We’re doing it again, kids.
Every now and then since their debut somebody has to come along and trash the very concept of the superhero. From Fredric Wertham to Bill Maher the elitists either regulate superheroes to “kids stuff” (as if that’s an insult or makes them lesser stories) or come down on them for corrupting people. And the more you read or listen to their words the more you realize that they have no idea what they’re talking about.
The latest attack comes from Time Magazine, in an article by Eliana Dockterman entitled “We’re Reconsidering Cops On TV, But What About Superheroes?”. In case you haven’t heard a number of people have subverted the rightful anger at the murder of George Floyd by four police officers (and I use that term on a technicality) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I’m not going to get into all that because this isn’t a politics blog, it’s a storytelling blog by a man who wants to write science fiction and superhero stories. Where this comes into BW territory is that going after the police themselves isn’t enough. They also want to take down any program that shows a police officer in anything resembling a positive light, as if they’re human beings or something. Again, not our usual discussion topic so I haven’t said much about it beyond that I was online when the Paw Patrol attacks happened because of Chase the police dog and despite what some of my friends think I didn’t get the impression it was a joke.
Superheroes however are totally in the wheelhouse, so Dockterman’s attack on them I’m totally ready to stand up against on this site. This is yet another commentary written by someone who doesn’t know anything about the genre they’re talking about. I’m betting she’s never actually watched any of these movies, used Wikipedia as her lone info source, and felt qualified to make her attack because I don’t she’s paid any more attention to the genre than Wertham and Maher have. Did Lex Luthor buy the magazine?
After going on for two short paragraphs about cop shows being shut down for daring to highlight what an officer actually does on patrol, she gets on to her main topic.
But as we engage in this long overdue conversation about law enforcement, it’s high time we also talk about the most popular characters in film, the ones who decide the parameters of justice and often enact them with violence: superheroes.
Note that the only time superVILLAINS are brought up is in passing when mentioning the Suicide Squad. Superheroes are usually meeting violence in kind and I think the dude mugging a family on the street qualifies as dispensing justice. Unlike what Zack Snyder would have you believe a “real” superhero would do most superheroes leave their baddies for the police to arrest and with enough actual evidence to send them to jail.
Superheroes have dominated popular culture for the last decade—they are fixtures of the highest-grossing movies and icons to more than just our children. They are beacons of inspiration: protesters dressed as Spider-Man and Batman have turned up at recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations. And yet what are superheroes except cops with capes who enact justice with their powers?
Then why would Black Lives Matter, a group whose mission is to continue the race war, dress up as superheroes? Batman has been known to deal with corrupt cops, especially in tales set during the early days of his battles in Gotham City since Jim Gordon was one of a handful of good police officers in the city. Comics like Black AF (the “AF” means what you probably think it means…points for not swearing on the cover I guess) and Ignited follow the themes of BLM and Antifa if they’re so much in favor of police? Is it okay when they attack people because they’re supposedly or cartoonishly racist?
With a few notable exceptions (more on those later), most superhero stories star straight, white men who either function as an extension of a broken U.S. justice system or as vigilantes without any checks on their powers. Usually, they have some sort of tentative relationship with the government: The Avengers work for the secretive agency S.H.I.E.L.D….
Not really. SHIELD, as part of their job to protect the world from international threats to the US (not counting the various times Hydra, the Nazi group that now isn’t or something because it was supposed to be a space alien cult that got turned into the Nazi’s R&D department or…yeah, let’s not fall down the rabbit hole here) monitors the Avengers but even in the two continuities (MCU and Ultimate Universe) where they started the organization the Avengers went off on their own. They have also at times told their overseers to get lost when they did something untrustworthy, like in the Heroes Reborn universe or numerous times in the main Marvel Univese.
…Batman takes orders from Gotham police commissioner Gordon…
No, he doesn’t. There was one serial that Batman and Robin were depicted as working for the government out of fear that seeing vigilantes running around in World War II would be corrupting or something as they fought Japanese spies. Otherwise Gordon at best asks for help against some of the nastier supercriminals out there or on cases where the trail has run cold. Batman is basically the Mentalist, Sherlock, or Richard Castle.
…even the villainous members of the Suicide Squad execute government orders in exchange for commuted prison sentences. And even when superheroes function outside the justice system, they’re sometimes idolized by police because they are able to skirt the law to “get the job done.”
Except when they’re not. Spider-Man is constantly dealing with the police who want to either arrest or question him. Batman and Superman had to run from the police in their early years. Heck, the Green Hornet’s cover is being a criminal and only in the TV show did anyone in law enforcement know he was actually running a…pun fully intended I’d wager…a “sting operation”. Black Scorpion was also on the run from cops, and she was one. And some of those cops were also corrupt. There are plenty of stories where superheroes fight corrupt cops…and for that matter stories where COPS fought corrupt cops.
