The neoliberal superhero

Superheroes act for restoration of status quo

Credit : geist.com

Neoliberal capitalism is portrayed with tireless persistence as an efficient, just system, which empowers people. It is as if a metaphysical calculus which yields returns proportional to the hard work (‘labor’) invested with a tinge of cleverness and knowledge. The “sine qua non” -requiring self-impositions- being they have the right frame of mind and the intelligence to internalize the rationality of the market to succeed. Very well served ex post facto justifications are conferred upon us defending this TINA- There Is No Alternative, realm of reality. The ideology of neoliberalism is portrayed as a natural part of our history. Justice is served when everybody has been given an opportunity (if not equal), and accessibility, not free themselves from exploitation, but to enter in the free market.

Our systems and social contracts are designed as sweepstakes, often benefiting a minority of individuals at the cost of majority of the masses, like an embodying Hobbesian universe in our democratic world. This system celebrates superheroes, super-leaders with popularly attributed extra human capabilities, like a messiah. They can decipher our hardships, and disentangle them from the cobweb of the structures, solve them outside them, even if it is required to “nudge” some of our basic principles of institutions for some larger good. It celebrates them because they reinforce it in their own eccentric and peculiar method of functioning.

The system, messiahs, and heroes provoke us in imagining a world devoid of our fundamental conventions required to sustain our “leftover” symbolic democratic, progressive values, and institutions; and bypassing these they suggest that our hardships can be solved. It is not for some revolutionary cause, but to unleash a far greater, purer form of the previous socio-economic framework. The other secret message is that - the problems we have created in our natural human capacities are unresolvable with the historical paraphernalia of politics, language, and mobilizations we have achieved through our long history of struggles. We should wait for a sudden dramatic event to happen.

This notion of history was criticized by Sartre, as it involves the actualization of the already closed totality which is supposed to complete its predetermined course. Here, the subjects become mere spectators who witness the realization of that totality in an “idealist dialectical history”, just participating as volunteers in the historical course. The will in their subjectivity is absent.

The messiahs, superheroes are seen to be the facilitators of justice and freedom. Freedom facilitated by the emancipator, has interests of the facilitator implied in it. The subject of the freedom is then a chosen one. Freedom here is not taken by the emancipation of the subject’s consciousness and its recognition of the moment and act of freedom.  Superhero films precisely do that. They do that by having a superhero, a monarch (Black Panther) and then a nation ready to facilitate justice. The transfer of justice then carries many ideological messages with it, radically changing the meaning of justice itself. When justice comes in the form of routine procedural aspect ameliorating the surficial hardships instead of subverting and questioning the structure itself, the emancipator then becomes a very dubious personality with his interests involved in maintaining it.




Today the form of these films has been memorized by the public psyche so much that watching a film becomes a part of a ritual which needs to be completed. We take pleasure from its performance. The reception of art and its consumption itself becomes an ever recurring, a perpetual ideological process.

To Quote Owen Hulatt from his article “Against popular culture”-

“We are now, on average, working longer, with less security, for less money. The world is riddled with social and political problems that we have no immediately clear way of engaging with or ameliorating. Our free time seems better spent instead on relaxing the demands we place on ourselves, and escaping the pressures of the everyday world.”

In the terms of superhero films; as Owen Hulatt says of guilty pleasures; “It is a world, Adorno claims, that gives us only a faint copy of pleasure disguised as the real thing; repetition disguised as escape; a brief respite from labor disguised as luxury. Popular culture presents itself as a release of our repressed emotions and desires, and so as an increase in freedom. But in truth, it robs us of our freedom twice- both aesthetically (in failing to give aesthetic freedom in enjoying art) and morally (in blocking the path to true social freedom).”

How is the work of art received and, who, which social class receives it in which way?     

Luis Bunuel, after the success of his film “The Andalusian Dog” was disappointed with the positive reception it got among the bourgeoisie, as was Salvador Dali. His films offer a critique of the values and principles of the bourgeoisie, the religious institutions, and a setup in which the individuals and classes were made of. They acknowledge the underlying hypocrisy of the structures which made people vulnerable and often behave like schizophrenics. “The Exterminating angels”, “The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie” and “That obscure object of desire” were few of his many films which offered a principled perspective. The aim was to disturb and make feel uncomfortable.

In the book “An Unspeakable Betrayal”, writing about his film “Viridiana” Bunuel said, “We do not live in the best of possible worlds. I would like to continue to make films which apart from entertaining the audience, convey to people the absolute certainty of this idea. In making such films I believe that my intentions would be highly constructive.” The point to be made by referring to Bunuel and his film was to mention the potential of mediations carried by his films in between consciousness and the totality.


batmanCartoon by Rob Smit Jr.

