Superheroism, Role-Playing, and Adulthood
A recent Twitter phenomenon has come and gone, like they all do, with all of the pomp and circumstance fitting to the life cycle of a fly. Buzzing, as it does, during its short life span, only to be replaced in the Darwinian contest for dominance and genetic longevity, or at least two days of trending. In this case, the phenomenon centered around a call for a “Black Batman”, leading to the usual range of reactions from “it’s the greatest idea since the creation of ideas” to “every idea is a stupid idea” to “only ideas I like are good ideas therefore this idea is *insert approval or disapproval based on idiosyncratic preference.*” Thomas Chatterton William’s critique of “Black Batman” inspired my own reflection on how personal superheroes have become for so many. Beyond this, Bill Maher’s recent comments about superheroes, comic books, and Stan Lee made his usual waves. Mr. Maher’s insults, in a somewhat typical fashion, overshot his target. But, in atypical fashion, he did a follow-up bit where he clarified the target of his insults. His intended target was neither Stan Lee himself nor Lee’s occupation of writing comic books, nor the children who are the intended audience for comic books. Rather, his target was the adults who have debased themselves in continuing to engage with superheroes long after the turbulence of puberty. But this piece isn’t interested in criticizing Bill Maher nor evaluating Mr. William’s critique of the ephemeral Twitter phenomenon. Instead, it’s going to ask a different question: why the near ubiquitous appeal of superheroes?
Part of the answer is quite simple – superheroes are now massive institutions in their own right, generating billions of dollars every year in film, video games, action figures, collectibles, and of course, comic books. While it’s impossible to discount the economic factor as an explanatory variable, such an examination is too reductive. It fails to understand that the revenue is generated by individual interest, not just corporate greed. If Disney could make as much money telling tales about lawyers as they do about Spider-Man, the marketplace would be full of child briefcases, tiny ties, and kids would role-play mock trials. But since Disney can’t, they are utilizing characters with fantastic (and, some, admittedly silly) powers and premises which have been part of the American popular culture since at least the early 1960’s.
The small screen created waves of superhero fans for decades before those characters swept the silver screen, and subsequently, the rest of the media landscape. Movies like Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) and its sequels or Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and its sequels did not generate a massive flood of superhero properties in cinema like Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) did. By the time Marvel released its first in-house film, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), there was nearly a decade of superhero films on the shelf, including one of the best superhero movies ever made, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). The second decade of the 21st century has seen multiple superhero movies per year and there is little evidence to say the popularity (or profitability) of these films is seriously waning. Perhaps it’s not altogether surprising, given the decades-long association between superheroes and children, that when those children became adults, their childhood experiences shifted the entertainment landscape to make products and weave tales which were compelling to them and their children.
Aristotle argued that human beings uniquely learn through imitation or role-playing. He notes that this is what makes us enjoy things which are imitations or representations when we are adults. It isn’t that we are re-engaging in that role-playing activity but that we are using those patterns of learning to recognize the relationships between the imitation/representation and reality. This same imitation pattern also gives us insight into why superheroes have become so popular. If you grow up learning of the trials of Hercules, the rage of Achilles, the cleverness of Odysseus, the wisdom of Athena, you are going to more fully appreciate those elements when they are presented in art than someone who has a passing, or even trivial, appreciation of those characters and their characteristics. The uninitiated may be able to comment on the brush strokes or the hues or other technical aspects of the artwork, but they will never be able to appreciate the art in the same way as someone who is steeped in the subject matter. Those things we use as roleplaying mechanics, specifically the stories we utilize to carve out our early experiences with moral dilemmas and virtuous behavior, don’t merely end with childhood.
Now, does this mean that this childhood role-playing is of primary importance for understanding adult behavior? No; such a claim would be foolish. But it does mean we must take seriously the methods we use to teach children. There’s too much variance to try and understand this on the individual level, so the best means we have is to examine our shared (or mostly shared) tools. For the last 50 years or so, one of those primary tools has been through this new pantheon of heroes. Kids have their favorites and they relate to them for different reasons. But they utilize those heroes in their play with one another, taking upon themselves the various characteristics of the hero, or the villain. These play dynamics allow kids to explore both facets.
