Yesterday I read this criticism of superheroes by Vlad Savov in The Verge, because a well-intended reader of this blog sent it my way, wondering whether I would care to comment on it. In his piece, Mr. Savov raises a number of points, but his general thesis is that the superheroes with whom we’re familiar don’t seem to be very super. Despite their powers and abilities, they do not eradicate evil and suffering from the world, they only beat it back for a time, and sometimes not very successfully. In essence, the author is asking the question, “What are superheroes for?”
The most important thing to consider when attempting to answer this question is the rather obvious, though perhaps easily-forgotten fact, that superheroes don’t actually exist. They’re beings inhabiting works of fiction, no different in their way from other characters in adventure tales such as Captain Nemo, Michael Strogoff, or The Scarlet Pimpernel. Even when there are traces of their being drawn from the lives and experiences of actual persons, theirs are not stories about real people. As vivid as Bruce Wayne or Steve Rogers may be, they are still just characters in a story.
In most cases, a fictional character is created primarily for the purpose of entertainment. Not all fictional characters exist devoid of deeper meanings or significance of course: they can often serve important pedagogical purposes, such as teaching us things about human nature, or about anticipating the consequences of our actions. The best literature, oftentimes, not only entertains, but informs and enlightens. Yet while one can easily learn a life lesson from The Little Engine That Could just as well as one may do from Thérèse Desqueyroux, in the end if their stories are not entertaining, no one is going to read them.
When we complain that superheroes don’t appear to solve the problems of the worlds which they inhabit, we’re playing a version of the classic game known as the “omnipotence paradox”, i.e., can God create a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it? If Superman is so powerful, why doesn’t he work to eliminate all crime instead of fighting against it with his fists?
If superheroes fail to fix everything that afflicts mankind, it is because they have a fundamental belief that it’s important for people to solve their problems themselves whenever possible. Certain threats against humanity – an approaching asteroid, a water supply poisoned by The Joker – they will step in and act upon. Yet to remake the world in their image would be to set themselves up as all-powerful gods or benevolent dictators, negating the ability of ordinary people to exercise their own free will. As Gandalf points out in “The Lord of the Rings” when Frodo offers him the One Ring, he would try to use its power for good, but in the end the temptation to turn it to his own selfish desires would be far too great for even him to resist.
This is because appearances to the contrary, superheroes are vulnerable. They get shot, stabbed, punched, kicked, poisoned, and otherwise mangled and mistreated on a regular basis. While they may have miraculous powers of self-healing, they still have to suffer in the course of their lives and work as we do. They do so in ways which are less mundane than paying the gas bill or being stuck next to a screaming baby on a plane. Yet they keep going, fighting for what matters to them, because they believe that the values which they fight for are more important than their own personal comforts, and because they recognize that the abilities with which they have been gifted call them to a different level of commitment and self-sacrifice.
By no means is this meant to be a complete response or even a riposte to Mr. Savov’s piece, which despite my disagreement with his assumptions and conclusions is worth reading for some of the points and criticisms it raises. However, the takeaway from this is to remember that the superhero genre is meant to be, first and foremost, a form of entertaining literature: it is FUN, and it is perfectly acceptable, indeed laudable, to simply sit back and enjoy the ride. While it might be nice for all of our problems to be solved by these beings endowed with unbelievable powers, the reality is, each one of us is called to work out our own problems ourselves whenever possible, rather than having all of our solutions to the difficulties of life handed to us.
So let’s give our superheroes a break, gentle reader. Give them a chance to kick off their boots, and put their feet up after a hard day of fighting crime. And let’s encourage those virtues of selflessness, self-reliance, and courage in the face of evil in our lives which, as fictional characters, they try to exemplify in their own.
Superman After a Long Day by Alex Ross