The word “heroic” has been used to describe many different people and behaviors during the pandemic. While I have found some people’s behavior to be heroic (frontline health workers and takeout delivery drivers, I’m looking in your direction), the word has become a kind of COVID-era participation trophy.
I came to a realization about heroes during the pandemic. While everyone was being heroic in their way, my husband and I were confined inside our house, steadily consuming an ever-growing lineup of films about superheroes. One day, as I sat on my couch immersed in a throwback Batman movie (circa Christian Bale), it occurred to me that we may need heroes right now, but we do NOT need superheroes, at least not as they’ve traditionally been defined.
That’s a problem, because the superhero genre is incredibly popular, enticing the majority of people between the ages of 18 and 54 (that’s three generations) to see at least one superhero-themed film a year.
Why is that a problem? Because the stories those films tell about leadership and problem-solving are completely out of step with the current needs of society. That matters because stories are how we make sense of our world. The lessons that we learn and the sense that we derive from our surroundings and experiences are what we then use to create every aspect of society, including all the rules governing how we think about and treat each other.
Traditional superhero stories are typically about white men who were orphaned or suffered some sort of childhood trauma and consequently have difficulty forming close bonds with other humans. They’re ultra-rich, and they use their wealth to create whatever kind of gadgetry they think will help them dominate anyone they perceive as a threat. Their obscene wealth enables them to live within physical fortresses and exist apart from society. It also enables these device-obsessed, people-avoiding misanthropes to operate outside the societal machinery that controls the rest of us, including laws they find inconvenient, because they are confident that eventually we’ll all understand that their damaging, excessive behavior was part of a master plan that protected us.
Also, their non-superhero alter-egos are socially-awkward. They put their love interests on pedestals to be worshipped from afar, never embracing them as equal partners. And they’re secretive. They don’t want anyone, even those who love them most, to know who they really are.
Ultimately, these stories tell us that only certain types of people are capable of being leaders, and those leaders are justified in behaving in virtually any way that helps achieve their ends, even if it damages the rest of us, because at the end of the day, they know what’s in our best interest. This superhero brand of ‘problem-solving’ does not meet us where we are. It’s out of step with the current needs of society.
A simpler way of saying this: Batman is not a servant leader. For example, in the film Batman Begins, he resolves a conflict with a combatant by detaching a monorail car from the rest of the train, sending it crashing to the ground below, destroying blocks of the city and killing multiple people. If I was a citizen of Gotham City, I might be relieved that the villain had been killed, but my relief would be surpassed by my anger at the disproportionate devastation Batman’s solution inflicted on my city. He sent a very unhealthy message about how leaders behave and create solutions. And I definitely would not want to work for him. Given his selfish, shortsighted behavior as Batman, I can only imagine what a nightmare Bruce Wayne would be as an employer. Wayne Industries hopefully offers comprehensive health coverage, because you’d really need it.
Consider this paradigm in a current, real-world scenario:
Would you want to look out your window some night and see Mark Zuckerberg (clothed from head to toe in a rubber suit) rapelling down the side of your house, then crashing through your living room window after setting your neighbor’s car on fire? How would you feel if this was in response to news that you’d been exposed to COVID by your asymptomatic neighbor? Would you be satisfied with Mark’s efforts? I submit that you would not.
So, superheroes need to evolve. Specifically, they need to be diverse, empathetic, collaborative team-players. Fortunately, there are signs this is happening.
Black Panther was of course a big step in the right direction. Whoopi Goldberg just announced that she’s writing a superhero movie about “an older Black woman who acquires new powers and has to learn to use them.” For the last two years, actress Emilia Clark (from Game of Thrones) has been working on a comic about a single mom superhero.
I hope offerings like this will become more frequent and move from being outliers to the norm. They are overdue, and I think the hunger for them will be reflected in profits, as it did for Black Panther, which made more than a billion dollars at the box office.
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