By developing this kind of intimate relationship with these fictional characters, a culture predicated on that intimate relationship emerged. Furthermore, communities developed around this emerging culture in the form of the comic book convention, once the resort for the recluse or the nerd, now massive events spanning multiple cities drawing millions. The underlying psychological connection between each individual was the shared intimacy with this new pantheon of major, minor, and obscure heroes and villains. The trials of Hercules, the rage of Achilles, the wisdom of Athena or the trials of Job, the rage of Samson, the wisdom of Solomon – they had been supplanted by the trials of Spider-Man, the rage of Batman, the wisdom of Wonder Woman. The intensity of devotion derives from the intimacy of experience and for so many, their burgeoning sense of self was developed through their interactions with these characters.
It should be of little surprise, then, that there is a clamor in our age to make the identity of our heroes conform to our own identity. How we approach the concept of identity has been in flux for nearly as long as superheroes have been popular. The radical critiques of society created and disseminated from the 1930s to the present under the broad banner of “identity politics” including critical theory, identity-based feminism, etc., nearly aligns with the rise of the superhero and its growing popularity within the culture. It would not be too great an exaggeration to claim that the second half of the 20th century, at least in America, is defined by a growing sense of reconciling the public facing ‘alter-ego’ with the private, internal facing ‘private identity.’
As that private identity merges with the alter-ego, as the private becomes the political, the means by which we construct identity in one realm will interweave with the other. So, we come to the issue of needing to make Batman a different race so that he may appeal to a particular identity. The underlying issue is not with Batman, nor even in the constructing of a racial identity, but in needing to make public things conform to my private identity. The identarian assertion is that this phenomenon has always been true of whites, so why shouldn’t it also be true for non-whites? But, again returning to the tool of role-playing, this would assume that one only constructs one’s sense of identity by role-playing those who are identical to you relative to a specific category, in this case race. This is simply not true. Ask a child, regardless of their race, if they like Spider-Man or Batman or Black Panther or Wonder Woman. Their reaction isn’t going to be “because I’m middle-class and Jewish, I really like Peter Parker” or “because I’m rich and white, I like Batman” etc. Their reaction is going to be their visceral connection to the character and how the character acts. The identity construction happens in actions, not in immutable characteristics. In order to see these identity dynamics as defined by the various characteristics of race, sex, etc., we have to impose our understanding of these dynamics onto children after the children have developed their own relationship with the character. The social significance of seeing a woman as a protagonist, and as a hero (say, in the form of Wonder Woman) is not striking or unusual for a child until they are told it’s striking or significant. The fight for additional diversity within superheroes broadly is a consequence of this kind of retroactive examination. It also tells us a great deal of the significance that these characters have for current adults. The push for greater diversity among the culture is being driven, at least in part, by the push for greater diversity among its pop culture icons. Now, this isn’t to say that superheroes shouldn’t be wildly diverse; they should be. And, for the most part, they are far more diverse than the narrow range of diversity exhibited within the human species. But that there is such controversy surrounding the characters and the diversity within them informs us of how seriously we should take these characters, not just for how children construct their senses of self but also for how adults live with their senses of self.
The underlying need to take popular culture characters and reimagine them through the lens of a particular identity can lead to the construction of different characters, who may have an entirely different set of attributes. This could lead to an expansion of empathy, which, at its heart, is the function of fiction. The problem lies in indicating that one’s empathy is defined by immutable characteristics. Any child who pretends to be a non-human, say Gamora or Drax, is already showing how our empathy is not bound by immutable characteristics but, instead, is defined by our judgment of how people act. These kinds of discussions would benefit from returning to these first principle level discussions and asking ourselves: what are our kids learning when they pretend to be the Flash, Captain Marvel, or Falcon, and not the far narrower concern of how do I make these characters conform only to my sense of self.