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We often ask ourselves about the necessity of superheroes in pop culture, hearing that they’re good symbols for the population and that they reflect ideals essential to its development. However, if we look a little closer, the abundance of representation of heroes in the cinema, the comic strip or the TV shows could also be interpreted as a deep societal pessimism.
Superheroes save the world from all evil, and it seems that without them, man is unable to survive. Defeatist, inactive … He is waiting for a superior force to act and deliver him from the bad. Alas, the apocalyptic stakes of the movies of the 2000s are more real than ever, and no superheroes will come to save us.
But despite the similarities between dystopic scenarios and reality, the population remains convinced that its actions would be insufficient to change anything. Could we hold representations of superheroes in pop culture responsible of this inaction? After all, it cannot be our fault, doesn’t it? We’re not out of the woods…
As Avengers: Endgame– one of the most recent superheroes movies – recalls, peace is fragile. One Thanos is enough for the world to turn into darkness: one Hitler is enough. In cinema, humanity needs heroic figures to avoid deeds and solve large-scale issues with supernatural powers. But since superheroes do not exist in real life, these epic stories quickly remind us of how small we feel about the dangers of our time.
Climate, poverty, racism, masculinism … So many worries that, despite the urgency they require, fail to generate a mass commitment. In this impasse (and as much as we’re fucked, you can even say the French word ‘cul-de-sac’) one wonders if the superheroes are not to blame for this inaction. How could we change our destiny when the great team of Avengers fails to prevent Thanos from decimating half of the population? Hard to believe. Confronted regularly with these fictitious schemes, it seems inevitable that we end up believing that we have nothing to do but wait until someone come to help us. But spoilers: no one will.
Even worse, super-powered heroes are not even enough on their own. Without the help of Spiderman, Thor or Captain America, Iron Man is nothing against the end of the world. This only exacerbates this latent pessimism. A mechanism is installed: « If it takes an army of superheroes to prevent the apocalypse, I will not change the face of the world by sorting my waste. » We are badly barred.
In addition, since the late 1990s and the popularization of the Internet, Man has found another tool to clear his obligations to his neighbor and his planet: technology. Well yeah, what would have happened to the world of J and K in Men In Blackif they did not have their memory eraser pen?
In short, it seems that pop culture has always found a pretext to avoid humanity to worry about its future. But is it not irrational faced to the challenges our century is confronted with? The individual seems to feel helpless about the news surrounding him, and the figure of the superhero does not help.
Superheroes are reassuring figures for society
You are well aware that the superhero represents an ideal to achieve for the population, and that in certain periods, its existence in cinema and comics reassured some citizens: it evolves at the same time as the news. Well, it may be changing since the arrival of Donald Trump, as the CEO of Marvel – Isaac Perlmutter – is a fervent supporter of the president.
In the past, Superman was invented just after the September 11thattacks in the United States in response to the terrorist threat, while Captain America was imagined in the midst of the Cold War to denounce the Americans’ actions from the inside.
But this comfort provided by superheroes has a price … and above all, it is ephemeral: we cannot avoid the inevitable. In 2010, the Psychology Association of the United States revealed that the abundance of superheroes in children’s lifestyle modulated the behaviors of boys and girls. Desiring to be like them at first, the boys would adopt two models: one based on confidence, violence and radicality while the other would lay its foundation in narrow mindsets and make them believe they’re unable to achieve the single thing.
According to some scientists, literature and cinema maintain an erroneous view of man (yes, because the hero is often male), virile and endowed with a toxic masculinity. Heroic figures for sure are reinforcing that.
It cannot be denied however, that superheroes also transmit values and convey the idea that peace is fundamental. The idea comes back in many manga in particular and is deeply the essence of My Hero Academiafrom Kōhei Horikoshi. The superheroes are embodying symbols of peace and federate a large sample of the population.