Then she brings up how a few police officers and soldiers had put the Punisher’s skull symbol on their cars or other gear as a show of mutual support, and I do agree that was incredibly stupid of them. Frank Castle (no relation or even connection to Richard Castle earlier) murders mobsters and other criminals as an act of vengeance for his family being caught in the crossfire of a mob battle. He is not supposed to be emulated. Like Charles Bronson in Death Wish or to a more questionable extent Michael Douglas’s character in Falling Down the Punisher (who is not a superhero by the way, he’s a dude with guns and a symbol that somehow nobody is calling an incel or a case of toxic masculinity despite a case being made for the latter) is more cathartic for all of these criminal elements who manage to evade the law than anything cops or soldiers should be using. Please stop doing that.
The Punisher is representative of a larger problem in superhero narratives. When Batman ignores orders and goes rogue, there’s no oversight committee to assess whether Bruce Wayne’s biases influence who he brings to justice and how. Heroes like Iron Man occasionally feel guilt about the casualties they inflict, but ultimately empower themselves again and again to draw those moral lines.
That’s because they’re fictional, miss. Ms. Whatever you prefer, it’s hard to tell what anybody goes by these days without a program and I don’t want to unintentionally insult anyone just because I disagree with them. Now if they’re a horrible person, and I have no direct evidence she is, that’s another story but I’m getting off track. Heroes do have a code of honor. Writers give them one because they want the readers to cheer them on as the good guys (or girls). Some have tighter ones than others, and some have to bend that code for the greater good but they do everything possible to save innocent lives without needing to. That’s the benefit of fiction. They don’t cross that line and the only bias belongs to the writers.
Most of the blockbuster Marvel and DC comics movies skirt the issue of who should define justice for whom. Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice briefly float the idea of superhero oversight but both devolve into quip-filled CGI fistfights. (In fairness, the Civil War storyline in the Marvel comics more thoughtfully plumbs the depths of that socio-political debate.)
Apparently she doesn’t realize that not all superhero stories are supposed to deal with the sociopolitical (one world according to my spell check, whatever your editor thinks…assuming big name websites and magazines like Time have those anymore) debates. In fact a lot of works of fiction do not look at the ramification because they aren’t set in the real world. They’re meant to be fun adventures, an escape from life. If they can work a message into their theme and still be entertaining, fine. It doesn’t all have to be proselytizing or social activism. It can be but it doesn’t HAVE to be. Except to elitists and demagogues like Ms. Dockerman, as you’ll see momentarily.
More recently, racial injustice has become the centerpiece for some superhero films. The clearest example of that shift is Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s 2018 superhero movie that takes as its main subject the oppression of BIPOC people worldwide.
That movie is still on the Finally Watched list so I can’t comment on. You know what I can comment on? The Meteor Man, a Robert Townsend movie from 1993 that dealt with black on black crime and was created by creator and star Robert Townsend to give black kids a superhero that could lead them out of that cycle and pursue something better in life. You know, a black Superman analog that folks generally ignored because it wasn’t Hollywood Shuffle or his HBO specials where sex and bad language was all over the place. Jefferson Reed didn’t talk about “doing the nasty” or put blame on white people and you pretend it doesn’t exist despite being the actual first superhero movie with an all-black cast. (I think there was one white villain the Golden Lords worked for. I need to watch that movie again.)
Heck, the climax of that movie has Reed losing his powers and the whole neighborhood comes together to stand by him and chase the gang out of the area. It’s a positive movie about making your lives better by coming together and pushing back. There’s also a scene where he gets the cops and gang bangers to stop fighting. Maybe watch it some time.
It’s not just that superheroes act like members of law enforcement; sometimes they interact with them directly. Spider-Man has long had a complicated relationship with the NYPD. Last year’s Spider-Man video game received some pushback over what many critics called “copaganda.” In that game, Peter Parker is a fan of the police, even fantasizing about being “Spider cop.” He spends much of the game fixing surveillance towers for the NYPD.
I left the CBR link there because I saw this line by writer Samantha Puc:
Setting aside Yuri’s slow descent into becoming a ruthless killer — which boasts its own set of problems, seeing as she’s a woman of color — Peter’s firm alliance with the NYPD is disturbing in its banality. As noted by several critics following Spider-Man‘s release in 2018, Peter handing over criminals and villains to the cops is bad, but what’s worse is that one of the main missions in the game is to fix broken surveillance towers that monitor activity throughout Manhattan.
Wait, superheroes shouldn’t be taking the law into their own hands but they shouldn’t hand them over to the police? What are they supposed to do, LET supervillains murder people, steal things, and take over the world to show you what a real fascist is like? As far as Yuri, who is a police officer seeking revenge on Marvel Universe crime family the Maggia in the PlayStation game because they killed her policeman father, the article doesn’t mention if Spidey talks her out of it. It does mention that it’s problematic because she’s a woman of color, as if being a white male cop would make it okay to follow the Punisher’s lead. Of course all she sees is skin color and gender, not a thought-out character with understandable motivations (I’m assuming…and lately hoping for) and the fact that Officer Watanabe is a non-white woman doesn’t matter, like she’s just a human being or something and not a label. As for Spidey helping fix surveillance towers I’d have to see the scene in question to confidently comment on because surface viewing and little makes for ignorant commentaries (which I only do in preview situations or where I’ve heard so much info about it that I have a strong idea of what it is, like with Batman V Superman but not Rise Of Skywalker) but I do have my issues with the surveillance craze in law enforcement myself, even if they are trying to stop terrorists who have hit New York and Boston quite often in recent years. Plus it means cop cams aren’t the only way to keep track of what the police are doing…provided the news stations and sites show us the whole event in proper context.
