The superhero trap

Our generation’s struggle with individualist activism.

Noah Glasgow

January 20, 2023

Who do superhero fans vote for at the polls? Statistics put together by political scientist Bethany Lacina and published in Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (University Press of Kansas, 2022) demonstrate, fairly conclusively, that Marvel fans skew liberal rather than conservative across all demographics. Drawing from the data of private consumer insight groups like Simmons Research, Lacina shows that even non-Hispanic white men attending a Marvel movie are more likely to identify as liberal rather than conservative.

As the mock superhero television series The Boys has recently pointed out, more widely and successfully than any other recent popular media, the superhero narrative lends itself to a libertarian and conservative worldview. The superhero is an unchecked, violent defender of a particular self-determined moral order. They’re a paragon of individualism and punitive justice. They champion the principles that have, for decades, sat at the heart of the American right.

So why the popularity with American liberals?

Perhaps urbanites and young Americans, who skew liberal, just go to the movies more no matter the political suggestion behind the popcorn fare. This may be true. But it doesn’t explain why superheroes are so lodged in the popular consciousness. Even—and perhaps especially—among liberals, superheroes are cultural idols. They’re ubiquitous, unavoidable, a load-bearing beam in the current media landscape.

This popularity reveals a deeper harmony between superheroes and their liberal fanbase. Cultural phenomena don’t develop in a political vacuum. The politics of an audience inform the politics of a film, and the politics of the film inform that of the audience. So it’s no real surprise that the libertarian ethos of the superhero—the fight of the individual against random acts of evil—has become the basis for a new brand of progressive activism, one that rejects collectivism and systemic change in favor of more comfortable individualism.

How does the conventional superhero narrative embrace a conservative ethos? Consider the archetypal superhero story. An individual, endowed with superhuman abilities, faces off against a villain or syndicate of villains whose actions are some combination of violent, selfish, egotistical, and vengeful. The villain’s actions are immoral. They are not necessarily illegal, although in practice, they almost always are. What is important is not that the law has been broken, but that the hero’s personal understanding of morality and justice has been breached. This breach forces the hero to take action—and so the hero restores morality and justice extrajudicially. Perhaps the hero collaborates with police or turns the villain over to the police at the end of the story, but the hero certainly does not take orders from the police.

The superhero is not, by definition, an activist. The superhero rarely seeks to effect moral change in their environment. Instead, the hero defends a certain moral status quo, one that is determined independently by the hero rather than by the law or by society. Marvel’s Avengers are a straightforward example of this. In the first film about the band of superheroes, The Avengers (2012), they defend the world against an alien invasion that is faceless, monstrous, and otherworldly, with no ends but destruction and violence. The moral status quo that the alien god Loki and his henchman disrupt, and that the Avengers seek to restore, is simple: innocents don’t deserve to die. More “activist” superheroes, like Batman, are also essentially reactive. Batman’s usual narrative frames the city of Gotham—from its supervillains to its gangsters to its corrupt cops—as the disruptive villain. In contrast, Batman is the defender of a moral status quo, that citizens deserve a life free of crime and corruption, which has faded since the time of Martha and Thomas Wayne, Batman’s philanthropist parents.

The superhero’s understanding of justice, which defends a moral status quo against unwanted disruptions, is not proactive, but reactive—it is, in the literal sense, reactionary. We might say alternately that the superhero wants to “conserve” a particular status quo, and so the understanding of the status quo is conservative. This is more than a semantic trick because no matter how you label right-wing politics, whether reactionary, conservative, or other, there remains a reactive element that works toward the conservation of a particular status quo.

The prized “moral status quo” of the superhero need not lie to the extreme right. I think most Americans would agree that innocents don’t deserve to die at the hands of blood-crazed aliens, or, more modestly, that everyone should enjoy a life free of violent crime and corruption. But vigilantism—the means by which superheroes like Batman and the Avengers defend their moral worlds—aligns with another feature of the American right, libertarianism. The root of vigilantism is the idea that the individual can grasp a normative morality and just order of things worth defending outside the confines of the law or society.

Progressivism—the purported belief of many American liberals—insists on a collective, scientific struggle toward justice and the betterment of society. In this, it stands diametrically opposed to vigilantism, which defies collectively determined understandings of justice (like the law and society) by allowing the individual to realize their own particular morality, whatever that morality may be and regardless of who that morality may harm.

