Phone Booth Friday: Let’s Give Our Superheroes A Break

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

Superman After a Long Day by Alex Ross





One thought on “Phone Booth Friday: Let’s Give Our Superheroes A Break

  1. Whew! From the title of your post, I was afraid for a moment that you were planning to retire the “Phone Booth Friday” feature, at least temporarily, if not permanently. I’m glad this is not the case. I think your response is quite right. Here are my thoughts.

    Mr. Savov seems to me to be (How can I put this delicately?) a rather earnest, dull-witted socialist totally lacking in spirit and imagination and who totally misunderstands the mythic and symbolic nature of comic books and comic book superheroes. OF COURSE comic book superheroes are nothing like real world heroes! That’s precisely the point. Several years ago, I discovered a website called that enables users to draw their own superheroes, even if the users themselves can’t draw (I can’t). The creator of the site, Jeff Hebert, once said in the site’s blog that if you over-think them, superhero stories are ridiculous. I submit that Mr. Savov is guilty of over-thinking. Of course people in real life don’t have super-powers, used for good or ill; and of course in real life people don’t put on ridiculous costumes to go out and fight other people in ridiculous costumes. Superhero stories are NOT ABOUT real life, however. They are about dreams and fantasies and possibilities and what-ifs. Nor are they about solving massive global problems, such as hunger or disease, on a global scale. They are not about social engineering. I submit that they are really about INDIVIDUALS facing up to INDIVIDUAL problems and finding the courage and resourcefulness necessary to overcome them.

    I submit that if we read or watch a superhero story and enjoy it, what we are really doing, at least at some level, is identifying with or wishing we were the hero. Superheroes are symbols of the kind of people we would like to be: strong, courageous,powerful, physically attractive and morally good. However, the reality is that we are not perfect people and we all face problems in every day life that are a struggle: bills we can’t pay, relationships that fail, loved ones who are ill. These problems may discourage and frighten us, and we may feel powerless in the face of them. But if we were a superhero? Wouldn’t life be easier if we could just duck into a phone booth or an alley, strip off our dull everyday personalities and their dull everyday clothes and re-emerge in shining Spandex, as a kind of “Super-Self,” if you will, a glorified, perfected, strengthened Self capable of taking on any problem? And instead of global hunger, or a bill we can’t pay, or a loved one dying of cancer, which are all problems we can’t solve easily (at least not right away), our problem becomes foiling Lex Luthor’s latest plot against Metropolis or the Red Skull’s newest scheme to win World War II for the Nazis. In a comic book world, these are problems we CAN solve using fists, X-ray vision, or a vibranium shield. The villain and his dastardly doings become a symbol or a metaphor for what REALLY frightens us: what we fear will happen or perhaps even what we fear we may become.

    Of course we can’t live in a comic book world forever. Eventually we come to the last page of this month’s issue or the closing credits of the superhero movie start to roll. We return to our workaday world and our more ordinary problems that seem insoluble. Maybe, just maybe, however, thanks to the pleasure and inspiration we find in those few moments of comfort and escape, we find a bit more courage and resolution to face our problems once again. Maybe THAT is what superheroes are good for.


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