 
[Batman:] And you're the one who'll do the forcing? 
[Ra's al Ghul:] I am qualified, yes. But I may not have sufficient lifetimes left to me.
It is implied that Ra's had some kind of 666-point plan to restore equilibrium to the biosphere by compelling humanity to reduce its ecological impact. Not to read too much into it, but we might assume Ra's intends to slip a choke chain around the necks of the "overclass" (read: capital and its pet governments) and give the leash as many sharp yanks as it takes to cow them into submission. During the episode's final act, Ra's resorts to plan B: using a doomsday weapon to instantly re-green the planet, which will kill off 3 billion people. Batman, Ra's says, forced him to this expedient by not agreeing to marry his daughter and join the crusade as his heir.

This was a proposition Batman could never agree to. He is committed, body and soul, to applying his decades of exhaustive training, his empire of resources, his extraordinary brilliance and cross-disciplinary scientific expertise, and his burning, indefatigable willpower to—well, to beating the daylights out of bank robbers in one particular United States city. He throws some of his money at the rainforests, but doesn't give them much attention otherwise. They're not his problem. Batman has a defined mission, and doesn't creep from it.

Neither does he diverge from his methods. Perhaps it has crossed his mind that he could use his talents and means to renovate Gotham into an environment that doesn't manufacture criminals, to reduce the city's recidivism rate through aggressively proactive intervention programs, and to see that his rogues' gallery in Arkham Asylum is prevented from ever inflicting misery on anyone else—even if that means putting the Joker on a rocket and launching him into the Kuiper Belt.

But that would be a perverse overreach. The superhero's purview is the treatment of symptoms. He must trust mere mortals and their politics to cure the illness. If he, as a costumed man of action, attempts to change the status quo, he crosses a line, and becomes an anti-hero, if not an outright villain. (This sometimes does happen in comic books, usually as a stunt to draw interest and boost flagging sales. Most of the time the franchise is restored to baseline after a year or so.)

Batman's buddy Superman—the progenitor of all superheroes and their multimedia commercial franchises—was once declared to "fight a neverending battle for truth, justice, and the American way." During the last few decades, the latter ideal has been nixed from the Man of Steel's stated ethos, probably for being too redolent of Cold War jingoism and cultural imperialism. But if such a thing applies to the artifice of superhero mythology, we could call this emendation of Superman's mission statement an instance of a third-order simulation (à la Jean Baudrillard): by neglecting to mention "American Way," the narrative conceals the enduring centrality of the American Way to the raison d'être of not only Superman, but to virtually every superpowered altruist whose stories are written in American English and printed by an American publisher, whose films are produced by American studios and premiered to American audiences.

The "American way" might be characterized less in terms of a nationalistic bent than as the political and intellectual liberalism that guided the Western hegemony whose leadership mantle the United States inherited in the mid-twentieth century. The American way, then, is laissez-faire. In the Marvel and DC universes, superheroes are more or less a deputized agency enforcing the non-aggression principle (as per libertarian philosophy) and standing by otherwise. If a madman with a ray gun irradiates an orphanage, the men in costumes come to subdue and turn him over to the proper authorities. A rentier who legally evicts the tenants of that orphanage to build an oil well stands outside Green Lantern's bailiwick. It's too bad for the orphans, but their suffering is preferable to the ramifications of coming between the individual and his property rights. The Flash will gladly bust heroin smugglers, but if a pharmaceutical conglomerate lawfully promotes and sells addictive painkillers, that's for the market and the legislators to sort out.

In this respect, the universe of superhero discourse skews conservative. The superhero functions to maintain the social order as it presently exists. This might be understandable insofar as a comic book about a costumed reformer (as opposed to an avenger) wouldn't feature much in the way of action. A reformist superhero would use his or her powers to campaign for increased taxation on the wealthy to subsidize urban renewal initiatives and prison education programs, and muster support for a universal healthcare scheme so the next Mr. Freeze won't turn to a life of villainy when he can't pay out of pocket for his wife's experimental medical procedure.

