25 August 2013

The Price of Superheroism

One of the real problems with art/literature/culture in the comics world — and by no means am I excluding H'wood interpretations of comics — concerns the single most-common superpower possessed by the various heroes (and, for that matter, the various villains). In fact, it's an almost universal superpower, to some degree or another. So, then, what superpower do the following individuals share?

  • Iron Man (Tony Stark)
  • Batman (Bruce Wayne)
  • Nick Fury
  • Dr. X (Charles Xavier)
  • Wonder Woman (Diana Prince)
  • Green Arrow (Oliver Queen)
  • Aquaman (Arthur Curry)

Yes, they all have the same superpower: Unlimited liquid financial support that they neither need to earn1 nor account for to anyone else. The closest that any of them come to "accountability" is Nick Fury's occasional battles with oversight committees (that he always wins), and perhaps Diana Prince's purported occasional social-life struggles. The rest of them routinely take on Apollo Program-scale projects out of pocket change... and never have to worry about the mortgage, the annual performance review (even "working stiffs" like Hal Jordan, Clark Kent, and Peter Parker never seem in danger of actually losing jobs that — not coincidentally — have neither productivity requirements nor actual supervision), or worst of all the collateral damage caused by their "heroic" activities. Brad Bird's The Incredibles sort of hinted at this latter issue, but didn't follow through very convincingly; there's no sign that Mr. Incredible's pay is being garnished to pay for the damage he's caused over the years, or even during the film itself. Consider, for example, one of the least-unrealistic environments: The Buffyverse. Sure, Buffy had a few financial problems after Joyce's death... but they all came to nothing via deus ex financia, even without going back to court to make Buffy's father pay Dawn's child support (or, for that matter, without Buffy's father trying to take custody of Dawn so that he didn't have to keep paying child support).

The irony that these superheroes essentially share their superpowers with their opponents appears to have escaped just about everyone, and reveals that much of what is going on is pre-Magna Carta England: The superheroes and supervillains are battling between themselves in baronial-faction wars, and the damned peasants had just bloody well better stay out of the way until they're needed as levées that actually do not effect the outcome. The end of the most-recent Superman film epitomizes this: Superman (literally) destroyed his "village" to save it; the less said about Alexander Luthor, Jr.2 the better. The superheroes never stick around for the rebuilding effort. The way they deal with the shell-shocked veterans of their wars makes the Veterans' Administration look good... and believe me, that would have been a superheroic achievement itself even in the 1980s.

What is perhaps worse is what this attitude implies for heroic efforts in the "real" world. Hancock misfired primarily because it did not follow the hero far enough into the gutter, let alone into bankruptcy court. It's not that comics and related artforms don't have "tortured" heroes with consciences3 — they occasionally do, or least pretend they do for some divorced-from-reality version of "conscience" — it's that nobody notices the mass of problems around them. That failure to notice collateral damage is bad enough; failing to notice the quiet lives of desperation of those around them is, perhaps, worse. Nobody notices that any of the mechanics or secretaries at Ferris Aviation, or Stark Industries, or Queen Consolidated, struggle routinely; there's no attention paid to the hot-dog-cart guy from whom Clark and Lois occasionally (one must assume) buy lunch. Because their concerns don't directly impact the heroes, they simply do not exist... and the heroism of standing up to immediate crises gets lost entirely.

Admittedly, this is all in the context of works of fiction; and even in "real life," we don't pay much attention to things that, well, don't come to our attention. *cough*Veterans' Administration*cough* That's not the same thing, though, as consciously denying their existence. Perhaps that is the real price of superheroism: Ignorance of even the clear, direct economics outside of one's own tunnel-visioned view of existence. That's not to say that there are no "higher values" worth fighting for; it's only to say that there's a price for doing so, and that price is perhaps more easily measured than many ideologues might expect. "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" probably costs a few subsistence-level farmers a year of crops, or worse, leading to some awfully lean winters — and probably disease and starvation — in the unnamed locations where superheroes go to fight their incredibly destructive battles; it's time to admit it.

  1. Indeed, most of these superheroes obtained their virtually unlimited resources through inheritance from prior generations (without too much examination of how those fortunes were built) — and even when the resources aren't formally liquid/cash, the Diana Princes and Arthur Currys of the superhero pantheon tend to be rightful hereditary rulers. Everything that Tony Stark has is built on what he inherited from his father, and it's frequently even more extreme (as in the Xavier, Wayne, and Queen families).
  2. Or, perhaps, the Koch brothers...
  3. It perhaps says more about the writers than the heroes themselves, but that's a complex argument for another time at a literary conference. This is a particular problem with H'wood — an environment in which virtually no one with decision authority has any way to relate to being poor as anything other than a pretty damned good piece of writing. Even in "poverty-stricken" environments like the Baltimore of The Wire, the spaces are too big and too clean so they can easily maneuver the bloody cameras and lighting rigs...