One of the enduring issues with American superhero stories is figuring out how to deal with the fact that superhero stories aren’t especially democratic. They’re actually kind of, well, fascist. As the Mary Sue pointed out:
Superhero narratives are politically fascist. That’s not really a criticism, it’s just a statement of fact. Integral elements of the genre, such as the nearly unlimited power and authority superheroes are handed with little to no oversight, are inherently authoritarian concepts.
The superhero fantasy, in which a single person with enormous power takes on responsibility for all us weak mortals and fixes everything, is also a fantasy of fascist authoritarianism. And sure, a fundamental part of the superhero fantasy is that the superhero is too moral to abuse his power — but when fascism is selling itself, it promises never to abuse its power either. That’s part of the appeal.
Noted superhero guy Joss Whedon is mulling over this issue on his Tumblr, and he’s less than thrilled.
Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer and directed the first two Avengers movies, The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron; he’s also done a bunch of other movies, TV shows, and comic book work. He was answering questions on his Tumblr on Monday when a fan asked him whether he thought there was a link between the current popularity of superhero movies and the rise in authoritarianism throughout the world and in the US.
“This is my final answer … yes,” Whedon replied.
No one involved in this conversation named any authoritarian names, but still, it’s not hard to make a connection between fascist superheroes and the candidacy of Donald Trump.
“I alone can fix it”
Part of Donald Trump’s campaign messaging has been to present himself as a kind of superhero, an omnipotent fixer of things. That’s the promise he made in his speech at this summer’s Republican National Convention: “I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
It’s also a claim he’s made about the tax code, and, multiple times, about ISIS.
Just announced that as many as 5000 ISIS fighters have infiltrated Europe. Also, many in U.S. I TOLD YOU SO! I alone can fix this problem!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 24, 2016
Another radical Islamic attack, this time in Pakistan, targeting Christian women & children. At least 67 dead,400 injured. I alone can solve— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 27, 2016
No matter what the problem is, only Trump can solve it. That repeated refrain — “I alone can fix it” — has become a kind of mantra for Trump. It’s his superhero catchphrase. Super Trump is here to save the day because no one else can, and with great power comes great responsibility. That’s the story he’s selling, and it taps into all kinds of fantasies about salvation by superhero.
Superheroes have a complicated history with authoritarianism
None of this is to say that we can draw a direct line from Superman to Trump, or to authoritarian regimes around the world. Nor is it meant to imply that superhero movies and comics are all consciously and deliberately promoting fascism. For one thing, that’s an ahistorical argument: Superman — like Captain America — was designed by Jewish artists in response to the rise of Nazism, and was famously depicted punching Hitler before the US entered World War II.
For another thing, there are a lot of superhero narratives out today that subvert the inherent fascism of the superhero fantasy. As Whedon points out on his Tumblr, he’s written a few of them. “That was the chief conflict in Ultron,” he writes, and “that’s why Buffy shares her power at the end of the show. To lay down the western mythos and create stories celebrating community.”
The idea of redistributing power and celebrating the many rather than the few is central to Whedon’s superhero oeuvre. In The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man’s attempt to inflict his will onto the rest of the world by virtue of his power and wealth, through the creation of borderline-omnipotent artificial intelligence, proves to be an act of hubris that almost destroys the world. And at the end of Buffy, Buffy’s plan to save the world depends upon granting her Slayer powers to thousands of girls around the world, creating an army of Slayers to rise up and fight evil together in defiance of her own show’s opening monologue. (“In every generation, there is a Chosen One.”)
Punching Hitler, laying down the Western mythos, reminding us not to invent killer robots: All of these are valuable, positive, anti-fascist stories for superhero comics to tell. But Whedon still sees a connection between superhero stories and the rise of authoritarian figures around the world. It’s “an issue that’s bugged me for years,” he writes. “As much as I love the elevated self, I hate the idea of the few being rightfully better than/in control of the many.”
And in the end, both Ultron and Buffy glory in the strength and power of their heroes, and the salvation that they alone can bring. That’s why we remember the Avengers in Ultron holding up an entire city in midair, or Buffy swan-diving to her death in a Christ pose to save the world. Those are the iconic images of these works, and they get a lot of their power from the fantasy of a single, enormously strong person or group coming to protect us all. They alone can save us.
So the question we’re left with is this: No matter how subversive and Nazi-hating and Hitler-punching your superhero is, can we divorce that hero’s appeal from the appeal of the fascist dictator? Or are they, intrinsically, one and the same?
This is the question behind Whedon’s “yes,” and it underlines a notion that’s become increasingly relevant during this election: Relying on one person — whether superhero or state leader — to “fix it” is a dangerous game.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece included tweets from fake Donald Trump twitter accounts. They have been removed and replaced with genuine Trump tweets. We apologize for the error.