Professor Gavaler made a number of interesting–to say the least–points in his discussion of the societal impacts of super-heroic imagery. Particularly interesting is how he mentioned that societies all over the world, perhaps as a result of evolutionary psychology that’s been ingrained in humanity since before the invention of the wheel, have a common tendency to develop tropes of “saving graces.” To put it simply, I took away from Prof. Gavaler’s lecture that the development of super-heroism in literature is a byproduct of humanity’s need to absolve itself of responsibility for the rectification of our systemic problems.
Let me explain, because I just made a big logical leap that probably isn’t justified given the context I provided.
In the lecture, it was noted that Wonder Woman arrived in our society (or at least in William Moulton Marston’s fictional rendition of our society) to bring peace to America at the behest of a C.I.A. officer.* She was supposed to fight Nazis and conquer crime in wartime and postwar America. Superman, similarly, came to Earth from Krypton to bring Earth back from the brink of sociopolitical collapse. Batman, too, avenges the death of his parents by enforcing justice and security in the city of Gotham.
The common thread with these superheroes is that they’re, well, superheroes. Shocking, I know. But the interesting thing about this shared super-heroic identity is that they exist basically in vacuums. The police never helped Batman. Though she was brought to America by the C.I.A., I don’t recall hearing about Wonder Woman’s enduring and effective multilateral partnerships with the United States’ government. Not to mention that Superman exists only to rectify the errors of the human systems, not necessarily to work alongside them. What this essentially means is that we, as a society, have created (I know that “created” is a tricky word to use with groups of people, but the fact of the matter is that we wouldn’t have any superheroes had society not created a market demand for such literature) an “easy out.” A form of absolution, if you will, that is a product of the same line of thinking that brought us things such as omnipotent Gods, spirits, and even determinism. That was a takeaway (or at least one of my takeaways) from the lecture.
I know that I’ve been sounding a lot like a summarizer and less like an essayist thus far. But I draw a very important distinction between my train of thought and that of Professor Gavaler. He didn’t really make any outright moral judgements about this facet of human psychology. I do. I think that superheroes are dangerous (not just because they sometimes are Pyrrhic victors in that they occasionally destroy cities in trying to oust its evildoers) because they promote and instill in the minds of young children that there is someone or something out there that can fix our problems. Nobody else has to. Nazis invading? Call Wonderwoman. A horrible crime spree ravaging your city? Not to worry, Batman will fix it. There is a lot of great literature on this topic–Suzanne Kappeler is a feminist philosopher and author who advocates against thinking (even fictionally) that superheroes will save us–and I’m inclined to defend it. I don’t like superheroes because they inherently promote thinking that it’s okay to sit back and let someone else fix your problems. That’s a bad ideology to give to young kids.
*That’s all based on my limited knowledge of superheroes. I never read comic books growing up and I’ve never seen a superhero movie, so please excuse my vapid understanding of the plot lines.