Protest Backlash and the Failings of a Superhero Culture

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) -Chris Evans - Photofest -H 2019
Jay Maidment/Paramount Pictures/Photofest
We gorge on stories of heroes in masks, yet we still don't understand justice, writes The Hollywood Reporter contributor Richard Newby.

America is a culture dominated by superhero stories, men and women in masks taking their fights to the streets, buildings becoming collateral damage in the struggle for survival. Yet when black people, clad in COVID masks, do this in real life, for a real cause, that’s not aliens or robots, but nothing less than our right to exist, we are labeled “criminals,” “thugs” and “terrorists.” The destruction of property is given more weight and tears than the destruction of black lives. At the same time, those in the highest level of government, and those inciting violence under the pretense of “to serve and protect” are coded as heroes by a significant part of the media, and the policies that govern this country. They’re not heroes because of their actions, but because of their position as authority figures, and the inherent racism that exists within the institutions that give them that power. A culture dominated by superhero stories and we, as a country, still don’t understand justice.

Over the past two weeks we’ve been inundated with images and videos from the protests that have swept America following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers, separate incidents in what have become a painfully common occurrence in America. I’ve been grappling with this over the weeks, on-top of struggling with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in February, on top of struggling with all the murders of black men and women before that. To be black in America is to be caught in a never-ending cycle of struggle and anger — of powerlessness. I’ve been grappling with my own anger, and how others have responded to this anger. I’ve thought a lot about what justice means in this country, how its perceived, and how its power is harnessed, and it has led me to believe that America’s investment in superhero media has ultimately betrayed us. This isn’t a conversation of quality, but of what audiences are taking away from these stories, and how they have, intentionally or not, conditioned too many Americans to misconstrue the plight of African-Americans.

For nearly 20 years, we’ve glorified superhero stories onscreen, and watched these images of mostly white costumed heroes dominate our cinemas with increasing demand. But how much of America is really seeing these stories and images for what they are? Rarely does it seem like these characters, who are our biggest commodities with the biggest platforms, have been used to the same degree of social effectiveness that they were in the '40s, at least not for the demographics who need them the most. It has become increasingly apparent to me as a black man, especially in the past couple weeks as non-black people have taken issue with black anger and sought to police our feelings and the methods of our protest, and have muddled our actions with those of opportunists, that there is a vast divide between the American moviegoing audiences, a largely white demographic, who clamor for these stories of superheroes, and those who truly understand their messages. I’ve been reading and watching these superhero stories all of my life. I’ve chronicled, collected, studied them, and made a career out of it. If these stories are our modern myths, which I consider them to be, then they have to have some impact on our values and the way we live. It has to be more than escapism and easy answers.

I’d argue it’s not difficult for most Americans to understand why Nazis are villainous. The awareness to that kind of surface-level villainy has been ingrained in us, partly through comic books’ continued use of Nazi villains like Red Skull, Master Man, Captain Nazi, and Paul von Gunter, originally as a means to support the war efforts during World War II, and now a means to create a clear cut line dividing good and evil. But Nazis aren’t an American burden, and so there’s no guilt invested in their villainy. So even now, when social media accounts refer to the alt-right, KKK, and police as Nazis, sometimes hyperbolically and sometimes not, it lessens the American responsibility and burden.

Racism is an American burden, the American burden, that is built within the foundations of the country. It is the evil that is systemic and entrenched in our government and symbols of authority. Look at the footage of the police instigating violence against peaceful protestors, and Trump calling for military force against Americans crying for justice, while holding up a Bible like some kind of perverted Bat-signal calling for his red-capped MAGA base. It’s clear that the police as an institution, and the current President of the United States, are the villains in this situation. That’s difficult for many non-black Americans to grapple with, particularly when it comes to the police and few can resist the cry “not all cops.” But I’m tired of hearing fables about the “good cops,” who are no more real to me than the characters conceived in the pages of comic books. There is a widespread, national issue of an inherent racism in policing and a lack of accountability that wouldn’t exist if there were “good cops.”

Part of this American desire to cling to the notion of “good cops” comes from the fact that our superhero movies, even when presenting these masked characters as outsiders and vigilantes, are almost always partnered with the police or some government entity. The language of comic books, of good guys and bad guys is coded into the government’s language. Last weekend Trump retweeted conservative commentator Buck Sexton’s statement, “This isn’t going to stop until the good guys are willing to use overwhelming force against the bad guys.”

Footage from last weekend’s protests showcased someone dressed in a Batman costume, walking through tear gas. Immediately social media gravitated to the idea of that reality was imitating the climax of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), in which Gotham’s poor and downtrodden rise up against Bane, the payoff to Jim Gordon’s concerns about escalation brought up at the end of Batman Begins (2005).

