Preliminary Marxist Critique of Superheroes

[What follows is from a class assignment for a critical theory course I took in graduate school.  It’s in idea I’ve been mulling over for awhile.  It is not a complete idea: just the seed of something for the future.]

I’ve been mulling over this idea for a while: how to conduct a Marxist critique to understand our Western society’s relationship with the hero mythos, and in particular, the super-hero mythos.  I approach this topic because my favorite type of superhero happens to exemplify what appears to be a rather paradoxical approach we have to those figures that are supposed to inspire us to fight evil and protect the innocent.  On some level, our heroes evoke in us a desire to follow in their footsteps and live a morally righteous life, choosing good over evil, virtue over vice.  However, when we take a step back to critically reflect on them, we see their presence in our lives as a means of pacifying any activities that may be undertaken by common men and women to change the way the world works and thereby end the injustice that seems inherent in it.

images (1)imagesTo discuss this paradox, I’m going to focus on an archetype best exemplifying it as seen in Robin Hood, The Shadow, Zorro, The Batman and Iron Man: the rich man willing to self-sacrifice for the little people.  At first glance, and especially to the young readers for whom they are set as role-models, they appear to typify the best human qualities in the form of the rich — a class long thought to not exemplify these qualities, especially not towards the lower classes — sacrificing their lives and livelihoods to help those who have less than them.  Robin Hood was the son of the Earl of Nottingham, who broke a law that unfairly privileged the wealthy over the poor, fights to bring about the downfall of the treacherous lords of the land who promote such laws.  The Shadow, Zorro, The Batman and Iron Man all maintain their alternate identities (Iron Man to a lesser degree) as wealthy playboys; however, at night their real selves are known as they fight to stop the oppression of the lower classes.  The reader, perhaps a member of the oppressed (either in reality or by identification with the theme), looks up to these figures as saviors, as indications not only of what the rich could be but what I can be.

Unfortunately, the idealism that may sustain readership during childhood can disappear in the face of maturity’s reality; the Hegelian belief that this ideal heroism will somehow translate into the way I live my life is met with the material conditions I am meant to live my life in.  And where once I saw the potential within myself to right the wrongs and save the day, I no longer am certain of my capability to do anything of the sort, and fall instead into the stories of my heroes, vicariously living out their moral actions and escaping from my desires to help into theirs.

Thus is the paradox we see in our relationships with our superheroes, and potentially to all our heroes.  During childhood, the ideals of heroism may convince us that we can achieve anything, but the conditions of our lives as we mature make us realize we cannot.  As Marx and Engels said in The German Ideology: “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”  As we mature from a child who loved the exploits of The Batman to an adult, our love of these exploits may still be there, as well as some need or desire or want to in some way follow his footsteps and live life by the same morals.  However, while the needs may stay the same, the conditions under which they can either thrive or be enacted have changed.

Man is directly a natural being.  As a natural being, and as a living natural being he is, on the one hand, endowed with natural powers and faculties, which exist in him as tendencies and abilities, as drives.  On the other hand, as a natural, embodied, sentient, objective being, he is a suffering, conditioned and limited being, like animals and plants. (Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy in General)

If the external, objective, material conditions do not allow the adult an outlet for enacting these desires implanted by the consumption of the superhero mythos, then the likelihood of the adult being able to fulfill this desire in any way is greatly reduced.

What may these discouraging conditions be?  As with many things in adult life, it begins with the alienation of the worker.  A worker alienated from the work, from the product being produced, is a worker engaged in a self-sacrificing activity that, if not under his/her control, is seen as mind-numbing at best or excruciating at worse.  Instead of engaging in an activity s/he may want to, such as his/her hero’s work to save the world, the alienating labor subsumes the worker’s being until his/her being is one of work.  “Just as alienated labour transforms free and self-directed activity into a means, so it transforms the species-life of a man into a means of physical existence.” (Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man).  The worker, being drained of the drive for living and being outside of doing his/her work to continue living/being, turns to activities not under the control of another.  “The worker, therefore, feels himself at home only during his leisure time, whereas at work he feels homeless.” (Marx, Manuscripts).  And in any medium in which they can be found, the exploits of superheroes that at one time provided inspiration now provide a means of escaping, a means of engaging in an activity under the control of the worker.

But it is this very escapism that is called into question.  Whereas with children this escapism may serve the useful purpose of indoctrinating them with the moral ideals of their society, in adulthood this escapism may negate the possibility of the adult enacting the activities of his/her hero.  For not only is the worker alienated from his/her work, product, and self, but also from the rest of the human species.  “In general, the statement that man is alienated from his species-life means that each man is alienated from others, and that each of the others is likewise alienated from human life.” (Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man)  Delving into stories about saving the world without engaging in activities that may in fact do such, albeit on a small level, further serves to divide the worker from the world, and thus the worker from his/her need to save the world.

Thus alienation works in two ways to twist inspiration into vicarious fascination.  Not being able to engage in a productive activity where the outcome is under our control means we seek out activities where the outcome is, such as consuming superhero texts.  The alienation extends into how we interact with those around us, resulting in weakened social ties, and our engaging with escapism only serves to exasperate this dilemma.  Because we cannot engage with other people to help them, that alienation in turn sends us to more stories, where there are relationships to live out vicariously, including that of hero as savior.  In the end, because we cannot live out these desires for helping our fellow human, that we ascribe to our heroes those traits we are unable to act upon, and are thus alienated from, in our real life.  “It is just the same as in religion.  The more of himself man attributes to God the less he has left in himself.” (Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man).  As a child we saw in our heroes the potential to be something great in our lives – the idea was to create a physical reality.  As an adult, we see in our heroes something we are lacking in ourselves, something we attribute to them, and by doing so no longer can see in ourselves.

What once served to thrill and inspire is perverted into a means of draining this inspiration while leaving the thrill, of rendering impotent the persons’ desire to make a change, to be the hero in real-life when being the hero vicariously provides the same thrill.  Thus is the paradox of our relationship with our heroes.  In our youth we are Hegelian, believing that we can rob the rich to give to the poor, or leap tall buildings in a single bound.  But maturity makes us Marxists, realizing, consciously or unconsciously, that the pressing conditions of the “real world” do not allow such fancies to take flight: Superman comes crashing back to earth far less than uber.  We come to be alienated from our work, from the world, and from ourselves, and see no opportunity to enact the righting of wrongs that so inspired us.  Instead we see examples of people with power unlike our own — so far removed as to be described as “superpowers” — whether it be the steady aim of Robin Hood or the invulnerability of Superman.  If it takes power to save the world, what hope does the average worker have, who’s only power to produce is already under the control of those we would fight against?  What served to empower in childhood, emasculates in adulthood.

That is the paradox when fantasy meets reality.

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