This post orginally appeared in The Atlantic, December 2013
Most people wouldn’t call pop-culture’s most famous do-gooders “fascist.” But a few scholars and commentators would. In the 1950s Dr. Fredric Wertham described superhero comics as fascist and blamed them for child delinquency. In the 1970s Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael wrote that the popular vigilante film Dirty Harry was fascist. Richard Cooper at Salon is the latest, publishing an article titled “Superheroes Are a Bunch of Fascists.”
Wishing there were more left-wing superheroes, Cooper denounces the genre that he apparently enjoys as a guilty pleasure, painting it as both fundamentally stupid and problematic:
The main problem is force: sheer physical force, which lies at the heart of the superhero myth, something Steven T. Seagle observed nicely in “It’s a Bird…”, his poignant autobiographical graphic novel about his reluctance to write for a Superman comic, in which he points out that Superman triumphs by being able to move faster and hit harder than everyone else: essentially a fascist concept.
This reading of superheroes is common but wrong, a symptom of trying to impose political ideology on a universal, fictional myth. Superheroes do say something about the real world, but it’s something pretty uncontroversial: We want to see good triumph over evil, and “good” in this case means more than just defeating the bad guy—it means handling power responsibly.
The “fascism” metaphor breaks down pretty quickly when you think about it. Most superheroes defeat an evil power but do not retain any power for themselves. They ensure others’ freedom. They rarely deal with the government, and when they do it is with wariness, as in the Iron Man films, where Tony Stark refuses to hand over control of his inventions.
Indeed, superhero tales are full of subplots about how heroes limit their own power: hibernating once the big bad guy has been defeated, wearing disguises to live ordinary lives, choosing not to give into the temptation to ally with the villain or use their powers for profit or even civilizational progress. That’s because the creators of some of the most foundational superhero tales weren’t writing solely out of a power fantasy. They were writing out of a fantasy that a truly good people who find themselves with power might use that power only for good—and only in the face of extreme evil.
Perhaps the optimism that an uberpowerful being like Superman would not overreach is unrealistic. Maybe it’s the same optimism that has helped certain world dictators to rise to power. But superhero myths themselves come from a good place. The belief that people are capable of real altruism is inescapable, human, and the farthest thing from inherently fascistic.
Consider the conclusion of The Dark Knight Rises where Batman refuses to show his real identity to take credit for saving Gotham City. Batman is regularly willing to trust others for help and does not see himself as the sole hero; the hero, the story seems to say, could be anyone. Like many others, Batman works to be an example of helping others while respecting the autonomy of society and individuals.
When superheroes do appear to flirt with fascism, it's as part of a subversions of the genre, as with Alan Moore's gritty, dystopian Watchmen. Similarly, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns reimagined Superman as a government lackey who gets in Batman's way. Both graphic novels comment on the dangers posed by superheroes with less-clear moral orientations than, say, Captain America—who, by the way, was originally created with the explicit intention of fighting fascists—but they don't damn the self-limiting superheroes that America has come to love.
Maybe one day we will see a superhero movie championing something other than fascist or hypercapitalist values: a superhero movie in which it isn’t physical superiority that saves the day. Maybe one day we will get the hero we need: one who challenges rather than reinforces the status quo.
Putting aside the conflation of fascism and hypercapitalism: What status quo do superheroes reinforce? These heroes fight because everyone is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The only fascists here are the supervillains who disagree.