We see a recurring theme and form loosely floating, essentially in every superhero film: The task of superheroes is to bail out humanity which is in a civilizational crisis, brought upon by an evil “other”. The responsibility of the evil “other” is ironically disavowed by neoliberalism. The tendencies of these films are more than dislocating and abstracting the “other” from their social-political context. They are to present them in a very unclear, shady way by juxtaposing and superimposing multifarious fears and paranoia we are taught to believe.

A collage of chauvinist nationalism, a sense of paranoia arising out of a perceived aggressor, resentment of qualities an imagined homogenous community do not like, and feelings amalgamating through the uncertain times of continuously popping up crisis gets projected. The elements of this collage can be identified with the forms of either a nation, a nation-state, an ethnic group, a conceived racial group, a linguistic community, or any such forms of communities we witness today.

Superheroes change how we perceive the world. Everything is envisioned to be coming to an end. Once they save us from the ideological world we don’t want to see (see socialism), we have our liberal capital gizmo in our safe hands to carry out its status-quo ante anew. Superheroes are not the breaks or ruptures in continuity. They help us escape from radically transforming the structure, and facilitate the smooth functioning of “our” romanticized “post-ideological” world.

The legion of superhero films, its popularity between the people accentuate, and often reflect the deep relationships the reality, the state and expression of politics has with the desires and aspirations of the viewers. Asking what creates this relationship, thus reaching the source of its celebration, we arrive witnessing a great dissatisfaction about the social conditions. The dissatisfaction turned into helplessness is not an abstract expression, but a concrete one against the ruling systems and structures. This situation then demands a separate discussion on the function of consciousness, and ideology.

The so-called political messiahs we observe today to an extent, if not a symbolic personification of the superheroes, share an uncanny correspondence with each other. These leaders, not only popular, come at a moment of a crisis. They carry a promise to unravel and resolve a situation as though having a moral obligation and responsibility towards it. This moral obligation is then transferred onto the people as a guilt, which performs a function of obedience and non-questioning.  

We follow the leader, we believe in what he says, we see problems through his lenses. The enemy is always present. They are aliens, cruel psycho-sociopaths; they come from of our planet, beyond our permissive boundaries. Not one of us, they intrude our space and time, disturb our lives, planning a plot against us; they may surprise us with their cynical blitzkrieg, planning an invasion to subdue us, or may just be present among us with a dark face unknown during our daily chores. In our real world who are perceived as the others? Can we say that the baggage of feelings has similarities with the identification of the other when we enter in in our “real” world?  Is it not true that its culmination reaches a point where it is them who are perceived to be responsible for the downfall of our nation and civilization?

These leaders provide a prism for an irrational politics proper. It arouses hate mongering, bigotry, misogyny and many anti-modern, illiberal, anti-social expressions. The normalization of these qualities is one of the many reasons why we love to see superhero films and why we admire them. Not all the political categories can be identified with these attributes. There is also a wise political hero who can subtract all the right-wing impulses and qualities but still provide us with a pleasant neo-liberal picture. These leaders speak no foul language. They acquire all the modern, progressive qualities, are politically correct, but not immune from aggrandizement. They may not be a messianic leader, and certainly not subversive. They also are friends with “Wayne’s and Stark’s”, and the many humanitarian billionaires, philanthropists. We see that the films themselves have grown with times avoiding a crude form of identification of the other, being progressive and politically correct, but still about reinstating things from crisis.

Superhero films aren’t devoid of romanticism. But they are seldom about creating a distinct future, with an evident discontent about contemporary times. They are remorselessly indulged in a struggle to achieve what is lost. The films crave to return to a slipped equilibrium.

In the book “Marxist-Leninist Aesthetics and the Arts”, A.K. Dremov wrote in a chapter titled ‘Romantic Typification’,

“The romantic, while using life and already realized ideals as a starting point, does not limit himself to the reflection of the best, most progressive aspects of what already exist, but tries to imagine these qualities in the most developed form which they will probably- according to their natural trend of development acquire in the future.’’

The protagonist in the Superhero film barely contemplates on the cause of the predicament.   What he tries to do is to halt, kill, punish the villains, the unethical, immoral men and save people from them. He is the mechanic to correct the temporary aberrations. It will be naïve to expect from any political opposition, let alone a Superhero, a concrete blue print of the future. But what we see in an informed political opposition is a dissatisfaction, understanding based on some guiding principles, some scientific, historical, material understanding of the social reality.