This ambition promotes (any marketing ends) progressive ideals: Iron Man opposes the offensives of the United States, Black Panther is the first superhero of African descent and Wonder Womanfinally replaced the super-heroines in the front of the scene. Even if these emblematic figures let us believe that we are not good enough sometimes, they also seem to help us changing minds. Highly admired, the superheroes, through their reflections and their dilemmas, could well participate in changing our habits and social norms.
However, their presence and efficiency in the works they embody make us revisit our expectations on the rise. Little by little, the superhero of comics is standardized, and we tend to see a hero in all those who are believed. Some politicians, a parent, a singer … And as a true superhero never fails, we quickly become disappointed to see that people in real life are not perfect, unlike them.
Above all, we are more likely to place all our trust in individuals who, in the end, are no more and no less than us. The very existence of the superhero is a source of hope, but it can also lead us to put some issues that concern us fundamentally, in the hands of others and rely on them.
Superheroes are reinforcing elites
You read correctly. In My Hero Academia as in the Avengersor again in the Netflix TV Show The Umbrella Academy, superheroes require specific instances to become even stronger. For the famous manga, heroes must pass very selective exams to integrate Yuei, a prestigious school that will allow them to become professional superheroes. Generally, superheroes do not mix with the rest of the population. This elitist organization is justified by the fact that they have powers.
Moreover, they often hold Men in secret, hiding them that a gigantic threat hovers over their planet. This is a bit of a criticism of the policies and executives of large companies. However, it is tolerated with the heroes in costumes, who keep all the supernatural secrets for them, under the pretext that humans could not understand or react without disturbing them.
Not powerful enough, not smart enough, not alert enough … Citizens cannot be made aware of what is happening around them: the superheroes refuse to inform them. The worlds in which they evolve are deprived of transparency. Some even act in the shadows to not be seen humans, like the powerful Batman.
But where are the works where humans unite to save the world?
Intrigues that are resolved by collective action are rare. And frequently, they are not recent. Believing that a scenario where humanity would mobilize to change things isn’t popular…Even though it would be necessary. The V series of the 1980s presented this pattern, in which men fought together to eliminate a threat that could drive them to extinction.
There is also this scene from Fairy Tail’s Arc Edolas, where Fairy Tail mages and creatures named Exceeds fight together against their destruction. We can also think of the book by H.G Wells entitled La Guerre des Mondes and 2012,which are – despite their times – more in sync with our time than any DC or Marvel movie.
The specter of these superhero works, and in particular that of feature films, is also very limited. Regularly, the vision portrayed is Manichean and a character is only good or bad. But any adult knows that reality is far more complex. Would this downright reductive sketch not let those who have made mistakes believe that they will never be able to repent? Would it not deprive a whole section of the population from acting because it does not feel legitimate? Maybe so.
We are all superheroes
It must be remembered, however, that when the hero does not save the world, he is only a human like any other. And that we could all, on our scale, imitate him. Peter Parker, despite his spiderwebs, remains a high school student who has to learn how to go out with the girl he likes, manage his status as a superhero and find time for his friends, at least in the adaptation of Jon Watts. In Far From Home, the whole scenario is based on one of his mistakes. Spiderman is like us. He is not a superman in everyday life, and he knows the same traumas as any other: the loss of a loved one, crossing the course of adolescence … Notice this makes it easier to identify with these figures of demi-gods ubiquitous on the screens.
Recently, satires of the figure of the superhero have even emerged in pop culture. Suicide Squadfor example, where the people called to save the universe are old villains, or The Boys, the TV Show available on Amazon Prime, which traces with a lot of irony the surreal daily life of a band of superheroes.
Finally, superheroes often have powers which are only brutal increases in sensations and perceptions they already had. More strength, agility, speed … And these increases, we have experienced them as well, with adolescence for example or by an event that would have overtaken our lives. The only difference is that they have adapted to it. They knew how to use these unpleasant changes to turn them into assets. It may be time for us to do the same.