Committed: Superheroes and the Social Contract
With the popularity of superheroes there is much talk about the modern mythology we’re creating. But the movies aren’t being made about any old superheroes, the most popular heroes are the golden and silver age ones who not only fight evil operating on their own authority, but are motivated by a need to support the weak, to help the poor and generally aspire to lofty, humanitarian goals. These are not the violent vigilantes of modern superhero creation, but the old guard, created not to uphold the status quo, nor to simply destroy criminals, but above all to help the helpless. These are the superheroes that have universal appeal because they embody the dreams of humanity to propagate a healthy future.
Last night two blocks in my neighborhood were completely shut down for 7 hours while police hunted a murder suspect who’d been shooting at them. I got back from dinner at about 11.30pm to find the way barred by police. With multiple road blocks they were directing people away from the area. Apparently, around 9.30pm a murder suspect had been spotted near a local supermarket and when approached, he shot at the police then ran, which led to this manhunt and forced the lockdown of a couple of blocks while he was found. The police were very clear about it, with a murder suspect loose and shooting, no one could risk going home until he was caught. People were advised to stay in a hotel or stay with friends. While this was inconvenient for people coming back, it was worse for people out to dinner or parties in the neighborhood who just weren’t allowed to leave. The murder suspect was eventually tracked down to a rooftop around 4am. This hunt for just one man took dozens of patrol cars, officers and at least one constantly circling helicopter to comb the area for nearly 7 hours.
On a daily basis we manage to keep our society running because we all abide by a social contract. There are laws which are negotiated by the people we (mostly) vote for and we all agree to uphold them. The reason it works is not because there are enough officers to enforce the law, but because we all agree to adhere to the law. If we all suddenly stopped doing what works best for everyone, then there would never be enough police or prisons to catch and punish everyone.
I’ve read a few comic books which try to deal with the potential fallout of super heroes in the context of the “real” world. There are so many excellent books, like Gotham Central, (from the point of view of the police who have to cope with Batman and his foes), Kingdom Come (with ruminations on the political implications of super hero vs super villains), Marvels (written by a human observer explaining how it feels to live in the shadow of super powered beings), and The Boys (romping through attempts at policing amoral superheroes.) I thought we’d put a reasonable amount of thought into the super powered genre and had established the emotional need for these almost mythical heroes. But now that I’m faced with the reality of the ridiculous disruption caused by one basic manhunt, I question whether these works really are examining the most salient issues.
Taking the practicalities into consideration, and acknowledging the tenet set up by Thomas M. Disch (in his book The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of), when he theorizes that our fantasies and fiction plant the seed for our desires, which then leads to the experimentation necessary to discover new technologies. If we take this as fact and we acknowledge that fiction is where we play with what we want our future to look like, then we also need to acknowledge that on some level, in the last few decades we have been embracing the concept of superheroes in wider circles. They have developed a broad level of appeal outside of the niche market they originally inhabited, as movies about superheroes spread the mythology far and wide. So it could can be said that humanity is we’re looking for a tangible embodiment of our superhuman attributes.
We dream about being rescued by super powered people, people who aren’t elected or employed by any regulated body, who are more powerful than we can ever be. But in our current reality, those people would not be lauded as heroes, but feared as dangerous vigilantes. The idea of these vaguely violent super heroes is fundamentally flawed as a fantasy. In reality if one man with a gun can massively disrupt the lives of an so many people for so much time, what horrible chaos would come from super powered battles on a daily basis?
No one would welcome violent fights in their neighborhood. Last night, when I was checking in to a hotel down the road, they said that eight other locals had already checked in, some of whom were worried about pets trapped in their houses. If this is the kind of disruption that a lone criminal suspect can create, I can only imagine how much intense destruction and chaos would be caused by super powered heroes and villains at war. No society would put up with it, they wouldn’t even call superheroes that, they’d call them terrifying lunatics in capes who kept fucking shit up. They would be universally hated, just for the peripheral damage they caused, let alone any destruction they caused directly. Far from co-operating with the police, they would be hunted.
If we’re dreaming about ways to create a better world, creating beings which embody the better parts of ourselves, we need to move away from these violent, destructive models and towards resolution-oriented heroes, people who understand that the true superpower is one wielded with care and respect. There are superheroes among us to provide role models for the lofty goals of these superheroes, people like Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Jesus, Buddha… the humans who have reached out to to unite us, and help us become more than we ever could have alone. There is room in our culture for superheroes who support and foster peace, and it is no wonder that the most enduring superheroes are still the ones originally created with that in mind.