The Superhero America, with its Systemic and Infrastructural Problems, Deserves


Vlad Savov has an interesting essay at The Verge in which he laments that popular superheroes as they are written are rarely called upon to use their extraordinary powers to do more than fight, as opposed to tackling some of the bigger, more systemic problems faced by societies and civilization. He writes, for example:

Superman’s reduction to a punching machine — particularly prominent in his movie outings — is … less excusable than Batman’s since the Man of Steel actually has superhuman powers. He can hear, see, smell, and remember things in ways the rest of us can only dream of. His strength is otherworldly, and he can literally fly out into space on a whim. Think of all the impossible construction and exploration projects we could complete if we had a real Superman to help us. Instead, he gels his hair back, puts on a cape, and manhandles a different set of anonymous thugs to the ones Batman’s taking care of. …

But don’t we deserve a higher class of hero to match the Joker’s better class of criminal? Every news broadcast will tell you how terribly unfair and unjust the world is: from corruption in the highest echelons of power to basic lack of opportunity, the themes of iniquity are as ancient as human civilization itself. To be my hero, you have to do something to change these awful societal habits, not merely contain them.

I pondered this a bit, because I think it’s a legitimate grievance with the limited scope of superhero storytelling. I did manage to think of one superhero, though, who does just what Savov is asking for, a hero who used his amazing powers to genuinely solve world problems. There are lots of days to save before the term is up!

I’m talking, of course, about President Jed Bartlet.

Bartlet isn’t a superhero in the sense of being a costumed crime-fighter with mega-strength or the ability to fly or shoot beams from his eyes. But he does possess skills and abilities that, let’s admit it, no real-life mortal does: successfully defeating intransigent GOP Congresses, manipulating and reversing public perception of incredible scandals and mistakes, persuading enemies to see things his way, recalling facts, quotes, and passages from scripture and literature, fluently conversing in foreign and dead languages, all at the drop of a hat. He even survives an assassination attempt, stays one step ahead of multiple sclerosis, and manages to have (and win?) an argument with God. If that’s not a superhero, I don’t know what is.

He doesn’t use his powers only for beating up bad guys (though he does use his military and his security detail to do that), but to make things better. Crises emerge not in the form of supervillains (though, again, sometimes), but in the form of natural disasters, foreign policy predicaments, economic emergencies, and the overall push to make life more fair and prosperous for hundreds of millions of Americans. And he gets help from his White House-based Justice League of flawed but formidable allies, with CJ Craig perhaps being his closest rival in overall super-powerful-ness.

Oh, and he also had a catchphrase: Upon the completion of some heroic objective, no time is wasted before he asks his team, “What’s next?” There’s more saving-the-day to do!

I think for a very long time politicians were my superheroes, and that President Bartlet and his team represented the apotheosis of that feeling. Yes, politics is ugly and slow, but for a while I did have heroes who I thought were using their amazing and near-superhuman abilities to make the world a better place. Think of the super-clever and super-charismatic Clinton, or the super-intelligent and super-prophetic Gore. Even the super-principled Ralph Nader. In the 90s and early aughts, these were my Justice League. Barack Obama, back in 2006 to 2008, seemed more like a superhero than any of them! Then, anyway.

Not anymore. They all seem like the clichéd disappointing actor in the frayed superhero suit, now. The Oz behind the curtain, but without the great-and-powerful part. The supervillains are all still there, of course, but now they run the place. The superheroes were never really there.

So anyway, maybe we need a President Santos-era West Wing comic book, followed by a blockbuster Marvel movie, complete with a team-up with Bartlet, Santos, Craig, and maybe the Hulk. That’d be cool.

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