Superheroes are enjoying an extended renaissance in popular culture. Five of the top 20 grossing films of all time have been superhero movies released within the past five years. At the same time, populist politicians have garnered their own fandoms with promises of strong action and simple solutions. Donald Trump is the God Emperor. Jeremy Corbyn is The Absolute Boy. I posit that these two trends are linked as a societal cry for someone who can fix the world by their power alone.
Comic book superheroes had to be drawn in broad strokes to capture a measure of personality in a medium which didn’t allow for extended narrative. Their characters were displayed through the action, as a range of caped crusaders saved the day from archetypal villains. Simple stories allowed for the artwork to shine and so superheroes became a calling card of the comic book medium. The wider world in which the action took place was similarly painted in broad brushstrokes, with no space nor reader patience for any understanding of why an endless parade of evildoers challenged the hero. The colourful, corny world they inhabited was childrens escapism, where an indestructible superman would always triumph over evil.
These heroes were primarily confined to the pages of comic books (barring a campy series of Batman movies) until Sam Raimi’s film adaption of Spiderman emerged into a post-9/11 world and broke box office records. In this fearful environment, audiences lapped up the idea of a pure-hearted superhero vanquishing the forces of evil. A deluge of films based on existing comic book franchises followed, spurred on by the critical success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Despite the adaption to film, the narratives were still rooted in the simplistic escapism of the original comic book heroes, providing a panacea to the compex problems of the real world. With the expansion of the industry, ever more heroes followed the same formula – any problem could be solved with a series of biffs and wallops. Through the endless War On Terror, these films continued to reassure audiences with righteous heroes who would save the world from any injustice with the application of enough direct force. This message was one which ghouls like Northrop Grumman couldn’t help but cheer on. But the real world wasn’t being saved.
In the real world, not only did folks live in fear of terrorist attacks, but their standard of living was being eroded. The imperialist engine kept things chugging along for a while, but the 2008 crash put millions out of work. The sluggish recovery and government actions taken to protect investors rather than working people contuinued the trend of stagnant real wage growth for average workers in the US since the mid 1970s . Inequality continued to rise while the existential threat of climate change emerged on the horizon. With technocratic centrists holding the levers of power, powerful business interests further entrenching their own role and an everpresent spectre of terrorism, average working folks felt they had less power and control than ever before. Thanks to decades of propaganda from said business interests, collective action against these problems was unthinkable. So these folks turned to leaders who they saw as real-life superheroes.
I am your voice. I have embraced crying mothers who have lost their children because our politicians put their personal agendas before the national good. I have no patience for injustice, no tolerance for government incompetence, no sympathy for leaders who fail their citizens.
I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police. When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country. Believe me, believe me.
-Donald Trump, Republican National Convention Speech
Donald Trump probably couldn’t spell ‘nuance’. But he took a simple message and delivered it to folks who had lost faith in their society. He played the role of a real-life superhero and was worshipped by the ‘deplorables’, folks who had seen a system rigged against them by business interests and elites, but had no idea how to fix it. In a society with minimal union or political party membership, only a rogue individual outsider could solve their problems. Much like the liberals who turned to Harry Potter in order to make sense of this world, these folks turned to analogues of the superheroes who had been defeating evil on screen for the past decade. However, the only barrier stopping a superhero from becoming a benevolent dictator is their steadfast principles. Many of those caught under a hero’s spell would even cheer their elevation to absolute power. But with great power comes great responsibility, and those real figures who put on the rhetorical mask and cape are not often as pure as their comic book counterparts.
The problem with both fictional and real superheroes is the consolidation of power in a single person. In the fictional realm this leads to hasty worldbuilding and simplistic stories. In the real world, our prominent example Donald Trump believes that he alone can solve radical Islamic terrorism. Taking these superheroes as exemplars means that we don’t need to take action ourselves, and can rely on the hero to fix all our problems. But their own emphasis on action and simple solutions rather than systematic problem solving means that these comic book archetypes avoid tackling the real problems. Batman wallops countless denizens of Gotham City without ever considering that the system which provides Bruce Wayne’s limitless wealth drives the desperate to petty crime in order to survive.