Salon has run an editorial by Richard Cooper called "Superheroes are a bunch of fascists," and it's sort of annoyed me. Not because Cooper is wrong - he is, fundamentally correct that the root of superheroics is fascism - but because the editorial is so surface level and ignorant not only of superhero comic book history but seemingly of superhero movie history.
Superheroes are essentially fascist because they use force to accomplsh their goals, and their goals are almost always supporting and protecting the status quo. We could actually argue against superheroes as fascist by noting that fascism is about putting the state first and there are almost no state-driven heroes, but let's roll with it. Superheroes fit within the fascist romanticization of masculinity and power through violence, as well as the fascist belief that humans are inherently unequal. As Cooper notes in his piece, Alan Moore was kicking this around for a long time; Cooper mentions Watchmen, but I'd say Miracleman is a better examination of a lot of this stuff. In the final issue of Moore's run, Miracleman assumes totalitarian control of the world after an apocalyptic battle with Kid Miracleman (a pre-9/11 9/11, if you will), which is presented as the logical conclusion to having godlike beings walking among us. For comic fans the political nature of superheroes has long been a point of discussion.
But Cooper has a narrow focus; he's only interested in the Christopher Nolan superhero movies, the Batfilms and Man of Steel. Those films definitely reflect an authoritarian point of view, but they don't reflect the totality of superhero films. If anything Cooper has on his hands an interesting argument for why Man of Steel gets Superman so very, very wrong, but he instead paints with a broad brush.
To address the points he does make: yes, Batman is perhaps the pinnacle of conservative fantasy, a rich white man who does the job the corrupt authorities cannot, and does it with an excessive amount of violence. There's an intriguing streak in conservative thought that runs to the authoritarian but despises the bureacracy of government - see the upcoming Lone Survivor, for instance, for a film that celebrates the machinery of war while bad-mouthing the paper-pushers who make it run, a standard cry from right-wing war cheerleaders who love the troops but hate the government - and Batman speaks to that. The system is bad. The people within the system are bad. There's only one man - a powerful figurehead leader - who can make a difference, and he makes it with the power of brute force. Privacy and due process are hinderances to Batman's mission, and The Dark Knight makes explicit in the character of Harvey Dent the idea that justice is completely corruptible.
But like, that's Batman. It's the appeal for people who find him appealing. It's kind of why I don't trust people who are super into Batman. Superman, on the other hand, is a Comet the Superhorse of another color. Cooper says:
I was reminded of this by Jor-El’s speech in “Man of Steel”:
"You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders."
How, though? Those watching him can’t fly, topple buildings or fire heat rays from their eyes. What else does Superman do other than these purely physical feats? The 1978 version of Jor-El warned: “It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history. Rather let your leadership stir others to.” Can you really inspire others with steel?
What Superman does, in the history of Superman anyway, is act selflessly and magnanimously. He could take over the world in a heartbeat, but he does not. He has gifts, and he uses those gifts not to put himself ahead but to aid others. It's a curious misunderstanding of the entirety of who Superman is to miss this point; we don't love Superman because he can bend steel, we love him because he bends steel to help others. We don't have to have Superman's gifts to understand that we have our own gifts, and we look to Superman's example for how to use them to make the world a better place.
If Cooper only knows Superman from Man of Steel his confusion makes sense. The film doesn't understand this aspect of Superman, and it presents him as a distanced figure who keeps his abilities to himself for years. This Superman couldn't possibly inspire anybody, even though he insists the S on his chest stands for 'Hope.' Man of Steel is a film far too concerned with the individual to make its hero actually heroic; funnily enough, the fact that Superman puts Kal-El first is actually what makes him not fascist, in a statist sense. He's far more of an Objectivist superhero (all superheroes are also, to an extent, Objectivist).
