The Metatextual Superpowers of Popular Superheroes
The superpower is, of course, the defining characteristic of a superhero. It’s how they earn that title, typically. While superhero texts usually do everything they can to call our attention to a superhero’s unique power-set, there are often downright superhuman qualities written into the narrative that the writers very much do not want you to think about. Yet here we are. Here we are…
Superpower: All of them – even ones that haven’t been invented yet. If this month’s plot calls for them, it will turn out that he has them.
Metatextual Superpowers: Ability to keep a positive attitude in the face of human depravity.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously declared: “battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster. And when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Alan Moore famously quoted the line in Watchmen in order to help establish a rationale for Rorschach’s psychopathy. In both iterations, the point is that you can’t see the most horrible things imaginable and remain unaffected. Superman, however, can. He has spent decades dealing with lynch-mobs, and murderers, and genocidal maniacs. He has stopped every kind of crime against humanity, and yet he still wears his brightest red underoos and waves them in our face alongside his positive faith in humanity. Crotch-bulge and unwavering positivity – these are the things we are most dramatically confronted with in Superman narratives. He is an alien, of course, but seems to be emotionally affected in the same way human beings are (he can pass, essentially), except here. Any rational being who has seen the shit that Superman has seen comes out of that angry like the Comedian in Watchmen, or crazy like Rorscach, or maybe even just callous like Manhattan. Superman, though, holds on, improbably, and we love him for it so much that we flip out when Zach Snyder has him murder Zod.
Superpower: Strength, Agility, Wisdom, etc
Metatextual Superpower: Sexual Obliviousness.
Imagine if Superman decided to fight crime in nothing but a jock strap, but imagine it within a realistic context. What would actually happen is people would point it out to him. They’d laugh. They’d take and post inappropriate selfies. Above all, someone would point out to him that it’s hard to take him seriously, given his attire. Wonder Woman is in the same boat, but nobody’s blinking. She wears very revealing outfits and tends to pose in incredibly awkward (painful even) postures that sometimes defy the laws of physics…and spines. The reason is obvious. There’s a double-standard when it comes to superhero eroticism, and Wonder Woman needs to be visually sexualized, but not narratively compromised. So, in order to allow her to be a character we can root for AND lust over, she has to be ignorant to the visual spectacle that she creates. This requires a tremendous amount of suspension of disbelief on the reader’s part, but they’ve been making it happen for decades and decades with very few notable disruptions.
Superpower: Shoots beams of concussive force from his eyeballs.
Metatextual Superpower: He keeps getting shit on to a ridiculous degree, yet his character somehow doesn’t descend into comedy for it.
Charlie Brown just wants to kick that football. “This time, for sure,” Lucy tells him. “This time for sure,” Charlie Brown thinks. He makes his move, she pulls the football away, he falls on his ass and the reader laughs hysterically (assuming the reader isn’t looking for a particularly sophisticated branch of comedy). It’s a metaphor for Charlie Brown’s entire existence, but it applies quite effectively to the entire existence of Cyclops as well. I don’t need to run through the full list here, but his girlfriend dies like a lot, he got possessed by a quasi-demonic force, he can’t control his superpowers, he can’t control his superpowers even moreso than he couldn’t control his superpowers before, he got possessed (again) by a different quasi-demonic force, his second wife was an evil clone, his son got taken away to a future world and came back all old and cyborg-ish. It goes on and on and on to what should be hilarious proportions, but within the context of an individual issue, we don’t actually laugh at him. We still feel bad for ole sad sack Slim Summers. I’m not even really sure how to account for this one, but I find it amusing in itself. This character should be drained of all such tension, but he just keeps on keeping on.
Superpower: None – though his grasp of mechanical engineering, inductive reasoning and full-on ninja-ing seem to cross a line into the supernatural.
Metatextual Superpower: He’s always right.
Oftentimes, Batman stories are a simplistic fantasy of swift justice. A comic book about a 12 month second trial for a manslaughter incident is not a comic that I want to read. Due process, simply put, is dull and deeply flawed to the point of being frustrating. Batman’s justice, however, is rad, for lack of a more era-appropriate term. You commit a crime, and you get bataranged for it, then dumped on the cop’s door. We never even have to sit through the trial – we just assume it went well and that Arkham Asylum or Blackgate Prison will immediately thereafter fail to provide sufficient criminal containment. But that’s ok too, since it just means that Batman gets to roundhouse kick the perp again! This is the Gotham justice system, in essence. Due process exists, however, for a reason. It’s a very important reason, too – it’s incredibly hard to be sure who committed the crime, and it is full-on tragic to have a false-positive result in which an innocent person is sent to jail. Fortunately for Bat-readers, Batman is always right. He operates with a certainty that is – quite frankly – impossible, yet it’s constantly validated and justified by the fact that he’s always right.
Superpower: Everything a spider can…
Metatextual Superpower: He’s a very stupid genius.
In the 60s and 70s Spider-Man was the comic that really altered the conception of the superhero as it had previously been known, ushering in an era of heroes who weren’t Gods, but humans. Lee & Ditko created a hero who was admirable, but also relatable. Even though Peter Parker’s abilities were pure fantasy, his character was quite common: poor kid struggling with school, family, relationships and money. It’s the last one that I’m honing in on, because being a pedantic jerk is all about cherry-picking. Peter routinely struggles to make rent, but that’s actually kind of impossible. How can a super-genius who creates an amazing and highly, highly marketable chemical compound (webbing) not figure out how to get rich? How, for that matter, can he not figure out how to commodify his super strength and agility? He tries. He becomes a pro-wrestler…because everyone knows how lucrative that is. Any sector you can think of – construction, entertainment, marketing, transportation – there’s a way for Peter to get rich, but he can’t think of it because the creators need him to be conveniently stupid on this front in order to preserve his relatability. It’s one of those questions they’d simply prefer you didn’t ask.
…but here we are, and we can’t un-ask these things, now can we?