When Politics and Superheroes Come Together

December 12, 2014

Youmight think that superheroes appear in comics, TV series, and movies just to entertain the young and have nothing to do with the real world, least of all with politics. If so, you cannot be farther from the truth.

Dr. Cosmina Tanasoiu, Professor of European Politics, delivered a lecture on “Politics and Superheroes” to AUBG students and faculty in Panitza Library on Tuesday evening. Organized by the Department of Politics and European Studies, the event aimed to help students relax before the upcoming final exams.

Tanasoiu opened the event by acknowledging that the idea of discussing such an unusual topic “came as a sort of pressure” following her lecture on “Politics and Fantasy Cinema: From Machiavelli to The Game of Thrones” a year ago. She was wandering in the Swiss Alps when a friend said that “there is always a superman” in our world. This simple utterance was more than enough to goad Tanasoiu’s imagination into motion.

Popular culture does not operate in a vacuum. Instead, it both reflects and generates the social and political values of our world, Tanasoiu said. While they have become ubiquitous recently, superheroes have been around, in one form or another, for thousands of years simply because society has always sought someone to address and solve the problems that ordinary human beings cannot solve on their own.

Tanasoiu pointed to Ancient Greece as a case in point. Carrying the characteristics of both men and gods or goddesses, Hercules, Achilles, and others played an important role in the way the ancient Greeks explained developments around them through the power of myths. But it is not only about myths. Historical figures such as Leonidas and Gilgamesh acquired such a prominent place in the Greeks’ worldview and imagination that they “grew into much larger than life characters,” Tanasoiu said.

It is thus no surprise that modern superheroes represent “semi-Gods,” displaying both “a human dimension and a godly dimension.” It was the birth of Superman in 1938 that ushered in the era of the modern superheroes. They are therefore a product of and a reaction to the new social, economic, and political realities, including the ever greater mechanization of our lives and the general public’s frustration with mainstream religion. The attributes that make superheroes exceptional include unique physical strength or mental capabilities, a secret identity, and a dilemma between glory and family. More recently, relativity and morality have also come into play, as movies like The Dark Knight show. Because there is no objective truth, superheroes like Batman can also make mistakes.

Superheroes can be grouped in four different categories depending on their personal stories, said Tanasoiu. While Superman is a born superhero, Batman and Iron Man are essentially self-made superheroes because their development is only possible thanks to money. For this reason, they belong to “a much more exclusive world” and propagate the American Dream myth, according to which everybody can become successful provided that they work hard and persist in their pursuits. Spiderman and the Fantastic Four belong to the third category of accidental superheroes, as they emerge only after a particular life-changing experience, such as being bitten by a spider. The last category includes engineered superheroes like Captain America who come into being as a result of the US government’s hopes that he can solve their problems.

The world of superheroes has evolved significantly over time. Even though superheroes have tended to be predominantly male, there exist some prominent female ones too. For example, Wonder Woman first appeared in a US comic in the 1940s “to counter the male-dominated world” and act as a role model for girls, Tanasoiu pointed out. In addition, the industry’s focus has moved from individual superheroes, such as Superman or Batman, to collective superheroes, such as the Fantastic Four and the multiple hero leagues. This trend reflects not only globalization and multiculturalism but also the widespread understanding that cooperation is the only path to prosperity, Tanasoiu emphasized.

Superheroes are not without their critics, however. Some experts criticize the emphasis on violence in superhero movies, while others argue in support of “just violence” or the right of each person “to oppose authoritarianism,” Tanasoiu said. In a similar vein, some critics point to the superheroes’ tendency “to function outside the law to help the law function efficiently” as a subversive act, while others treat this phenomenon as a signal that the general public is fed up with bureaucratic politics and instead wants quick and efficient actions.

After the lecture, students and faculty enjoyed a small reception outside the library to celebrate yet another successful semester for the Department of Politics and European Studies.

Story by Daniel Penev
Photos by Anna Bashuk

We are Social