The final right-wing hallmark of the superhero narrative is the focus on individual action. In your average superhero flick, the nefarious goings-on of the supervillain are successfully righted by the work of an individual, the superhero, who has the power to restore justice alone. Perhaps the superhero works as a member of a team, but this is almost always a very limited team that functions for all intents and purposes like an individual, determining its own standards of morality and restoring those standards without the help of larger social forces. In a perfect mirror image of the superhero, the supervillain too operates alone or as part of a very limited team.

Thus the superhero story always suggests that injustice is produced and justice restored primarily by individuals. This narrative clashes with the progressive belief that most people are placed into their situations by systems well beyond their control. These are systems of instantiated inequality that continually oppress underprivileged groups. Such systems can rarely be fought by the individual, and must instead be resisted by the whole of society. Further, the need here for collective action also ensures that the moral status quo is not determined by individuals, either. As superhero stories replace the evil of unjust systems with the evil of greedy, vindictive villains, and mass movements with caped crusaders, they replace the need for collective action with a call to individual action. Traditional progressivism doesn’t square with the world of the superhero.

In a 2020 lecture, the Indian poet and screenwriter Javed Akhtar described cinema as “an edited reality and a mirror of society.” This is probably true of most popular fiction, from television to literature to mass-market grocery store paperbacks. But the wide appeal of superheroes among self-identifying liberals is no coincidence or paradox. It’s the natural consequence of widening currents in “progressivism” that embrace individualism and reaction—the same cheap comforts that mark comic-book fantasies and right-wing rhetoric. For many young “progressives,” the individual’s power to take action against their enemies, deliver punitive justice, and thereby restore a certain moral world has displaced collective action and the creative potential to reimagine society.

Young progressivism favors reaction in the literal sense. It’s only in the aftermath of particular tragedies that large numbers mobilize and social media balloons with activists. To a degree the swell of sympathy and outrage after the massacre of elementary school students and teachers in Uvalde, or after the overturn of Roe v. Wade seems natural. And the resulting protest feels like a reasonable consequence. But youth activism only in the aftermath of tragedy reveals an ethos of reaction, one that responds immediately to moral disruption, but fails to build a lasting head of steam. Young progressives want to be superheroes: they want to face off against an intrusion of evil, but once the face-off ends—once the activist has raised their sign at the march—they retreat back to their corners of inaction, content with having staked out their opposition to some tragedy.

Of course, many of the young progressives who fall into this “superhero trap” pay lip service to the systemic nature of the crises they cry out against. But a sustained fight against impersonal systems that oppress large, impersonal groups doesn’t square with individualism. Individuals can’t be heroes in the fight against systems. That’s why systems are largely absent from almost all superhero stories. The supervillain’s immorality is almost always the outgrowth of personal ambition or vindictiveness; it’s rarely, if ever, systemic. While many young progressives know and acknowledge that systems create tragedies, the ethos of their activism ignores this reality and clings to the importance of individual confrontation. The dissonance between action and awareness is the essence of the superhero trap, in which one continues to prize individualism and vigilantism despite an apparent belief in progressive social values.

Cancel culture is a paradigmatic example of this shift in values. It’s a series of endless strikes by individuals against individuals branded as little triumphs of good over evil. The act of “canceling” casts the blame for societal evils on individuals and thinks that the public downfall of certain figures has the power to change systems that are both ancient and global. It’s a kind of vigilantism, a rigid enforcement of a certain moral world, whether or not that world is shared by everyone. Cancel culture foregrounds the moral worth of the individual over the strength of the collective. Cancel culture only really achieves the enforcement of puritanical social values at the cost of solidarity, collective action, debate, and imagination.

The “superhero trap” may be a misnomer, because not all superheroes really act as individuals. Consider the X-Men: a massive, almost uncountable lineup of “mutants,” genetically mutated humans, facing social oppression. They work together to create a safe environment for their own people, called Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. The health of their community is dependent on interpersonal action; no one mutant has the power to defend or support the community alone. The mutant who behaves most like the conventional superhero is Magneto, the X-Men’s supervillain. Although he fights against injustice and oppression, his great flaw is the belief that his own schemes will be enough to return the world to a just moral order. Magneto ignores the will and strength of the community in favor of violence and confrontation. His destructive change, just like that of young progressives, eschews the importance of collectivism.

The fight against systems requires that progressives set aside their individual claims to morality and reject the notion that they should spring to restore justice first and foremost in the aftermath of tragedies or “moral disruptions.” Progressives must forego the reactionary, individualist impulse of the conventional superhero. They must, like the X-Men, reimagine themselves as a community struggling actively, constantly, and collectively to attack and dismantle the oppressive systems of the world.

Noah Glasgow is the editor in chief of The Harper Review and a third-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying history.