To quote Dremov further-

“In all other instances, too, the portrayal of the romantic ideal is rather indefinite. As a result of the nature of his subject- matter and material, even the most talented romantic writer cannot give as circumstantial or concrete a portrayal as the realist.”

“Thus, the distinctiveness of the romantic writer’s aesthetic ideal consists in his acute dissatisfaction with the present, in his sacred concern for the future, in his passionate striving towards this, though perhaps remote, future, and in his firm belief in the feasibility of major transformations in the social life and nature of man, transformations which at the same times appears illusionary to most people.”

Superheroes appear to us elevated very high with regard to and devoid of some political orientation. No doubt we love them, as we love Neo-liberalism, and neo-liberalism loves them back, as they appear neutral and benevolent. But, they aren’t de-politicized; they want a previous systemically stable society, which requires every one of us to be a-political. It is not surprising when we see superman coming from another planet. It amazes us when Thor is not from Earth. Batman, Spiderman, Iron man, all have their own logical universe which has its own logical paradigm; all of them operate in some parallel, secluded space and places. In these places there is no reference to some sort of political order or functioning. Everything happening around appears to be in chaos. Overcoming it requires an extravagant amount of heroism which cannot find space in our democratic colloquial-ness. Each and every political method, fundamental principles, social cultures which are tied with our democratic and socio-political contracts and institutions appear to be irrelevant. Their contact with the society is in their “terms”.

Unlike the Superheroes, revolutionaries not only have a problem with the present, but have detestations for the status-quo, its system, the structure, the conditions of the exploited people and their position in the society. They articulate the present. They visualize a possibility through the masses, and for the masses. Their future is not abstracted from inclusivity, but is inclusive. The concern is to change the position of the people with respect to the classes, wealth, justice, nature and resources. Justice as a part of a social contract is not for a specific community, it is in wholeness.

Taking an example of a film, Black Panther was praised for turning major conventions on its head. In the economy, culture and establishment of the industry, it was a truly bold statement. But it is possible that it will remain as an aberration. Aberrations create shocks. And if these events continue to shock and surprise us, then that is precisely the problem which needs to be addressed. The struggle in the film, though not linked directly, is very identical to what we see today all across the world. Majority of the nationals across the globe have a choice between the bandwidth of a liberal Democratic Party and right wing conservative, democratic, fascist one. These contours of todays supposed freedom are reflected in the choice the film wanted us to make.

The film was praised not only in the Black fraternity, but also across the political spectrum- the liberals, the conservatives, the alt right and the left fraternity, for it gives so much many at the same time for different minds. Slavoj Zizek says about this precisely- “When all sides recognize themselves in the same product, we can be sure that the product in question is ideology at its purest- a kind of empty vessel containing antagonistic elements”.  Neo-liberalism, whose project involves dismantling collectivity of the masses, individualizing dissent, freedom, and consumption, also succeeds in creating and portraying a community as an individual as well. Doing so, it inverts universalism into identity. The collectivity of that community is transformed into an identity of a mega individual.  Remembering this, our struggle should be to fight for all, without dividing lines. The secular oppression of capitalism should be destroyed. Progressive struggles for the historically, systemically oppressed in the same system are of prime importance. To stop solely there is to miss a point.

Worth noting is the fact that how science and technology is presented in front of us and what is their imagined function in films. Science and the technological magic present itself for the purpose of fighting somebody, addressing the enemy.  History has repeatedly taught us that scientific efforts used for military endeavors have never been helpful in making egalitarian human progress. To truly be able to achieve a future subtracted of divisions based on any small denominators, we will have to question the ideology and values of sciences, the ideology of rationality, and the institutions which form the bedrock of the ever propelling capitalism. A fancy scientific laboratory, some unimaginable useless technology looks like a death drive. We will need to release democracy from its imposed natural allies of capitalism, and inequality. De-contextualizing the history of oppression from capital will keep things opaque as they were.

We find ourselves in the middle of a political milieu where more and more leaders resort to some rhetoric, narratives which are very apparently and clearly undemocratic, and politically regressive. Using the democratic mechanisms, they come to power and undermine them. The aim is less about making a point to point reference and finding similarities between superheroes and our political messiahs. It is to take note that the political culture in disguise of such personalities, and the point of history to which they want us to take is not very assuring.

We should hence allow ourselves to present us a possibility which can see beyond the alternatives and binaries presented in front of us. As for all the superhero films, the real question we need to ask them is: From what and who are you liberating us and where are you taking us? What happens a day after the day the chaos gets over?


This article was first published in Marathi in the magazine ‘Parivartanacha Vatsaru’ in September 2018. Re-published with permission from the author.