Why Don’t Superheroes Change the World?
Some stories take place in fantastic worlds very different from our own, exciting and astounding audiences. Other stories take place in worlds so realistic we can believe they are happening to real people in real life. Superhero stories are somewhere between these two extremes: most of them take place in a world extremely similar to Earth but focus on people with extraordinary abilities.
This raises the question: how can worlds containing superheroes be so much like the real world, which has none? Wouldn’t science, technology, and medicine progress faster for everyone, not just the genius billionaires? Wouldn’t power shift away from governments and monarchies and toward the superpowered people? Why don’t superheroes fundamentally change the world?
Modern Myths of Gods Among Us
The earliest predecessors to modern superheroes were the gods of ancient mythologies. The Greeks believed the gods and goddesses lived on Mount Olympus, and they told stories of Olympians such as Zeus, Hermes, and Athena walking the Earth and interacting with mortals. The most common result of these mythical interactions was love affairs and half-divine children like Hercules. These children would usually go on to become heroes, slaying monsters and being eternally commemorated in constellations.
Greek myths also depict gods dramatically affecting the world. Persephone being trapped in the underworld for half of every year explains the changing of the seasons. The Trojan War, according to legend, was started by Aphrodite trying to set up a married woman with another man.
Ancient Greeks believed the actions of the gods had a major impact on the world. They explained thunderstorms by saying Zeus was angry, they claimed gods shot them with arrows to make them fall in love, and they even blamed wars on the antics of the gods. They paid homage to the gods out of the belief that they would receive victory in war or a good harvest in return.
Ancient myths demonstrate people’s belief that beings as powerful as the gods would inevitably impact the world where they existed. However, a significant difference between the Greek gods of myth and modern superheroes is the gods were terrible people. Many myths paint them as weak of character; they repeatedly had affairs with mortals and interfered in each other’s divine plans despite rules prohibiting these things. Most humans who offended them ended up transformed into animals for the rest of their lives or doomed to torturous fates after their deaths.
Superheroes, on the other hand, are known for following rules and promoting mutual respect. The stark contrast between the worlds they protect and the world the Greek gods rule over shows a great reason why superheroes should restrain themselves. They protect continuity by avoiding acting like gods.
Marvel: World of Open Secrets
Some may consider the “superhero worlds sticking to the status quo” phenomenon a plot hole, but solutions are often presented within the universe. In Marvel Comics, the very sources of things that could change the world, like the nation of Wakanda or the mutant population, intentionally hold themselves back.
In the Marvel movie Black Panther, the fictional country of Wakanda has technology that could revolutionize every part of the world, from life-saving surgery to fashion. The leaders of Wakanda do not share this technology with the rest of the world, however, because they have seen how people have handled the resources they do have: almost always fighting each other over something. This same mindset can be applied to most of the well-meaning characters who keep their world-changing secrets to themselves. It is the same philosophy that often motivates superheroes to keep their identities secret.
In the Marvel universe, mutants are born with superpowers and ostracized for it. Professor Charles Xavier provides a safe haven for young mutants at his School for the Gifted. Xavier’s rival, Magneto, rules a country called Genosha, which is also a sanctuary for mutants. Another group calling themselves the Morlocks hides in sewers. These mutants could use their powers to take whatever they want, but most of them choose to hide away. Fear of being judged is stronger than any desire they may have to rule the world.
The government agency SHIELD also prevents the world from changing too much as the super-people population rises. In the pilot episode of Agents of SHIELD, an agent shares what is effectively the agency’s mission statement: “We’re the line between the world and the much weirder world. We protect people from news they aren’t ready to hear. And when we can’t do that, we keep them safe.”
The objectives of organizations like SHIELD include keeping alien technology away from the public, for their own protection, and monitoring and sometimes imprisoning superhumans. If it wasn’t for these organizations, the public would know much more about superpowered phenomena than they already do, but there would also be many more dangerous superpower events. These worlds would not get the chance to be changed if they were destroyed by supervillains or naïve civilians with alien technology.
The Much Weirder World
Some comic book stories have explored the possibilities of what would happen if superpowered phenomena were set loose to alter the world. Some are “what if” versions of stories we already know, like Marvel or DC Comics. For example, an alternate version of Superman who was raised in Soviet Russia remakes the world according to Soviet values in Superman: Red Son.
Watchmen by Alan Moore explores a full-on alternate history with superheroes in it. Masked vigilantes insert themselves into several historical events, and a nuclear-powered superhero, Dr. Manhattan, helps America end the war in Vietnam in 1971. Rather than taking control of the world like a god, Dr. Manhattan leaves Earth, feeling too out-of-place among humanity to be their savior or their ruler.