But the introduction of Miles Morales, who made his debut in the comics in 2011, could offer opportunities to explore the contentious relationship between New Yorkers and police. Miles, who is half-Black, half-Puerto Rican, is the son of a cop. In 2018’s animated Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, Miles’ father doesn’t know his son’s secret identity. Miles spends much of the movie trying to reconcile his father’s love for him with his dislike for Spider-Man as a vigilante.
So he’s allowed to acknowledge his bi-racial nature because neither of his parents are white I guess. Again, were commentaries on race relations ever part of Miles’ backstory? (Also wasn’t he created by the same white guy who recently damaged Superman? For that matter Black Panther and Wakanda were created by two Jewish men, so anyone out there going “Wakanda Forever” owes that to the Jews. So you can’t support T’Challa and be antisemitic, which you shouldn’t be anyway. That’s what actual Nazis were like.) Not every story has to be a commentary on the outside world. It can just be a good superhero adventure story and while Marvel has never been shy about addressing “the world outside your window” it doesn’t mean everything has to. Especially since I suspect if they have any nice officers, even Miles’ father, you and the other elitists will throw a fit.
Then the article goes on to praise Watchmen for portraying superheroes as a bunch of jerks. Bet you’d love The Boys as well. Their TV spinoff doesn’t have police officers as superheroes, which she calls out at one point even though she’s black, angry, and going after a Klan stand-in. (Is that the guys that are corrupting Rorschach’s mask?)
Still, the comic was a product of its time and its storylines that have not all aged well. Damon Lindelof’s 2019 HBO series adapted from the comic “remixes” the original story and serves as a spiritual sequel. (In recognition of its relevance to the current moment, HBO made all episodes briefly available to watch for free over the Juneteenth holiday weekend.) Unlike Moore’s story, which ultimately becomes a tale of white men fighting over power, Lindelof’s show begins with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
So the HBO series ignores the theme of Alan Moore’s tale of “what my cynical backside thinks would happen if superheroes were real and taking shots at Richard Nixon” for a story about the race war. Meanwhile one of the “heroes” (none of the superheroes in Watchmen are actually heroes and that was his point and goal) in the show is a black cop fighting the KKK stand-in for the series, as if no white people would be in favor of shutting down those hateful blasphemers. Did you not hear about the time the Superman radio show creators exposed the Klan as scumbags when such groups were still relevant instead of pocket groups of angry losers? They’re still a problem to deal with but hardly the threat they used to be.
Writers must also shake the notion that they are bound by the strictures of outdated intellectual property. These days, few big-budget projects move forward unless they are based on existing IP. But the success of Watchmen suggests that creators can snatch up those familiar characters and still weave a new story, with new politics and a new perspective, using only fragments of what came before. Just as the Watchmen series is a radical departure from a dusty Reagan-era graphic novel, both Black Panther and Into the Spiderverse borrowed the names and backstories of their main characters from the comics but took those characters in new and ambitious directions.
So here’s a crazy thought: create NEW PROPERTIES that don’t demand you turn something you hate into something you love and the hell with the fans of the original. You’re calling Watchmen outdated because it doesn’t address the issues you personally think are important, and that even rom coms should be propaganda pieces. Meanwhile I still want to see an interracial romance story that ISN’T focuses solely on the racial divide. Instead it’s always about how black people and white people shouldn’t date and ignoring biracial kids altogether. COMMERCIALS are more inclusive. COMMERCIALS!!!!!
The article ends with the writer asking for more people of color and women to get jobs in the industry for the sole reason of creating more divisive propaganda pieces instead of good stories (because they aren’t capable of doing both apparently). That’s all people like this really want. Not good stories but a 24/7 hate rage against whatever social topic is popular at the time. Superheroes represent the best of us, people coming together to use their powers, technology, or unique skills to attempt to make the world a better place for everyone. Actor Dean Cain, a police officer and a half-Japanese man who could still play Superman and did so for Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman, discussed this article on Fox News and I like what he said.
“Then she says, ‘Hollywood heroizes cops.’ You can destroy that in one, just a list of titles: Training Day, Serpico, The Departed, The Wire, BlackKklansman, Rampart, Rambo. I mean the list goes on and on. A bad cop is a great villain because they are not supposed to be bad.”
“The only thing she does right in this whole article is equate police officers to superheroes in some fashion because police officers, I promise you, these men and women are heroes. When there is trouble they run to it and they do their best just like the canine dogs on Paw Patrol.”
We can learn a lot from puppy first responders. There’s no racism in Adventure Bay (who has a black mayor), everyone gets along except for the jerk mayor of a neighboring city (whose white and love kitties even though they can’t talk in this universe), and everybody’s happy. I like their world better than ours.