Superheroes: what do they really teach our society?

As a child, I remember Doordarshan would play a Spiderman episode once a week. Around the same time, local shops started selling Spiderman masks. No costume those days, but a lot of children had some weird drawing along their wrists with a bullpen, add to that the paper masks of Spiderman and imagination ran riot.

The mask for us children, surely made us feel confident and powerful for inexplicable reasons.

Image by Dušan Naumovski from Pixabay

Through the years, there was an appreciation for Superman, Batman, Spiderman and also a bit of the Marvel universe. In India, the comic book heroes were not many. Maybe with the exception of Chacha Chaudhary and Sabu.

Largely, superhuman heroes are valuable lesson givers to children and even adults. Who would argue with the wisdom of the quote “With great power, comes great responsibility”? That Spiderman line is inspiring but let’s take a closer look at it in a bit. But largely these mythological comic heroes teach us about good prevailing over evil, about sacrifice, helping the weak and more.

All good lessons but insidiously we also learn other things. What could be those things?

What does Super Man think about the human race?

There is this great dialogue from the movie Kill Bill 2.

When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. 
He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.

Without going into the mythology of Kill Bill 1 & 2, there is some truth to that wonderful analysis. The truth is that maybe all superheroes are a critique on the whole human race. Or maybe it is some sort of subtle propaganda.

Lessons we learn from superheroes

Let’s say you and I are ordinary people in the superhero universe, what kind of future do we have? What kind of world are we looking forward to? A simple matter of fighting crime requires a vigilante wearing a bat costume. World peace requires an alien being wearing a cape, who is literally indestructible and flies in the air.

What are comic book super-humans really telling us? That we have no escape from an oppressive, corrupt system. We have no real power and only someone messianic, with someone is superhuman or super-rich can actually change and stand up for change. But the real world is not written to have good happy endings and our lives are not blockbusters movies.

Back to that line, about great power and great responsibility. It is a line to keep everyone in line. A suggestion to everyone keep within the power structure. To not question the powerful. To understand they have a great responsibility and hence keep your head down and carry on.

Otherwise, maybe the quote should be “With great power comes a great deal of questions”. Yes, it’s less impactful but also sounds less like a line said by a fascist. Sorry, Ben Parker!

Maybe if we had comic book heroes that celebrated doctors, scientists, factory workers, farmers, activists the world would be changing and we would live in a more equitable world. A nicer, tolerant and peaceful world. Imagine the powerful being asked to explain why they should be endowed with such power!

Just maybe we would not be inspired by some rich billionaire promising to colonise another planet but would be inspired by the people who want to ensure everyone had access to healthcare or every human had access to clean water and soap. It is something indeed to think deeply as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. It is a good time to think about what we are doing about our culture, about who we think we should be inspired by; during this strange time when the world has stopped!

References and Notes

  1. Doordarshan channel played the famous Spiderman series from the 1960s. Check out the video of its theme song
  2. Video of that famous dialogue about superman from Kill Bill 2
  3. Ben Parker’s famous quote from movie Spiderman

One response to “Superheroes: what do they really teach our society?”

  1. IdeaSmith Avatar

    What a brilliant critique of the superhero franchise model! Here’s an additional thought – superheros are how that culture perceives ideal values. Superman and Batman are from the mid twentieth century when the western world prized physical strength and wealth.

    Other cultures have had their share of superheros called by different names. When we personify a god within a mythos, aren’t we really just giving them backstories and trajectories to chart out how we think we can achieve the values of nobility, skill, wealth, beauty etc.?

    I think superheros are interesting as markers of what the people of that time & place yearn for.

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