Both Watchmen and stories of Superman have a super-genius antagonist character who mistrusts the god-like protagonist: Ozymandias and Lex Luthor, respectively. They both believe it is more likely for a quasi-deity like Superman or Dr. Manhattan to have a negative long-term impact on the world and humanity than a lasting benevolent impact. These antagonists seek to dethrone the protagonists through classic supervillain antics, in Lex Luthor’s case, or breaking humanity’s faith in its quasi-deity, in Ozymandias’ case.
Characters like Lex Luthor and Ozymandias have the same goals as organizations like SHIELD: preventing super-beings from changing the world around them because they believe maintaining the status quo is for the best. With characters like these holding back the forces of change, it is much more believable that these worlds remain so similar to the real worlds.
In 1984, Alan Moore released a comic book series called Miracleman, which began as a soft reboot of a classic story from the 50’s and ended as a jarring deconstruction of the superhero genre. It explored a realistic take on the effect of superheroes on the world, culminating in a pseudo-utopia ruled by god-like super-beings. However, the series’ finale also ended with dramatic violence as a super-being massacred several mortals while receiving nary a scratch.
Stories like Miracleman suggest that Lex Luthor and Ozymandias are right to assume that super-beings would squash humanity like insects if left unchecked. This may be more realistic than the mainstream superhero stories we are familiar with, but many audiences would dislike such a cynical outlook.
Supervillains Change the World
It is a significant trend across all genres of fiction that heroes are reactive to villains’ actions. Classic superheroes play the role of a protector, and until the city or the world are threatened, they are content to live out civilian identities. Then supervillains come along with goals and desires, and if they get what they want, the people under the hero’s protection will be harmed.
The other result would be the world changing. For example, many supervillains are mad scientists who believe in “progress” through bizarre science experiments with little regard for public health and safety. Their visions for the world include humanity being enslaved by robots or turned into monkeys. By thwarting these plans, superheroes maintain the status quo.
Superheroes may have goals and desires that are more benevolent, but they do not proactively try to change the world around them for a couple reasons. One is that people tend to fear the unknown, so the general public may hesitate to accept help from these extraordinary people. The other reason is that the heroes value humanity’s free will and do not want to make significant choices for them. They believe people can make progress on their own, even if it takes a while, and they hope to inspire people to do so.
When superheroes deviate from this trend, they become a bit like the supervillains they fight. A notable example is Injustice, the video game/comic book series/movie depicting an alternate DC Comics universe. This world’s version of Superman, suffering from traumatic grief, seeks to prevent crime and conflict on Earth by executing criminals instead of sending them to prison. The heroes who disagree with him launch a revolution against him because they consider him just as bad as any supervillain, despite his best intentions.
Stick to the Status Quo
Usually, superheroes play the role of reactive protector because that is the role the writers wrote for them. Writers know a world where superheroes have preemptively eradicated crime would not interest readers. A similar mindset explains why the genius scientists who routinely defy physics have not eradicated disease in their universes. Mr. Freeze, one of Batman’s villains, is pushed to a life of crime when his wife is dying of an incurable disease. Heroes and people close to them get cancer, and they apparently can’t fight it as easily as they fight alien invaders.
The direct answer to this apparent problem is it wouldn’t be interesting if superheroes cured disease. It is much more interesting to watch heroes deal with the reality of disease the same way readers deal with it in real life. Heroes facing their own mortality and the mortality of their loved ones choose to continue making noble decisions, despite having valid reasons not to, and readers can be inspired to do the same thing.
The same philosophy applies to the various other problems writers do not allow their superhero characters to solve, as well as the various advances superheroes are not allowed to make. Changing the world too much would likely alienate readers because the heroes would be too unrelatable if they solved their problems so easily. When they face real-world scenarios, from disease to paying rent, and don’t solve them immediately, they inspire readers who deal with the same scenarios without superpowers.
Stories where superheroes are allowed to change the world demonstrate that, although it may be more realistic, it wouldn’t necessarily be good for the world or humanity. Characters like Lex Luthor and organizations like SHIELD understand the risk of this possibility and try to prevent it. Even the superheroes themselves often sacrifice the potential benefits of proactively changing the world in order to avoid the downsides.
In the end, superheroes are meant to be inspirational. It’s easier for them to inspire audiences when some of the problems they deal with are the same problems we deal with. We may not be able to do everything Superman can do, but we can use the gifts and talents we have to help people the same way he does. We can make our world better little by little, just like our heroes.
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