Liberal Democratic Equality and Superheroes

Over the past 15 years, or so, films based on superhero comic book franchises such as Spiderman, X-Men, The Avengers and The Fantastic Four have become particularly common and popular in liberal democracies like the US and Canada. It seems obvious that a large part of the reason for this is comic book franchises offer a wide breadth of characters, stories and other source material, and thus many movies can be made with these source materials without having to worry about coming up with new characters or arcs. One particularly shining example of this is that the third live action take on the Spiderman franchise is being developed as we speak, and if the other two editions were any indication than this new take will consist of at least two films. Clearly, the various versions of the Spiderman comic offer a wide variety of materials that studios can draw on, or put more cynically, rehash and exhaust, to create many Spiderman films. But the preponderance of comic book source material does not fully explain why these films are so popular in liberal democracies. Consequently this raises the question of what underlies their popularity. Surely, many things underlie the popularity of these films in liberal democracies, but I would like to focus on two such factors. The first is quite obvious and is that comic book franchises already have a relatively wide audience to draw on which helps to guarantee that the film will be relatively successful. In addition, and perhaps less intuitively, superhero comic book films are popular because they provide occasion to sublimate certain non-democratic desires in the context of a society that does not offer many opportunities to express this set of desires.

The first reason is that the existing fanbase of the comic book means that studios don’t need to worry as much about if there will be an audience for the film, and less effort is required to market the film as the movie already has an audience that will be interested in seeing it. Furthermore, even if the film only appeals to the core fanbase of a comic book it will still have a significant audience, and thus there is far less risk to using comic books for films than trying to write an original story that has no existing fanbase.

Now, the second reason for the popularity of film adaptations of superhero comic franchises may seem quite elusive and odd, as typically superheroes in these films stand up for democratic principles such as equality and liberty. Spiderman is not someone who aims to overthrow democratic principles, rather he seeks to defend the democratic rights and liberties of all people to be free from harm, fear and violence. But, there is one element of Spiderman that speak to the relation of superhero comic book films to non-democratic desires. Spiderman flouts the rule of law and takes the law into his own hands; he may be a good vigilante, but he is a vigilante nonetheless. Taking the law into one’s own hands can be seen to be non-democratic in that unlike a feudal aristocracy in which great individuals must take care to protect their serfs and vassals without the help of a modern state, a liberal democracy uses a body of laws in conjunction with distinct branches of the state to enforce laws and protect the weak. For example, social welfare in liberal democratic society is defined by principles of law, rather than the generous care that is expressed through the spirit of Noblesse Oblige. The former is rule/law based, while the latter is not formally codified in rules and laws, but flows from the character of the good ruler or lord. Superheroes like Spiderman or Wolverine are not recognized agents of the state that must follow particular rules to ensure the common good, but are rather like anonymous lords who generously offer their protection and support to those in need. Consequently, the mode of doing justice that superheroes embody is non-democratic, and specifically aristocratic. The Avengers are an exception here as their authority is more tied to the state, but despite this exception, from what I have said above, it still seems plausible to say that superheroes embody non-democratic principles as their mode of doing justice fits quite well with the aristocratic spirit of Noblesse Oblige.

What makes this non-democratic element of the superhero comic book film genre appealing to us is that because we live in a liberal democratic society we often feel powerless as individuals, and helpless to right injustice or do great things, and thus we tend to have a desire to be able to act as a force that can truly punish the guilty or do great things. Tocqueville points out that individuals in a democracy typically feel powerless as they are weak and cannot accomplish much on their own, as everyone has equal power. In particular he notes:

Aristocratic societies always contain, at the very heart of a multitude of individuals unable to achieve anything on their own, a small number of very powerful and wealthy citizens each of whom has the ability to perform great enterprises single-handed.

But among democratic nations all citizens are independent and weak; they can achieve almost nothing by themselves, and none of them could force his fellows to help him. Therefore they all sink into a state of impotence, if they do not learn to help each other voluntarily.” (597)

As democratic citizens we recognize that there is not much we can do and change on our own; unlike an aristocratic lord I cannot simply will that some great act will occur and draw on those dependent on me for this to occur. Instead I must work with others voluntarily in order for this act to possibly come to fruition. In this context Tocqueville is noting that the use of public associations in democratic America acts to counteract this powerlessness, but nonetheless it still points to the sense of powerlessness that is experienced by citizens of a democracy.

