Why Are Superheroes So Popular? It’s Simple - They Represent Us.
Are you team Captain America or team Iron Man? This question has been posed regularly in memes across social media and the popular press for weeks leading to the release of Captain America: Civil War. Earlier this year, similar digital ultimatums were created for team Batman and team Superman during the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. So why all the buzz about superheroes? The answer is simple – they represent us. What could be more topical than taking the largest popular culture franchises today and having them clash over issues currently debated by voters in 2016?
Batman is the rogue vigilante while superman is the trustworthy face of the United States government. Captain America represents freedom for all while Iron Man represents giving up freedom to achieve protection for all. Who is right? The answer is currently being debated across the country and in our communities right now as these superhero films mirror the current social/political climate. Democrats are usually fighting Republicans, however, today we see infighting with both parties. Because they mirror our own world, superheroes are also fighting each other on the big screen in 2016.
The current trend of superhero narratives represents something that has been there all along – timeliness. For example, Joel Siegel and Jerry Schuster (two young Jewish kids) created Superman as a form of wish fulfillment during a period of growing domestic anti-Semitism in the 1930s. Stan Lee created a long list of superheroes during the Cold War years that gained superpowers from nuclear accidents (i.e. Spiderman). Frank Miller revised Batman’s mythology in the 1980s as a response to the rise of crime in New York City – a story that also brought Batman in conflict with Superman. After 9/11, Mark Millar and Steve McNiven created Civil War to show the impact on the Patriot Act in Marvel Universe.
The rift between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark in Captain America: Civil War is easily equated to our current state of civic unrest. When the government decides to begin registering (and controlling) superheroes, Tony Stark/Iron Man becomes the movement’s poster boy. In contrast, Steve Rogers/Captain America goes against the grain because he believes that no government is always on the right side of history ("because governments have agendas and agendas change"). In his latest book titled Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, Psychology, Travis Langley describes the conflict:
Characters who become registration supporters typically hold that registering is the responsible thing to do and that no one is above the law. Opponents of registration argue in argue instead that such regulation violates civil liberties, with some comparing it to segregation or slavery, and insist that no government is secure enough.
In many of today’s debates we hear voters and politicians make statements such as “no one is above the law” or argue over a policy that “violates civil liberties.” While the superhero films (and comics) may seem simple and childish to some, know that the authors of these stories and screenplays live in the same world that we do and participate in the same debates. At the University of Wisconsin-Washington County, I’ve developed a class called “Superheroes in Society” that teaches both the history of the superhero as well the genre’s representation of national and global conflict throughout history. As my students quickly realize, superheroes are not just for escapist entertainment and instead provide a useful way for popular culture to take up arms in the battle of ideas.
This concept is not lost in Captain America: Civil War. The film sets up while The Avengers consider the unchecked power wielded by the world’s superheroes. The result is the Sokovia Accords, a new panel set up by the United Nations to control The Avengers. There are strong supporters on each side. Tony Stark supports the Sokovia Accords because he is overwhelmed by the guilt of the collateral damage that resulted from past adventures. Conversely, Steve Rogers understands that sometimes the hero cannot save everyone and if they give over their power it’s possible that “agendas change” and no one gets saved at all.
Mirroring the world in which they were created, The Avengers battle it out over the implications of a serious law that would hand over power and criminalize what was once seen as heroic. Instead of heroes, those who disobey the Accords would become true vigilantes. The film presents both sides less as opposing foes and more like friends in a heated debate. These heroes don’t hate each other and their goal is not just defeat but to win over the other side. The film intelligently warns that what is defeated can always rise again, but what is destroyed from within is truly gone forever. This sentiment should resonate with American viewers.
As always, The Avengers lead by example and show us they can strongly disagree yet find the right places to compromise so the free world wins. Of course, it took a series of intense battles to get to this point. While Captain America: Civil War along with many other superhero films presents a similar world to our own, the outcomes are always that of wish fulfillment (a staple of the genre). This is why the superhero genre is relevant yet fantastical at the same time. We connect to the world on the screen, but we don’t have superheroes. It’s up to us to find the right places to compromise so the free world wins.
Chris Yogerst is assistant professor of communication for the University of Wisconsin Colleges. His book From the Headlines to Hollywood: The Birth and Boom of Warner Bros. will be out in October.