Superheroes and Monsters in a Complex World


I know he’s a Nazi ghoul bent on world domination, but maybe there’s another side to this story?

The great joy of geek culture—whether it’s sci-fi, fantasy, or superheroes—is the ability to tell grand stories. Where else can we seriously consider the end of the world, or the responsibilities of ultimate power? These are the stories that always offer an escape from mundane reality, letting complexity fall away in favor of a clear mission.

In the past decade, these stories have dominated pop culture, from the way everything from Avengers to Game of Thrones has become inescapable—perhaps the public has grown weary of the multipolar diplomacy that has characterized the post-9/11 era. But these stories are letting us down. The relief offered by the simplicity of defeating comic book villains is no longer enough; we need to ask for more.

Donald Trump appeals to Americans who are confined to the most narrow possible vision of the world. They have taught themselves to fear anything which they haven’t seen in their own mirrors, and steel themselves for war against all comers. And our superhero stories, our escapist fiction, aren’t showing us how to resist this view. Instead, they’re telling us to find and destroy evil at all costs.


I do have the power, but should I?

This straightforward, un-nuanced view of events reflects what we see of conflict resolution in real life. When Donald Trump abandons the First Amendment to call for restrictions on Muslims in America, he imagines an army of Ultrons, with whom there can never be peace. Ted Cruz sees the Islamic State as a Death Star to be obliterated; not a conquered population yearning to be freed. Jeb Bush imagines Syrian refugees as HYDRA infiltrators who may be uncovered by a pledge of Christianity, not a diverse group of men, women, and children escaping war. Darren Wilson gunned down Mike Brown, believing he was protecting himself from the Incredible Hulk, not an unarmed kid walking home.

But although our geek stories reflect real concerns, they don’t push any further against the rhetoric to which we’ve become accustomed. When the President asks us to welcome Syrian refugees, the Avengers doesn’t show us a distinction between Chitauri civilians and warriors. Batman never justifies the due process of law. There is no “don’t do dumb shit” strategy to take on Saruman. No matter how often Harry Potter, Peter Parker, or Queen Elsa agonized over the responsibilities that accompany their powers, there is never a moment’s doubt of their essential righteousness. Their causes are pure, even holy. When challenged by Rita Skeeter, Jonah J. Jameson, or Prince Hans, it only shows the shortsightedness of these adversaries. The heroes of a grand epic don’t muddle through.

Geek culture absolutely recognizes these risks, and consistently tries to push back on its own archetypes to ensure depth, complexity, and moral ambiguity. But these nuances are lost on the way to the blockbuster—particularly as the debates are simplified for ever-broader appeal in a global market. Comics are already taking up the charge: Kamala Khan shows Marvel’s refusal to accept that the all-American hero who shares its name can’t be Muslim. Sam Wilson explicitly fights white supremacy, earning the ire of Fox News in both Earth-616 and the real world.

These stories address the specific problems of Trumpism, but they don’t shift the underlying narratives of the genre. The moral absolutes and the existential struggles persist, even if the faces are getting more diverse; Ms. Marvel and Captain America are still Avengers, and they’re always going to be the good guys.


Moral ambiguity: not really in the DNA here.

There are moments where this shift seems to be breaking through. Wilson Fisk sees himself as the strongman able to restore order to a divided country, and like Donald Trump, he advocates extreme violence with large popular support; he is defeated by investigation and arrest (although the conclusion is compromised when he escapes from federal custody). Jessica Jones’s adversary Kilgrave sees himself as the hero of his own story, and the show challenges us to question that form of self-righteousness. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers battle over rival visions of morality in Civil War, promoting reflection over extermination.

But the shift will not easy—by their very nature, these are difficult stories to tell, which deny audiences the thrilling, easy, resolution. But it is the task before us. We know that we have stories the world wants to hear. We have created larger-than-life heroes and villains, but now we have the responsibility to send them toward the real problems we face.

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