Furthermore, there is an additional layer to the powerlessness of democratic individuals in contrast to aristocratic lords that Tocqueville did not explicitly point out, but can be seen by examining the relationship of leaders of associations and corporate bodies in liberal democratic societies in contrast to the power of aristocratic lords. Many people think of a CEO of a corporation as someone who much like an aristocratic lord has great power, but while the CEO is very powerful, his power is conditioned to a far greater degree, and in a different way than the aristocratic lord’s. The CEO, in contrast to the aristocratic lord, is not guaranteed his position for life, but only based on his performance, which is typically determined by share price, growth and profits. Likewise public associations are also tied to existing goals. If I am the leader of a public association that is setup to support the disabled, I cannot just decide that I now want this association to fight for adult literacy instead or in addition to the initial goal. As a leader of this association I must uphold the stated aims of the association. So, unlike aristocratic lords leaders of public associations and private institutions are very much tied to specifically stated goals, and thus while they are powerful, they are not free. The freedom to do great things in a democratic society is not provided to those who lead public associations, or private institutions, but in our ability to collectively create these associations or institutions. Once the act of creation has occurred the institution will have to operate according to its own logic and consequently its leaders will not be free.

Furthermore, the power and freedom of the superhero is very much like the aristocratic lord’s as they both need to pay homage to no person or goal and they are able to do what is necessary to ensure that good prevails, or a great act is performed. In addition, human beings seem to have the desire to be free and powerful in the way that the aristocratic lord or the superhero is. Who wouldn’t want to be able to do great things on their own and be free from having to answer to another person or corporate body? This would eliminate many of our everyday problems, and it seems likely that many attempts to climb the corporate ladder are driven, albeit misguidedly, on the idea that once you get to a certain point in the corporate ladder you will be free from the fetters of others, and able to do what needs to be done. Similarly, further evidence for this desire is provided by the fact that children typically rebel against parental authority and want to do whatever they want. Therefore, while it may be the case that if we made a considered choice we may not want to become a superhero, I think it is plausible to say that humans have an engrained desire to have the power and freedom of the superhero. Thus, in the context of a liberal democratic society the superhero comic film is popular as it allows people to sublimate their desire to have the power of a superhero through vicariously experiencing the hero’s perspective. As the viewer experiences the life of the superhero, he is able to temporarily pretend that they too can do great things fairly effortlessly and through so doing he momentarily overcomes his sense of powerlessness.

Works Cited
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Trans. Gerald Bevan. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.

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2 thoughts on “Liberal Democratic Equality and Superheroes

  1. A thoughtful essay; the topic of superhero mythology and what it says about our psyche is fascinating, and your work on it here is stirring.

    While reading your essay I couldn’t help but be struck by the thought that the superhero myth identifies, fulfills, and then dismisses our revolutionary urges to individually challenge the status quo. On the one hand, we live vicariously through the hero, and so don’t have to perform such actions ourselves — we feel good, and the system remains unchallenged, so everybody “wins” so to speak and the industry keeps churning out movies (this last question, the one you gear your essay towards is very important, thanks for enlightening it). On the other, we see the very serious personal costs that the hero suffers, and we absorb this and subconsciously alter our thinking to conclude that the costs of getting beyond the bounds of the system are just not worth it. Everybody wins?

    • You make a very good point regarding the personal cost that the superhero typically must deal with. I think you are right to see the presentation of the superhero, both as a way to satiate certain desires through living vicariously through the superhero. But also, given that the superhero is often cut off from what it ordinarily means to have a good life we are discouraged from taking radical action. In this way, the superhero genre could be seen to be something that reinforces the status quo, but not in a simplistic brutal way in which norms are imposed on people, but rather through a presentation of images that at once satiates revolutionary desires, and discourage revolutionary action.

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