Superheroes Reflect Their Times

Vicarious super powers help us deal with current reality

Superheroes Reflect Their Times
Dan Gifford 
Jun 2010

When times get tough, the unsettled among us turn to fictionalized 
superheroes to vicariously battle the world’s uncertainties. They can 
even provide an example for turning the lemons in our personal lives 
into lemonade just as Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Tony Stark (Iron Man) did 
by turning to crime fighting careers after the deaths of their parents. 
Because however impotent we may be against reality, we can project our 
helplessness into an all powerful avatar for a temporary feeling of 
control or revenge.

During the 1930s and early 40s, the likes of Superman, Batman, Wonder 
Woman and Captain America where on the comic pages defending honest 
working stiffs against common crime in the streets, corporate crime in 
the suites and crimes of political corruption.

Superman even foiled a plot by greedy Wall Streeters and cash-craved 
Capital Hillers to crash the stock market a second time to cast America 
into a another depression they could exploit.

And when Americans were fighting the racist plot between Imperial 
Japan’s ‘master race’ of the East and Nazi Germany’s ‘master race’ of 
the West to take over the world, Captain America was there to punch 
Hitler in the face as other superheroes battled Tojo and Mussolini in 
ways those at home wished they could.

By the 1950s, Superman was on TV and new superheroes like Green Lantern 
and Captain Marvel joined the original stalwarts to fight hegemonic 
communism and the ever present specter of nuclear war.

The cultural 60s brought Batman and Robin to TV (BAM!!) along with more 
superhero characters whose alter identity problems were reflections of 
our over-therapied, neurotic selves that were now out of the closet. 

The Incredible Hulk had a case of multiple personality disorder.

Iron Man wrestled with alcoholism.

The Mighty Thor had major arrogance and father defiance issues -- so 
much so that Odin called him an arrogant little bastard and smacked him 
in the face.

The world before was different.

Superman’s Clark Kent in both comic, TV and movie incarnations may have 
been gainfully employed as a mild-mannered newspaper reporter and 
Batman’s Bruce Wayne may have been the tuxedoed scion of a gazillionaire 
industrialist, but Spiderman’s geeky Peter Parker had to struggle to 
support his aunt and pay his own school tuition like lots others did.

Even so, they and other superheros managed to snap out of their problems 
long enough to challenge unjust authority, racism, alienation, and 
traditional roles.

Black Panther mirrored the 60s Black Panther Party self -efense edict 
and battled appropriate villains like the Ku Klux Klan. X-Men reflected 
contemporary issues about diversity, ethnicity and the treatment of 
minorities. Wonder Woman was a TV star and filled the cover of the first 
Ms. Magazine in 1972.


Soon after, she got a women’s lib makeover.


30 years later, liberated gay women got their own superhero when Bat 
Woman became a lesbian.

 From there, vengeance and vigilantism became a hallmark of new super 
characters. Punisher, for instance was (his character has been dropped 
for the moment) a former police officer obsessed with bloody retribution 
against bad guys whose viciousness is off the map, that being a 
reflection of the real life murderous depravity of drug dealers, gang 
bangers and Islamic terrorism that would get far worse than it was. That 
willingness to kill did recognize a reality long ignored.

How often has Batman allowed the Joker to live and murder again and 
again over the years? His body count may be in the millions by now.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for the Black Knight to just terminate Joker 
once and for all with extreme prejudice?

But a Batman that took care of a deadly public menace once and for all 
would not only have his writers working overtime to create new villains, 
the power trip of so much killing could corrupt his moral compass as 
power tends to do. As Tommy Lee Jones’ character tells the men he’s 
trained to kill in “The Hunted”: “Killing’s easy once you start. 
Stopping is the hard part.”

Superheroes are generally not allowed to step outside the guide rails 
that define those traditional American principles of fair play, common 
sense and proportionality when protecting the public by enforcing its 
norms and laws. Within those boundaries he may make his own decisions 
and live by his own rules, but at the end of the day, superheros tend to 
be Schizophrenics in a freak costume with conflictions that are not all 
that different from those of our real life law enforcers.

Attorney general Eric Holder says terrorists are to be Mirandized one 
day, but not the next? He says their trials are to be in civilian courts 
one day and in military courts the next? He says Arizona’s new 
immigration law is unconstitutional, but then says he hasn’t read it?

It’s enough to really piss-off HellBoy.

Dan Gifford is a national Emmy-winning,
Oscar-nominated film producer and former
reporter for CNN, The MacNeil Lehrer
News Hour and ABC News.