There's stuff to chew on with the Nolan superhero movies for sure, and I think a lot of it is on purpose. Yes, The Dark Knight Rises does take aim a bit at the Occupy movement... but it also equates Occupy with the French Revolution. There's a complexity that is, I believe, bungled, but it's there. Occupy was happening as the film was made, but the revolution and the subsequent Terror are pretty obviously the blueprint for Bane's takeover of Gotham (made meta-explicit by Anne Hathaway appearing as Catwoman and in Les Mis the same year). To be fair, I'm pretty sure Nolan's sympathies are not with Occupy - they're ghastly noisy, and they make one late for tea.
But Christopher Nolan isn't the only guy making superhero movies. One of the things I love about the Marvel Studios film is that they actually wrestle with a lot of the stuff that Cooper is complaining about. First of all it's pretty telling that he leaves out Captain America: The First Avenger, the only superhero movie where the hero explictly fights a fascist. That film posits the hero exists beyond physical ability - Steve Rogers is exactly as much of a hero when he's a weakling as he is after the Super Soldier Serum. That's vital to the character, and it's vital to understanding the way Marvel superhero stories wrestle with the necessity of force. There may be a world in which force will never need to be used, but we don't live in it, and neither do any superheroes. Cooper talks about how The Avengers and Man of Steel both have bloodless 9/11s*, but 9/11 was an event that showed even the most pacifistic of us that sometimes you have to hit a guy in the face. It's pointless to get caught up in debating Bush's illegal wars after 9/11, but some sort of action had to be taken against Al Qaeda in the days that followed, and that action wasn't ever going to be a nice discussion. You'd be an actual asshole if you thought that.
Captain America speaks to that. Cap reluctantly uses force to stop others from using force on the innocent. That first film has the advantage of being set in one of those wars it's hard to argue against (although some did at the time, to be fair), one of those wars where you feel like the guys we beat sort of had it coming to them.
That's a big fantasy, the idea that our enemies are worthy of our reluctant violence. The Marvel movies play with that in interesting ways; in the Thor films Loki is a tragic villain, one whose defeat makes Thor sad instead of triumphant. Thor would like nothing better than to talk it all out with his brother, but that's simply not happening. In Thor: The Dark World Thor has to wrestle with the idea of leadership and rejects the idea of being a central figure leading his people to war. Mussolini would disapprove. For Bruce Banner violence is absolutely the last resort, and is the thing he most fears. No matter how righteous his cause when acting as the Hulk, the damage he inflicts is beyond conscience.
The one Marvel hero that Cooper name-drops is Iron Man, lumping him in with Batman as examplars of hyper-capitalist paragons of the system.
Capitalism, of course, has an advantage over fascism: it has survived longer because it can incorporate criticism and pseudo-criticism. “Iron Man,” for instance, begins with the premise that high-tech weaponry is indeed a Bad Thing, but its solution is that the guy who built it should have a conscience. Then its use is just cool. Just as Superman’s triumph is due not to heroism but to his physical strength, the successes of Iron Man and Batman are due to their equipment.
That is an accurate critique of Iron Man. But it doesn't take into account the serialized nature of the series, which climaxes in Iron Man Three with Tony Stark getting rid of his equipment. As comic readers we know he'll get the suit back at some point, but the arc of the character extends over the course of four movies, not just the one. It's the story of a guy being awakened to sacrifice, heroism and the idea that what matters is the man, not the repulsor ray. He goes from a guy who makes weapons to a guy who stops making weapons to finally a guy who stops using weapons. There's no doubt that Stark is a capitalist hero - that's just what he is, period - but he exists in a universe that is filled with heroes who have other points of view. Captain America is much more the civil servant hero, a character who rejects capitalist gain and devotes his life to service (with fascism being a form of statism it's worth noting the only state-sponsored screen superhero is probably the one who would most agree with Cooper's thoughts that Batman is a jerk).
Of course Cooper would complain that Cap glorifies the military (his piece has the weirdest argument about Man of Steel glorfiying the military, utterly ignoring the scene he's describing has Superman trashing a drone sent to watch him). Thor glorifies royalty as well, I guess.
