My favorite superheroes are not the ones who arrive from distant planets or alternate dimensions, endowed with impressive strength, the ability to fly, magical artifacts, psychic powers, and so on. Heroes like that are a lot of fun to watch, of course. No one can argue against the lasting appeal of heroes like Superman. But they aren’t my favorites.
My favorite superheroes are not even the secretive billionaires who use the profits from their enterprises to fight crime, build impressive machinery, and protect their true identities. I love their gadgetry and their fast cars. I’d like to go to their parties, though I’m pretty sure I’m not cool enough. But they aren’t my favorites, either.
My favorite superheroes are the ordinary guys who accidentally get bitten by a radioactive spider or coated in chemical X and wind up with powers they didn’t want or expect to have. I like the heroes who, on their bad days, can barely catch the bus on time. The ones who spill coffee on their shirts right before a big meeting with the boss. The ones who don’t fit. The ones who sometimes can’t quite manage.
These are my favorites.
They’re my favorites because their stories don’t tell us to look to the sky to save us, or to hope for help from a distant galaxy, or to put all our faith in the capabilities and powers of one person. Their stories don’t tell us that the way to make the world better is to let the guys with the fancy gadgets solve our problems. Their stories tell us that the people to put their faith in are the ones who work hard — the ones who are accidentally heroic at first, and then keep it up because their accidental powers turn out to come with great responsibilities. The ones who try to protect their homes, or families, or neighborhoods because they know them and love them — not because they think they know what’s best for everyone.
They tell us that the people who can save us are the ones who are pretty much like us.
I’ve been enjoying the new Marvel television series Daredevil for exactly this reason. Broke, blind, orphaned Matt Murdock is a scrappy lawyer living in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s true that the accident that made him blind heightened his other senses to an exceptional degree — allowing him to read print with the touch of a finger and to detect lies by hearing elevated heart rates. But as far as superheroes go, Murdock is one of the most ordinary of all. He has no healing ability and no super strength. When he gets hit, it hurts. And Murdock gets hit a lot.
But, as the song goes, when he gets knocked down, he gets back up again. And he keeps fighting the bad guys, despite his limited resources and his battered body. And he does it because he sees things that are wrong with his neighborhood, and he wants to fix them. He’s not a superhero, but he’s putting a lot of sweat and blood into trying to do superheroic things.
Daredevil’s personal investment in solving his community’s problems rather than holding out for a hero who can solve them for him is an especially important story as we head into yet another campaign season. (And it is no accident that Daredevil’s nemesis, the Kingpin, runs for office in a few of the comic book storylines and has at least one senator in his pocket.) Political campaigns, particularly at the national level, are all about trying to persuade voters that one candidate or another is the person who can save the world for you. Vote Candidate X into office and, like Superman, he’ll reverse the flow of time so that nothing bad will have ever happened. Vote Candidate Y into office and, like Batman, he’ll use his perfect command of circumstances and his perfect knowledge of the city to put all the bad people in jail. I’ve even seen a meme floating around on the web of Rand Paul’s face pasted onto Captain America’s body.
It’s no surprise, really, that we blur the lines between politicians and superheroes. Virginia Postrel’s book The Power of Glamour uses politicians like JFK and Obama, as well as superheroes like Superman, as prototypical examples of glamour. They entice us. They make us yearn for a better world.
That yearning isn’t entirely a bad thing. It can inspire change and movement and improvement. But so often in politics and in comics, it means that we’re all looking around while the world collapses, waiting for someone in a cape to come put it back together. Instead, we could be Matt Murdock, picking ourselves up (again), patching up our wounds, and trying to fix it ourselves.
If we could get past this urge to wish that politicians were superheroes, ready to sweep in and save us, maybe we could begin to think of ourselves as the accidental not-so-super heroes we have been waiting for.
You can find a Portuguese version of this article here