RABBIL SIKDAR looks below the surface of superhero films and doesn’t like what he sees
TODAY, it seems, superheroes are ubiquitous.
Hardly a month passes in the cinema and on TV without the premiere of another new adventure derived from the pages of the comic books.
What’s striking about these stories isn’t the unbelievable powers of the superheroes, their amazing hair that somehow survives the worst of alien invasions or the jaw-dropping fight scenes, with Daredevil’s up there with the best. It’s the way in which the power of ordinary people is stripped away.
Instead, it rests in the hands of omnipotent but completely unaccountable individuals.
I’m a fan who grew up with stories such as Daredevil and X-Men and Dark Knight are among my all-time favourites.
But I’ve got issues with the message conveyed in such films, particularly Batman and Iron Man, which have been commercially the most successful.
In each of them, erratic billionaires bail themselves out by creating an alter ego using private wealth. Unaccountable, they — rather than the public services — become saviours in an emergency.
Democratically elected bodies are reduced to spectators watching on as rich men decide that they know what’s best for the worlds they inhabit.
The people are stripped completely of any will, simply pinning their hopes on superheroes rather than building any collective self-determination of their own.
The Dark Knight is a fascinating story but one that, while demonstrating the limitations of secretive governments and police forces, has the protagonist defeating the Joker by trampling all over civil liberties, something Bruce Wayne is never held to account for.
The sequel is even more insidious, with the character Bane portrayed as some sort of perverted guerilla fighter.
Employing communistic rhetoric, he raises an underground army and dispossesses the wealthy of their assets. The formerly corrupt police force are taught a lesson.
Yet that story too ends with the reinstatement of the old police order, with a billionaire once again stepping out of the shadows to save the day. The system is corrupt and yet the overarching message from all the films is that the system is corrupt because the people in it are bad.
Bruce Wayne is the ethical capitalist. As long as people are like him, giving their homes to orphans, the world is safe.
Again, private wealth is seen as a means for public good rather than public services themselves.
Iron Man is the story of an arms manufacturer who realises the harm of his ways and decides to build something safer.
Disaster ensues, across three films. It’s his excessive private wealth that creates the problem and yet, rather than being held to account, he solves it himself.
Over and again, at the cost of democratic consent and the collective agency of the people, hope is instead pinned on individuals with wealth. As if they alone are possessed with wisdom.
Superheroes fill the TV screens too, but the message transmitted is essentially the same. Public services like the police cannot stop the villains but the Green Arrow can.
The Flash is hugely powerful yet a news editor who dares criticise him, because he fears that power leads to corruption, is the man in the wrong.
People simply stand by and watch while power and “wisdom” are invested in individuals who often do nothing to deserve them. It’s almost a metaphor for contemporary inequality, where those with power and wealth do not earn them but own them by an accident of birth.
It’s the same with superhero stories, with the hero born in exceptional circumstances. Bereft of social consciousness, they sell a false narrative of how people survive.
But there are exceptions. Daredevil is a fine series which isn’t just about a martial arts fighter with awe-inspiring powers.
The first installments focus on people who use the law, media and police to stop a crime lord overseeing the gentrification of a poor neighbourhood.
It shows Daredevil as an individual who relies on a network of resourceful friends and there’s a telling point in the second series where a police officer rebukes him for stripping the force of any credibility.
They are no longer crime-stoppers because of him and Daredevil understands this.
Grounded and realistic, the narrative simply doesn’t depend on Daredevil and the Punisher to provide moments of change, it builds collective action by encouraging those around them to seek justice.
As such, there’s a recognition of how change and prosperity is forged and it is through the collective will and action of ordinary people.
Let’s not forget that rights and freedoms have been secured by the sacrifice and struggle of the many, be it the Chartists, Levellers, Suffragettes, trade unionists and anti-racists in Britain or the civil rights activists in the US.
We have never relied on the generosity or wealth of the powerful for there to be social change.
When there was a global calamity looming in 2008 — the year Iron Man came along — it wasn’t the rich saving us. It was the taxpayer saving the rich from themselves.
Have they learned? No. Unaccountable, they continue stumbling from mistake to mistake — very much like Iron Man.
We don’t need superheroes to save us as the monologue at the end of Daredevil’s second makes clear. It tells us to look into the mirror to find a hero.