Superheroes and the American Dream

Peter Parker and the fateful spider bite

From Slog:

I do drug research for a biotech company. One day, when I was taking blood samples from some rats that had been dosed with a radiolabeled (Indium 111) MS drug, the little son of a bitch bit me (not that I really blame her, we fuck them up pretty good). So, I am proud to say that I have been bitten by a radioactive rat.

I have as of yet developed no superpowers. If I do, I will let you know.

The classic superhero origin is a story of blind luck: the protagonist – still mortal, still mundane – stumbles upon a mysterious MacGuffin that transforms him (and it’s mostly “him”) into a protector of conventional morality.1 Perhaps he finds a dying alien who grants him a weapon of unimaginable power. Perhaps he discovers he was always different and that he has powers beyond the abilities of mortal men. Perhaps he is bitten by a radioactive spider and has gained the consequent abilities of arachnids. Whatever the specifics, in most superhero origins, the hero merely has his powers handed to him.

If you think about it, it’s a paradoxical idea. Are not superhero comics one of the most quintessentially American of media? Is not the pursuit of the American Dream a vital part of the American cultural narrative? Does not the very idea of reward without sacrifice go against the dour Protestant work ethic that informs American society?

And yet there exists the superhero.

Yesterday, tenchichan and I were discussing the role of destiny in superhero stories when we chanced upon this singular realization: superheroes don’t have to work for their powers. Conversely, supervillains work their dicks off gaining the powers and abilities they fight superheroes with. Don’t believe me? Let’s examine the evidence.

First, let’s look at Superman, the living ideal of the superheroic. He’s got a few slightly different origins, but generally speaking, he spends his childhood unaware of his alien heritage. His ignorance is suddenly dispelled when one day, he displays strange new powers – he jumps too far or crushes a boulder or something. The young Clark Kent quickly spends his time discovering what new things he can do, such as running incredibly fast and shooting heat rays out of his eyes and such. And how did he gain these marvelous abilities? He was born, that’s how. His power came as a result of his superior Nietzschean genetics.

Now consider Lex Luthor, Superman’s greatest enemy. He is a billionaire industrialist, but he is also one of the world’s most brilliant scientists – in fact, originally he was nothing else but that. Do you know how you become a brilliant scientist? Through years of study and dedication, that’s how. The power that Superman gained from merely existing, Luthor gained through patient and diligent labour. Say what you will about Luthor’s goals, you can’t dispute the fact that he worked like a motherfucker to get to his present position.

Or take Marvel’s pre-eminent superhero, the Amazing Spider-Man. The only thing he did to gain his superpowers was to stand in the right place at the right time while a fortuitously irradiated spider decided to bite him and grant him great power and great responsibility. Yes, he invented his webshooters, but they’re pretty much useless when wielded by a ninety pound weakling like Peter Parker pre-mutation (and can we pretend that mystical mumbo jumbo about spider totems and destiny never happened?).

But see how hard-working Peter’s enemies are. Kingpin? Crime boss who became top dog through wheeling, dealing, and killing. Kraven? Gained his skills through singular devotion to the art of the hunt. Dr. Conners (aka Lizard) and Dr. Octopus? Went through graduate PhD programs and possibly medical school. Mysterio? A prominent illusionist who honed his skill the same way other performers did. Yes, Spider-Man has villains who also fell ass-backwards into being posthuman, but he’s got quite a few of the self-made Horatio Alger types as well (with the goals being money and power instead of middle class respectability and comfort).

Even Marvel’s mutants follow this dichotomy of luck versus self-discipline. Being a mutant automatically makes you a genetically superior individual through no effort on your part (with the Linnaean name of Homo superior, no less), but even among the ranks of the overmen, some are more equal than others. As tenchichan pointed out, the benevolent Charles Xavier grew up in a mansion, though admittedly he was mistreated by his stepbrother and stepfather. However, Magneto, the enemy of humanity himself, grew up in a concentration camp run by goddamn Nazis. Charles Xavier’s background gave him the money and power he used to become the leader of the good mutants. And Magneto? His background gave him post-traumatic nightmares and pogroms to run from. Tell me who’s more impressive for achieving a prominent leadership role in the mutant community.

Batman himself – the quintessential self-made superhero – relies on blind fortune to supply him with the weapons to fight crime. Yes, Bruce Wayne studied and trained hard to become Batman (though considering the fact that in his origin story his training took only two panels then narratively speaking he might as well have been bitten by a radioactive vampire bat). No one disputes that Batman has self-discipline coming out of his tightly-clenched sphincter. But the Batmobile, the Batcomputer, the Batknife and Batusi and bat-everything all came from Bruce Wayne’s wealth (admit it, people only danced the Batusi because they were paid to). Would Batman be Batman without all his gadgets and the presumably expensive travelling he did on his training journey? Fighting crime costs money, and at the very least Batman doesn’t have to work to put food on his Bat-table.

It seems, then, that in superhero-land winning the lottery makes you a hero, while working hard for your dreams makes you a villain. In that sense, the evil and good halves of the superpowered set make up the two sides of the American Dream. Villains chase the American Dream by diligently applying themselves, which is how it’s supposed to be chased. Heroes, however, gain the thing that Americans actually dream of – they live incredible lives for free.

Perhaps it’s a consequence of superheroes generally being the “everyman” type, to ostensibly make it easier for readers to identify with them. The average Muggle can’t defuse a bomb or escape out of a death trap, and yet how can Super-Joe hope to survive in this world? Why, by having the universe shower luck on him beforehand, of course.

Or perhaps the work vs. luck dichotomy comes about as an Ayn Randian recognition that only the truly special could create make something of themselves. As for the rest of us, we’ll just keep buying lottery tickets and hope for the best.

Of course, a third possibility is that comic book writers are just pathologically averse to hard work.

Whatever the narrative reason, it becomes clear that your fate as a superhomey depends greatly on how you got your powers. Did you gain them through your own efforts? Then off to supervillainy with you. Did you gain them through no particular effort or skill on your part? Then you were clearly destined to be a hero: Welcome to the fight and go kick Jay Gatsby’s overachiever ass.

1. He is not a protector of law, for superheroes are invariably vigilantes, who paradoxically break laws to protect them or some shit.

Crossposted to the NoScans_Daily community

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