Superheroes are often seen dealing with the undesirables of society: criminals and crazy people. Never mind the socioeconomic contingencies that drove them to crime or allowed their psychoses to go untreated until it was too late—the superhero's job isn't to supersede the invisible hand, but to ensure that it can do its work without impediments from people who don't want to play by the rules (as written by our oligarchs). Depending on global events, Batman and Superman might also turn their attention to geopolitical threats outside the nation's borders: the Axis powers during World War II, Soviet spies and Chinese caricatures during the Cold War, jihadis and Iran during the 1980s, and so forth. But like any reactionary element, the superhero reserves his most dramatic animus for use against the revolutionary.

The Joker might have been Batman's most recurrent villain in The Animated Series, but the Napoleonic radical Ra's al Ghul was the undisputed Big Bad. He didn't want to rob armored cars or trademark grinning fish: he wanted to change the world. Later on in the DCAU, the Justice League has one of its most memorable outings in the two-part "A Better World," in which our heroes trade blows and ethical arguments with the Justice Lords: interdimensional doppelgangers who have toppled their Earth's political order and placed themselves in charge. When Marvel's two most famous superhero teams finally came to blows in the pages of Avengers Vs. X-Men, it was in the context of five X-Men gaining godlike powers and taking it upon themselves to make some improvements to the planet. And back at the beginning of this year, the false start of the X-Men soft reboot narrated the X-people's fight against Nate Grey, who uses his restored omega-level powers to turn oil rigs into nature preserves, make the weapons in the hands of opposing armies disappear, etc. Of course he had to be stopped: the status quo must be maintained. No matter how rotten things might be, we don't need the help of any demigods imposing a nanny state on us by fiat.

It seems like a paradox: the men of action in our mainstream fiction stand for political paralysis. In any narrative that colors them as our heroes and saviors, a figure intent on radical change—regardless of intent or necessity—must needs be treated as a villain. Bunch is right: we can expect the culture industry to continue kicking around environmentalist killjoys in its reactionary spectacles for some time to come.


There is a very recent and intriguing exception to the rule of politically inert mainstream superheroes.

Over the last two years I've been on an X-Men binge that occurs in fits and starts. Fair to say in this time I've read close to a thousand issues of various X-comics. (In case you're curious, my vote for the best X-era would be the period spanning from New X-Men to Second Coming—ignoring Chuck Austen's contributions, of course. Claremont's run would be a close second.) It was a bad time to restoke my old affinity for mutant superheroics: the franchise has been wallowing in a creative rut for the better part of a decade. Again, if you care for my opinion: the all-female lineup in X-Men vol. 4, the tragically underrated Generation X vol. 2, and Warlock having sex with Danger in X-Factor vol. 3 have been the only bright spots since M-Pox. Also, Matthew Rosenberg should not be allowed within two time zones of an X-book ever again.

But the state of the franchise has dramatically improved with Jonathan Hickman's re-reboot of the X-world on a scale that's already dwarfing the changes wrought by Grant Morrison in New X-Men. I must underscore that Hickman has done a fantastic job so far. Any hack can retcon and break things (I'm looking at you, Brisson and Rosenberg), but renovating a serial in such a way that its remains faithful to itself and is tremendously fun to read represents no small feat.

I don't want to go into too much detail here, but now most of the world's burgeoning mutant population has formed a nation situated on the living island Krakoa. This isn't just a retread of the Utopia period, when Cyclops set up a tiny mutant refuge off the coast of California. Krakoa is an upstart state with power and clout, and it isn't afraid to assert its sovereignty. The reins of power are held by the twelve-person Quiet Council, which seats Mister Sinister, Apocalypse, and Sebastian Shaw among its members. For the time being, there are no "evil mutants" anymore. Homo Superior stands united, and apart from accountability to any authority but its own.