But we shouldn’t forget that in the movie, those rioters were backed by Gotham’s entire police force. Similarly, a man dressed as Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker was seen at one of the protests, but as reliant as Todd Phillips’ film is on class uprising, it still feels separate from the Black Lives Matter movement and it’s appropriation during this time feels like more of an excuse for white people to smash up storefronts and live out an anarchist fantasy. If we go to the other side of the aisle and look at Marvel’s comic book offerings, we have The Avengers backed by the NYPD, and the vast majority of those characters — Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Nick Fury — are tied to the government. Even when the evils embedded within that government are rooted out, like HYDRA was in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), we once again run into the issue that these stories suggest the opponents of justice come from outside of America, from a Germany of the past, which for all it matters to our real world threats, might as well be outer space. Seeing white characters fight against white adversaries, who for all intents and purposes are already defeated, is why representation in these films is such an important issue.

When it comes to black superheroism, Black Panther (2018) stands out as the most oft-used example. Even in the midst of these protests, the rapper T.I. called for rioting to end in Atlanta, Georgia, because it was “Wakanda.” But it isn’t, even metaphorically speaking. Wakanda is an African nation, unblemished by slavery, colonization, and a need for reparations. The film, as powerful as it may be in some regards, doesn’t aid the perception of the Black Lives Matters cause in America, or validate the anger of African-Americans. Even in its role of presenting America with an image of black people to hold onto, it presents an African people on the defensive, rather than the offensive. In the film, Wakandans are called upon to defend their country from outside forces, led by a radicalized black man no less. But our current situation in America sees masked black people on the offensive, which is a rarely seen image in our superhero media. So while white people in their COVID masks, camo and American flag patterns can walk down the street with assault rifles because they want salons and bars to open, unarmed black people who just want to live are something to fear and villainize, even by the media outlets that should have our backs.

For the most part, superheroes are no longer depicted as dangerous, as outsiders with the power to affect the status quo like Superman did in his first appearance in 1938. Onscreen many have essentially become cops and feds. Even those characters who once served as allegories for the racial injustice in America, like the X-Men, have become largely embraced, and institutionalized, the allegories they were once a part of lost on many Americans who believe that racism and the black fight for civil rights ended in the '60s. Recently, in his live commentary for Logan (2017), director James Mangold highlighted his complicated relationship with superhero stories saying, “I love the mythic values of them. They're morality tales of a modern age. But I hate they often reaffirm an idea that God will save us. That we as mortals bear no responsibility for our lives…The movie is, for me, undeniably political. About an age when we hide in consumerism, distracted in fantasy, as our real world burns." Mangold’s concerns reflect my own. As much as I love these stories, they do little to actually confront the real and present issues humans are facing, and fail to inspire us to reckon with our behavior as myths should.

It's interesting that the stories that do push against the status quo, that aren’t interested in a love affair with cops or government, are the ones that prove to be the most controversial. One of the central reasons Zack Snyder’s Superman impacts me, and the many people of color who are fans of that depiction who I’ve encountered over the years, is because the Superman of Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman (2016), even though coded as white, is an outsider fighting against corruption in a nation that fears him and criticizes his every move and every effort to preserve his own life, and those of others. And only when he’s dead is his impact felt.

HBO’s Watchmen, created by Damon Lindelof, presents an even more insightful depiction of how superhero stories matter in terms of racial justice, with the character of The Hooded Justice aka Will Reeves (Jovan Adepo/Louis Gossett Jr.). Reeves, a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots, becomes one of the first black cops in New York City and his discovery that the cops are secretly part of the KKK leads to his lynching and rebirth as a superhero, one who had to hide his race beneath his costume, because, once again, black offensive action is something to fear and suppress. But as Reeves tells his granddaughter, Angela (Regina King), who still fights the same fight against cops deeply imbedded in the KKK, “You can’t heal under a mask. … Wounds need air.”

Black Americans can’t breathe. We’ve been choking and wounded for a long time, and we need air. America is in the midst of a true “masks off” moment in which people are truly revealing themselves, as either allies or not, as part of the movement or not, and as heroes or villains. But the way in which we think of heroism and villainy has to change. Heroes fight for the oppressed. Police and politicians are not oppressed, and they cannot stand against protestors, attack them, fire tear gas and rubber bullets at them and be seen as heroes, not anymore.

A video of actress and activist Keke Palmer asking the National Guard to march with her and the protestors has been making the rounds over the past couple days. The guardsman says he’ll kneel with them, and Palmer says, “that ain’t enough for me.”

I agree with Palmer’s sentiment. That’s not enough. And if the pop culture that we cling to, that influences our decisions and perceptions during these times of strife, can’t find a way to tackle real issues, to tackle institutional racism and police brutality, then their value as morality tales, as myths, as the centerpiece of our pop-culture, are not enough. When I look at these superhero stories now in the context of America’s racial history, and the power they’ve held over us, I think about Will Reeves' estimation of Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen, “considering what he could do…well, he coulda done more.” If justice is going to matter in this country, then both our American culture and pop culture have to do more.