Superheroes Reflect Their Times

When times get tough, the unsettled among us turn to fictionalized superheroes to vicariously battle the world’s uncertainties. They can even provide an example for turning the lemons in our personal lives into lemonade just as Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Tony Stark (Iron Man) did by turning to crime fighting careers after the deaths of their parents. Because however impotent we may be against reality, we can project our helplessness into an all powerful avatar for a temporary feeling of control or revenge.

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During the 1930s and early 40s, the likes of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Captain America where on the comic pages defending honest working stiffs against common crime in the streets, corporate crime in the suites and crimes of political corruption.

Superman even foiled a plot by greedy Wall Streeters and cash-craved Capital Hillers to crash the stock market a second time to cast America into a another depression they could exploit.

And when Americans were fighting the racist plot between Imperial Japan’s ‘master race’ of the East and Nazi Germany’s ‘master race’ of the West to take over the world, Captain America was there to punch Hitler in the face as other superheroes battled Tojo and Mussolini in ways those at home wished they could.

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By the 1950s, Superman was on TV and new superheroes like Green Lantern and Captain Marvel joined the original stalwarts to fight hegemonic communism and the ever present specter of nuclear war.

The cultural 60s brought Batman and Robin to TV (BAM!!) along with more superhero characters whose alter identity problems were reflections of our over-therapied, neurotic selves that were now out of the closet. Even the Incredible Hulk had a case of multiple personality disorder.

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Iron Man wrestled with alcoholism.

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The Mighty Thor had major arrogance and father defiance issues.

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This was a different world.

Superman’s Clark Kent in both comic, TV and movie incarnations may have been gainfully employed as a mild-mannered newspaper reporter and Batman’s Bruce Wayne may have been the tuxedoed scion of a gazillionaire industrialist, but Spiderman’s geeky Peter Parker had to struggle to support his aunt and pay his own school tuition like lots others did.

Even so, they and other superheros managed to snap out of their problems long enough to challenge unjust authority, racism, alienation, and traditional roles.

Black Panther mirrored the 60s Black Panther Party self -efense edict and battled appropriate villains like the Ku Klux Klan. X-Men reflected contemporary issues about diversity, ethnicity and the treatment of minorities. Wonder Woman was a TV star and filled the cover of the first Ms. Magazine in 1972.

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Soon after, she got a women’s lib makeover.

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30 years later, liberated gay women got their own superhero when Bat Woman became a lesbian.

From there, vengeance and vigilantism became a hallmark of new super characters. Punisher, for instance was (his character has been dropped for the moment) a former police officer obsessed with bloody retribution against bad guys whose viciousness is off the map, that being a reflection of the real life murderous depravity of drug dealers, gang bangers and Islamic terrorism that would get far worse than it was. That willingness to kill did recognize a reality long ignored.

How often has Batman allowed the Joker to live and murder again and again over the years? His body count may be in the millions by now.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for the Black Knight to just terminate Joker once and for all with extreme prejudice?

But a Batman that took care of a deadly public menace once and for all would not only have his writers working overtime to create new villains, the power trip of so much killing could corrupt his moral compass as power tends to do. As Tommy Lee Jones’ character tells the men he’s trained to kill in “The Hunted”: “Killing’s easy once you start. Stopping is the hard part.”

Superheroes are generally not allowed to step outside the guide rails that define those traditional American principles of fair play, common sense and proportionality when protecting the public by enforcing its norms and laws. Within those boundaries he may make his own decisions and live by his own rules, but at the end of the day, superheros tend to be Schizophrenics in a freak costume with conflictions that are not all that different from those of our real life law enforcers.

Attorney general Eric Holder says terrorists are to be Mirandized one day, but not the next? He says their trials are to be in civilian courts one day and in military courts the next? He says Arizona’s new immigration law is unconstitutional, but then says he hasn’t read it?

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It’s enough to really piss-off HellBoy.


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