“We impose meaning on the chaos of our lives. We create form, morality, order.” Batman: Absolution
Debating the political leanings of superheroes is one of those perfect internet exercises. It is ultimately pointless and irresolveable, but passionate nonetheless.
I view the very business of superheroing as implicitly conservative. Superheroes enforce well-defined views of right and wrong. Each may have a specific spectrum of operations but heroes cannot afford to see too much gray. Importantly they judge people on the basis of their actions having little patience to examine root causes of bad behavior.
Superheroes exert the power of the individual and charitably defend normal life. Superheroes give of themselves, without asking political authority to do the job for them. They live with risk and reward, operating without a safety net.
Particular superheroes may express varied ideological views, or fluctuate over time in the hands of numerous authors, but by and large the genre tends to be more representative of conservative rather than progressive values. Unappeased by the Green Arrow, the lefties of the Daily Kos even launched an effort around 2009 to imagine a “self-conciously liberal super-hero.” Meanwhile the rest of America waits breathlessly to throw its money at another blockbuster Batman movie.
As I said, it is a fun argument.
Fighting crime is all well and good, but it is when nuanced modern politics are introduced as a central dilemma that the genre becomes more revealing.
The Watchman (the excellent graphic novel, not the mediocre movie) is a wonderful example. As a conservative I loved it. Many of the core characters reflected conservative values, or a least tendencies, and the villain is a liberal utopian willing to have the ends justify the means in pursuit of imposing his vision of peace.
The X-Men prance around the edges of discussing the proper role of the state, but ultimately find the mutant factions in agreement about individual freedom and warring over the strategy to pursue that shared goal.
Marvel Comics Civil War riffed off the X-Men, and borrowed a page from Pixar’s The Incredibles, by splitting the Avengers into two distinct camps over the issue of a superhero registry. Civil War gave me the Captain America I most admire, but – in my mind – mistakenly set up Iron Man as the champion of the pro-government faction.
DC Comics has what seems to be the best opportunity to play with the idea of the underlying conservative or liberal inclinations of specific heroes without diminishing either side. I think there is an opportunity to evenly divide the viewing audience, something I do not think any movie has actually done.
Before explaining the idea I must confess that I may be plagiarizing someone. I am not sure of the sources, but my idea is certainly influenced by pieces of blog readings, and specific comics, like Frank Miller’s Batman.
In the DC Universe Superman is the ultimate power. He can do anything. Yet what he does is save us people, again and again, from bad guys, from natural disasters, and from ourselves. Unlike Batman’s “detective,” Superman is the all-powerful referee. Superman keeps us safe.
It therefore seems a small step to have Superman not merely reacting to keep us safe, but acting with initiative. Imagine a Superman that first destroys the military hardware of the world, to keep us safe. Soon, he destroys all privately held weapons, to keep us safe. In time, cheered on by a world public that seems to be hungry for the benign monarchy of the Kryptonian, Superman solves one problem after another – energy, immigration, religious division, and so on.
The world created by Superman would be perfect. Free from crime, nationalism, pollution, and so forth. The world is perfectly safe, but not free. Because this is the DC Universe, the duty to rally the forces of individual liberty falls to Batman. I imagine Batman as the man who understands that life can be messy, and bad things can happen, but the greatest sin comes from preventing people from making the individual choices that may lead to a messy world. This is not too far from Miller’s Dark Knight Rises.
Among political conservatives there are some committed to liberty, those who place God-given gifts of freedom and freewill at the apex. Near them are conservatives oppose liberal policies as impractical, in that they idyllic harmony imposed from authority has historically led to tyranny. Among liberals, some truly believe in the importance of equity, even if imposed by government action, they might invoke the need to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Others on the left seek simply greater balance and community ethos, but still value freedom as an inherent good.
Superman as benign ruler would force all to decide between a dichotomy. You can have freedom or you can have security. You can not have both.