Cooper leaves all of these movies out because they speak not to superheroes as fascists but rather to America's sixty year struggle with being a superpower. It's telling that Batman and Superman predate WWII; they both come from an age when little guy America wanted to be seen as tough. The Marvel heroes, though, come from a time when America was trying to juggle its self-image as the underdog with the reality of being the biggest, toughest kid on the block. These heroes were created during the Vietnam War** - Iron Man's first origin is explicitly set in Vietnam - and they reflect the cognitive dissonance we feel as 'good guys' who could also wipe out the Earth at a moment's notice. If anything there's a discomfort with power and force inherent in the Marvel heroes that is anti-fascist. Also, none of the current Marvel screen heroes are 'crime fighters.' They're mostly people who do their thing and more often than not get attacked by outside forces***. These guys don't go on patrol.
Which leads us to the other big Marvel hero left out of Cooper's piece - Spider-Man. He does go on patrol, and like Batman, he does fight crime. But unlike Batman he's explicitly presented as a teen power fantasy, and that's where the character gets his pathos. Spider-Man is Peter Parker attempting to be better and cooler than he feels on a day to day basis, and he often does it through force. But all the great Spider-Man stories are not about force - Spidey is often weaker than his opponents - but are about involvement. Working class Peter Parker is a hero not because he can climb walls or punch but because he throws himself into situations he could otherwise ignore - except that the death of his Uncle Ben showed him there is no situation a good man can ignore.
Yeah, a lot of that does come out in punching. Like I said up top, there's something inherently fascist about the superhero, and that comes out of the fact that there's something inherently fascist about action stories. We love action stories, always have, always will. We like people fighting. As humans we have a weird sympathy for a lot of fascist ideals. But what Cooper is missing is that while all superheroes are, at the very center of the concept, violent power fantasies, the best ones confront that and struggle with it. "With great power comes great responsibility,' nobody said in The Amazing Spider-Man, but that's the core concept of all superheroes. That power is physical in the stories because, frankly, that makes for better stories. But the concept of being responsible for your power - whether it be physical, cosmic, economic or emotional - doesn't strike me as inherently fascist.
Cooper almost never ventures outside of the Nolan films, and with good reason - if he included the Marvel films his argument might fall to pieces. The X-Men movies are extraordinarily liberal and they fit Cooper's demands to a T:
Maybe one day we will see a superhero movie championing something other than fascist or hypercapitalist values: a superhero movie in which it isn’t physical superiority that saves the day. Maybe one day we will get the hero we need: one who challenges rather than reinforces the status quo.
We have the hated mutants working to change society's view of them, working to remove institutionalized racism and, at the same time, doing it peacefully. The X-Men come into conflict almost exclusively with their own kind, and that conflict is about stopping violence, even when that violence is a reaction to hate. And they're led by a guy who is so physically unsuperior he can't even fucking walk. It's like Cooper doesn't realize the X-Men are led by a parapalegic with mental powers (he's aware the films exist, as he cites them at the beginning of his piece). I'm not the world's biggest fan of the X-Men franchise, but it's exactly what Cooper is looking for, and it's about to release its seventh instalment. Maybe somebody should send him some Blu-rays and a couple of trade paperbacks. Let him catch up with the rest of the superhero fans who have been talking about this for decades, and this time he can leave his condescension at home.
* on 9/11 I went to a Brooklyn hospital to donate blood. I was turned away because they didn't need any - people either made it out of the Twin Towers or they died. 9/11 was strangely bloodless in real life, as the people who died were almost atomized, turned to ash just like Metropolis in Man of Steel. No real point, just an interesting way the clean violence of the movies eerily echoes the reality of my experience.
** Cap technically pre-dates our entry in WWII. The modern incarnation is largely based on the version of Cap reintroduced during Vietnam, though.
*** We could definitely have a good talk about how this vision of superheroes perfectly fits America's view of itself on either side of 9/11. Devoid of historical context, the 9/11 attacks feel like the Masters of Evil just showing up at Avengers Mansion and starting shit. With historical context the 9/11 attacks feel like the Joker showing up in Gotham as part of Batman's inherent escalation of violence in the city.