The Essence of a Superhero, and the Genuine Thing: “The American Way” (Diverging from Deconstruction)

Diverging from Deconstruction: Vigilante, Enforcer, Oppressor, Stranger

DC’s Wonder Woman is a Greek goddess.  Marvel’s Thor is a Norse god.  But even they are not essentially superior to Steve Trevor or Jane Foster, their respective human lovers, nor do they understand themselves to condescend to them, however elevated the gods’ sense of their own stations.


The idea that superheroes are superior to human beings—legally (vigilantes), politically (enforcers), morally (oppressors), or in their being (strangers)—has not been argued at length in any essay that I know.  It has only been posited in the occasional perfunctory retort.  But it has been amply explored in superhero tales.

The foremost representatives of superheroes who are vilified as vigilantes are Batman and Spider-Man.  One better example than them is Frank Castle, the Punisher.  Castle very simply murders criminals, although he understands himself to be executing their punishment.  He makes a better example because the Punisher is an antihero but he must be understood at an angle from superheroism.  Superman himself is opposed as a vigilante by the establishment in Grant Morrison’s “Bruce Springsteen” reinvigoration of the character with Action Comics #1, part of DC’s “New 52” relaunch last September.


Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s The Authority is said to explore superheroes as enforcers or oppressors.  The Authority is a team, complete with a Superman analogue named Apollo–but there my knowledge ends.  In the animated Justice League series, the League of another dimension enforces their own fascist oppression after the death of The Flash.  They call themselves the Justice Lords.  The episode in which they appear, “A Better World,” has its basis in a 1964 story in Justice League of America about mirror images of the JLA, a team called the Crime Syndicate of Amerika, complete with Superman analogue Ultraman.




The locus classicus for the theme of a superhero as an enforcer or oppressor may be Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which is also being adapted into animation.  A thrilling, moody Part 1 is out now, and Part 2 will be released in the coming months, both true to the graphic novel’s spirit.  In the graphic novel, an aging Bruce Wayne retakes the cowl and faces off against Superman himself, who has become an unquestioning agent of the US president.  The theme continues in parody form in a tribute to TDKR, “Time and Punishment” of Disney’s Darkwing Duck.  No Superman analogue appears, but Darkwing himself becomes a sort of enforcer, who targets even jaywalkers with near-to-extreme prejudice after he believes Gosalyn dead.

A more pointed exploration appears in the JL episode, “In Blackest Night,” in which the team’s Green Lantern, John Stewart, is put on trial for the destruction of a planet.  Called to witness is another Green Lantern, Kilowog, who falls into the prosecution’s trap and misrepresents himself and all Green Lanterns as imposing their private codes of morality on an innocent populace in the name of a established intergalactic police force.  The representation extends to all superheroics to some extent.

In my opinion, however, the most intriguing exploration of superhero oppression and enforcement is Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son.  In the three-issue story, Millar re-imagines Superman as having landed not in Kansas but in the Ukraine.  He fights a never-ending battle for “Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact,” but his better nature, seemingly inborn but also nurtured by the simple farmers who found him, makes his battle more difficult.

Another, earlier exploration of superhero as stranger appears in Alan Moore’s Watchmen.  Dr. Manhattan, the only superpowered being in the Watchmen world, is in danger of severing every attachment to humanity.  His power does not cause him to take an interest in dominating humankind so much as start to lose all interest in it.

I take these explorations to be valuable and very interesting.  The trouble with accepting them as “successful deconstructions” of superheroes, supposing that they are meant that way, is that none of them display godlike salvation on the part of the superheroes.  Naturally, if the explorations are meant to be deconstructions, they would not display godlike salvation, but then deconstruction might not mean what deconstructionists suppose it to mean.

To deconstruct would not mean “to take something on its own terms as an integral whole and to seek out what integrates it.”  It would mean “to seem to take it on its terms but to seek out what can integrate those terms into a different whole.”  Deconstruction, then, would not be valuable for understanding what a superhero is.  It would be valuable for understanding what superheroes are not, which may be very interesting, but that is not a superhero.  The trouble with the cited explorations would then be insuperable, so to speak, unless a deconstructionist explains what the second whole (a deconstructed superhero) says about the first (a superhero).


2 thoughts on “The Essence of a Superhero, and the Genuine Thing: “The American Way” (Diverging from Deconstruction)

  1. Kendall says:

    wow nice article, look forward to reading more.

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