Superheroes don't exist to solve problems, they exist to punch bad guys

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The superheroes of popular film have little in common with the heroes of the real world.

In the real world, we celebrate the disruptors, the innovators, the paradigm shifters, and the crazy inventors — the people who bring about change and make things better for everyone around them. But in the fantasy realms where every physical trait can be amplified and every intellectual capability multiplied, all that our superheroes seem capable of doing is punching bad guys in the mouth and protecting the status quo.

Stripped to the essence of his character, Wolverine is basically a pair of fists with retractable claws and an indestructible human attached. When Hulk smashes, what does he smash with? The archetypal superhero is a hands-on vigilante clad in form-fitting lycra. Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, and The Flash all assert their heroism by busting small-time street criminals and delivering violent sermons on the importance of law and order. Why must they be so unambitious with their powers and yet so generous with their fists?

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Batman’s stated goal is to rid Gotham City of crime, but he rarely undertakes the actions that can tackle the causes rather than the effects of criminality. Bruce Wayne could use his lofty social standing to lobby for more education funding, tighter gun control, and a social safety net that would prevent young people from resorting to a life of crime. His wealth could be used to support drug clinics and foster prisoner rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism. Instead, he puts on a black mask and a husky voice and goes to pound hapless street thugs in the night.

Superman’s reduction to a punching machine — particularly prominent in his movie outings — is even less excusable than Batman’s since the Man of Steel actually has superhuman powers. He can hear, see, smell, and remember things in ways the rest of us can only dream of. His strength is otherworldly, and he can literally fly out into space on a whim. Think of all the impossible construction and exploration projects we could complete if we had a real Superman to help us. Instead, he gels his hair back, puts on a cape, and manhandles a different set of anonymous thugs to the ones Batman’s taking care of.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. It’s undeniable — whether you read the comics, watch the movies, or soak up the animated TV series — that superheroes are invariably busy countering one villain or another. How can Thor discover his (or her, depending on the era) real purpose in life if Loki’s constantly poking and prodding at the very fabric of existence? Most superheroes gain their powers through some calamitous event that leaves them emotionally or physically scarred. Dealing with one’s own dark history requires thoughtful introspection, so between that and all the kung fu training that everyone other than Neo has to do to qualify for heroic status, I can see how the time to think more broadly can become scarce.

But don’t we deserve a higher class of hero to match the Joker’s better class of criminal? Every news broadcast will tell you how terribly unfair and unjust the world is: from corruption in the highest echelons of power to basic lack of opportunity, the themes of iniquity are as ancient as human civilization itself. To be my hero, you have to do something to change these awful societal habits, not merely contain them. Batman celebrates the 75th anniversary of his debut this year, and in all that time the only thing he’s truly improved is the muscularity of his physique.

Why must the initiative and disruption always come from the supervillains? I’ve just watched Guardians of the Galaxy (late, I know), and I wonder what any of the heroes would be doing were it not for the bad guy stepping in to make things interesting. Their entire affiliation is predicated on having someone to guard against. The same applies to Star Wars without Darth Vader or X-Men without Magneto’s clique. The crazy thing about superhero tales is that, more often than not, they move to the rhythm of the active and dynamic anti-hero rather than the reactive and theatrically overdressed good guys.

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Just once, I’d like to see a superhero movie where the protagonist’s innate abilities are matched by a proactive mind that can solve problems without resorting to violence. There’s an easy symbolism in literally knocking out the baddie — one that’s echoed by Superman flying through the air with his fists clenched — but films don’t need to rely on it so often as to drain their heroes of all complexity and nuance. The original comics provide more rounded personalities to their heroes, though much of that richness is lost when they make the transition to film.

We are in the midst of a period of unprecedented popularity for superhero movies right now, which can mask those films’ basic inadequacies. But watch a more subversive fantasy like V for Vendetta and you’ll be reminded of all the character depth and narrative variety that’s sadly missing from the current crop of ham-fisted law enforcers. V’s enduring cultural resonance suggests that there’s room for more tales like his on the big screen. The world will always have a use for its superpowered pugilists, but it also needs superheroes that can set an example for positive change that’s brought about through force of will rather than the simple force of fists.

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