Between Utopia and Inhumans Vs. X-Men, the X-books flirted with revolutionary separatism via Cyclops, but never fully committed to it. Now they're all in. Professor X has given up on the idea of a mutant diaspora living as model minorities in human nation states, and has drawn his people to a fortified, paradisiac homeland equipped with inconceivably advanced biotechnology. No humans allowed. It is the ultimate mutant safe space.

X-Men has been a vehicle for political allegory since the Claremont years. You've probably heard that the ideological differences between Professor Xavier and Magneto were framed to mirror of the dueling philosophies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Professor Xavier wanted peaceful coexistence; Magneto wanted revolution. What are we to make of Professor X abandoning the irenic dream that defined X-Men across five decades of publication?

Moreover: Krakoa is patently a separatist power fantasy. But whose fantasy is it?

In the most obvious readings, we might substitute for "mutants" any marginalized identity group we can think of. Krakoa is a thriving, autarkic queer commune. Krakoa is the independent black nation Malcolm X envisioned. Krakoa is Palestine after securing a two-state peace settlement with Israel.


Or: Krakoa might be America's coastal states, shedding the dead weight and deplorables of flyover country and recommitting itself to sane governance. Or it might be the red states, seceding from the union after the Deep State cheats President Trump out of reelection in order to prolong the social and economic domination of the globalist coastal elites.

Or it might be the Brexiteer's dream of a United Kingdom liberated from the European Union bureaucracy.

Or it might be an all-white Evangelical gated community where the children aren't taught the gay agenda in their private school.

Or it might be one of the libertarian island cities for Silicon Valley visionaries and VCs we occasionally hear about.

Whatever Krakoa may or may not specifically allegorize, it's more important that we recognize the seductiveness of the separatist fantasy at this moment in time. After all: a mainstream comics publisher (owned by Disney) wouldn't allow one of its oldest properties to be reinvented as a crew of ethnic (specist?) secessionists if it didn't anticipate a receptive audience. We are living in a period of startling Balkanization, where a given group may increasingly feel that its interests will never be served by existing political structures; that the game is rigged against it and always will be. Where partisans on both sides of the political divide vociferate about "taking our country back." Where we're all ensconcing ourselves within filter-bubble ingroups and deriding outsiders.

Hickman's revolutionary new X-Men insinuates that the (classical) liberal ethos and political apparatuses we inherited from the twentieth century are outmoded. Regrettably—and very realistically—Krakoa is a testament to the suspicion in which many of us hold the current social order: it might not be fixable after all. Compromise might not be possible.

And the problem is everybody but us.


  1. I've been thinking about this a lot w/r/t the Marvel movies and other blockbusters like the new Godzilla... It serves many functions - of providing "motivation" for the bad guy, a nuanced and timely discussion around the movie, and, yes, painting any striving for change in the worst possible light. Interestingly, the Marvel movie most suited to addressing that, Civil War, ended as a story of personal vendettas anyway.

    Is the Matrix an exception?

    1. The Matrix IS an exception, and that's because the 1990s were an exceptional time. Can you imagine a Disney blockbuster where the moral of the story is "fuck the system?" Or one where the wizard/mentor/Yoda character instructs his pupil: "these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it."

      Radical stuff.

  2. Excellent, as always.

    But... wow, the phrase "deep state" is in common use now? Careful, careful; learning too much Turkish political parlance is dangerous. It's like the Cretan labyrinth, but with more bull and no string.

    1. I...I had no idea the term originated in Turkey.

      I think the first time I heard it was...hmm. I want to say 2014. I can't find the NPR show/episode where they brought somebody on to talk about the idea of entrenched bureaucrats holding onto more levers of power than the public might believe. But the phrase didn't skyrocket into the vernacular until (surprise!) the Trump presidency. Sigh.

      Aha. Here's a piece on the guy who popularized the term in the United States, and who's now regretting it.