November 15, 2013

With great power (continued): Superman and the Leviathan

Both superheroes and political philosophers have struggled with the just use of power.

“Contrary to the rumors that you’ve heard, I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father, Jor-El, to save the planet Earth.” Thus spoke Barack Obama during the first year of his presidency. As jokingly as he meant it, the President, as well as anybody who has ever held public office, may have more in common with Superman than one might think. As it pertains to comic books, the fundamental difference between a superhero and an ordinary human being is the possession of extraordinary, superhuman power. What we often find is that both superheroes and politicians are isolated by their power; indeed, a nickname for the presidency is “The Loneliest Job,” after the title of the iconic photograph of John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office. Consequently, a superhero’s identity is heavily shaped by his or her relationship with power, which manifests itself in all kinds of interesting ways.

Let’s start with Superman. As one of the DC Universe’s most powerful figures, Superman engages in a perpetual struggle with his strength’s isolating effects, a dynamic that dictates many of his decisions. For example, he doesn’t wear a mask—a conscious choice that, according to the Birthright series, was intended to gain the trust of the people he is trying to protect. More concretely, Superman goes to great pains to serve as an exemplar of good citizenship, to the extent that his critics lampoon him as “the big blue boy scout”; he is, in some ways, defined by his discretion in exercising his power. In Superman, we see that the superhero’s most enduring condition doesn’t simply embody itself in conflicts with supervillains. Rather, it is the reconciliation between using power to save people and this same power’s alienating consequences. A superhero’s powers aren’t just superhuman—they’re inhuman. (In fact, there is a group of superheroes in the Marvel Universe called the “Inhumans.”) In other words, Superman might be the strongest man on the planet because he’s an alien, but he will always be an alien because he is the strongest man on the planet.

As he dramatically hoists an enemy tank above his head in the 1986 series The Dark Knight Returns, Superman utters the ten most haunting words of the book: “We must not remind them that giants walk the earth.” In the chronology of The Dark Knight Returns, Superman addresses this problem by working for the government (in much the same way that Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian work as agents of the state in Alan Moore’s Watchmen); in this case, Superman uses politics to grant legitimacy to his enormous power. By confining his agency to the boundaries of political authority, Superman attempts to become less estranged from everybody else. This scenario naturally parallels issues regarding the appropriate extent of governmental power, one which remains a source of debate in the field of political theory. Insofar as he seeks realistic solutions that are compatible with social perceptions, Superman is wary of what he is capable of doing because of its detaching impacts, not in spite of them. (Of course, this isn’t always the way it goes, as works like For Tomorrow and Red Son remind us.)

We see a very different approach among other superheroes, most notably Batman. Batman is an incredibly interesting example because he isn’t technically a superhero; being without superhuman (but still exceptional) powers or abilities, his greatest asset is his indomitable will. His tremendous willpower has its origins in the moment he witnessed the murder of his parents by a gun-wielding man, when he saw a man who possessed brute power over another. With no justification in social principles, the fatal execution of this kind of power turned Bruce Wayne’s world upside down. As a consequence, Batman sees the issue of legitimacy as largely irrelevant to the implementation of power. His modus operandi of intimidation coupled with blunt force rests on the belief that as far as the real world is concerned, might makes right. Batman is by nature an apolitical figure, and his closest relationship with political structures is that, of the often-precarious alliance between him and Commissioner Gordon; being part of a system that operates on the basis of jurisdiction, Gordon recognizes the advantages of having a proxy who can cross the red tape—so much so that he is reprimanded for his reliance on his caped friend’s exploits, as in Dark Victory. Batman’s reply to his disparagers in The Dark Knight Returns highlights this trait: “We’ve always been criminals. We have to be criminals.” Batman embraces his apartness from society and accepts his outcast role by wearing a mask—a choice made not so much to protect his identity as to gain an amorphous one.

On the other hand, Batman is not someone who believes that the ends necessarily justify the means. Most importantly, his steadfast unwillingness to kill gives him boundaries that keep him from becoming what he set out to destroy: a bad guy. Batman is less an avenger than a crusader, with his dogmatic traits lying somewhere between the pragmatism of his friend from Metropolis and the fanaticism of Rorschach from Watchmen. Nevertheless, his is an approach that lies on the opposite end of the spectrum from Superman’s, representing a separate school of thought about how one should address the problems that come from having power. “To instill fear into the hearts [of criminals],” Batman says in Hush, “I became a bat. A monster in the night. And in doing so, have I become the very thing that all monsters become—alone?”

The question of “who watches the watchmen?” provides a constant source of tension throughout superhero pop culture, appearing in everything from The Incredibles (2004) to Hancock (2008). But you don’t have to watch movies to see how closely this theme reflects our world. In today’s political landscape, how close do we really feel to those who make our laws? To what extent does power undermine its own purpose, and how much of it is appropriate? It’s no mistake that Thomas Hobbes titled his seminal work on political theory Leviathan. A fearsome, mythical sea monster carries with it the otherness of the governing body, that artificial construct of human will—forced into a solitary existence to exert a power greater than the sum of its parts.

As this series on superheroes comes to an end, I find myself hoping that it inspires someone to bring up Superman in a Sosc class, if not to pick up a comic book.

Ken Jung is a first-year in the College.