If the box office and television are any indicator, America is obsessed with superheroes. Nearly every new batch of movies has at least one superhero movie, and superhero television shows seem to roll out every week. Judging from how much money these movies and shows generate, superheroes are our generation’s favorite thing. But why?
According to some commentators, superheroes are to us what the gods were to the Greeks: emblems of our values in packages flawed enough to afford relatability. Within this framework, superheroes help us to grapple with the moral quandaries of our times.
I think that is only part of the reason for their popularity, though. That doesn’t explain why superheroes have become so absurdly popular in recent times. Was there a watershed moment for the contemporary resurgence of superheroes? According to Jim Higgins, former DC comics editor, that moment was 9/11:
“For a long time, comics had this air of disrespectability,” Higgins said.
That changed on Sept. 11, 2001, with the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The world was once again divided into good and evil, but was still morally complicated, flawed and vulnerable.
Suddenly, superheroes came back in a big way.
What was it about 9/11 that drew the popular imagination back to superheroes? Probably a few things. Among them were a feeling of helplessness, a desire for cosmic justice, and a deep distrust in the agency of the State. The last reason might be the most important.
Consider the new Netflix series, Daredevil. The blind protagonist, Matt Murdock, is a lawyer by day and a vigilante by night. His frustration with the corrupt, slow, and ineffectual justice system drives him to the ethical shadows to accomplish what he believes is right. So many of the more popular comic book franchises have capitalized on that same concept.
When the legal system seems to offer little chance for real justice, the appeal of vigilantism rises. The superhero fantasy offers the possibility of a fundamentally good person wielding great power to accomplish righteous ends. In so many of these superhero movies, the police and civil authorities are either incapable of doing what needs to be done, unwilling to do it, or even part of the problem. Very often, the civil authorities are abjectly corrupt. Superheroes exist in these narratives because they are necessary: no one else can “clean up the city.”
Superhero narratives also offer the possibility of a defined and singular villain. In a society frustrated by interminable war and amorphous antagonists, sometimes all we want is someone or something particular to blame. After 9/11, Osama Bin Laden became the villain in the popular imagination. But he’s apparently dead now, and nothing has really changed.
And maybe that’s the danger of the superhero. What if we are meant to be frustrated with the lack of justice in the world? What if the Avengers, the Punisher, Batman, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron Man, X-Men, and all the rest are actually satiating our desire for real justice?
Is it possible that superhero stories are justice pornography? They virtually satisfy our desire for justice without actually accomplishing anything. The bad guy dies. The good guy triumphs. We leave the theater. And nothing has changed.