Comics with a cause: superheroes and political messages

by Cathleen Cusachs / Beacon Staff • October 13, 2016

Once a week in the fifth grade, I would walk with my sister and three younger cousins to my Aunt’s house after school, where we’d eagerly await our post-homework treat: City of Heroes. It was the comic book dorks’ internet oasis, a multi-player superhero simulation game, complete with customizable costumes and origin stories. I could be, if only virtually, an ideal version of myself. It wasn’t the costumes, plots, or the explosions that entranced my adolescent imagination, though. It was the fight for good. This theme of hope and inspiration dates back to the tales of heroes in ancient cultural mythologies, and it comes alive once again in Marvel’s newest Netflix collaboration, Luke Cage.

Luke Cage, an impenetrable, super-strong black hero in Harlem, knows his cultural significance in the fictional representation of the vibrant African-American New York community. The writers recognize it in the world outside the screen too, and don’t shy away from controversial dialogue. In one scene, Cage runs away from police while wearing a dark hoodie, referencing the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin and similar cases since. Mike Colter, the actor playing the bulletproof vigilante, said in interviews that he knows the importance of his portrayal and never wants to belittle it. The show isn’t flawless in regards to Black Lives Matter’s complete message, but it’s joining the ongoing conversation without hesitation. This head-on confrontation of the evil in the world is what I love about the comic franchise. It instills hope.

There’s a history to the cultural relevancy of superheroes. Ancient Greek and Roman myths about Hercules, Perseus, and Theseus were spread around like wildfire to combat fears of gods and grievances with rulers. In more modern history, DC’s golden boy, Superman, was created by the sons of Jewish immigrants during the Great Depression. He quickly became an icon, a beacon of hope and light. During a time of trouble and despair, he optimistically reminded the nation to work together and care for each other, the epitome of the moral high ground.

Marvel’s Captain America also became a symbol of the nation. With an impenetrable red, white, and blue shield, the super strong Captain famously fights Hydra, the fictional organization working through the Nazi regime. He was created during World War II to encourage the United States government to intervene against Germany, or so it is commonly believed. He represented the ethical choice millions hoped we would make during a period of fear and prejudice.

The modern day Cap, in perfect condition after being frozen in ice for decades, takes on a more subtle political message in Marvel’s recent film, Captain America: Civil War. Chris Evans’ portrayal of the patriot believes his crime fighting squad, The Avengers, needs to be independent from politics to guarantee their ability to protect all humans. He clashes with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, who thinks their free reign would do more damage than good. Even though this ethical dilemma is not as explicitly relevant as Hydra, it still sparks an important debate on what the “good side” means while showing two passionate heroes trying to preserve it.

Themes promoting human decency are not always included in the superhero world though. DC’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which premiered in the spring, told a story of two arrogant “heroes” putting their pride over the well-being of the city. The wildly anticipated Suicide Squad also fell short in reviews, despite the opportunity for a conversation on risking the lives of criminals to save law-abiding citizens. Both of these films faced harsh criticism for their plot, cinematography, and acting. But—full disclosure—I didn’t see either of them. I did not want to tarnish my strong belief in the symbolic significance of superheroes.

This isn’t strictly a Marvel vs. DC debate, though. DC hit the nail on the head (maybe a little too hard) with Supergirl. Originally on CBS for its first season, the in-your-face feminist power show premiered its second season on The CW this week. Supergirl’s alter ego, Kara Danvers, a quirky girl in a skirt and cardigan working for a news organization, is a character I can connect with. It gives me hope that I too can have an impact on the world, despite not being a man like Superman and Captain America. In fact, the show features a variety of badass women. Chyler Leigh plays Kara’s non-powered, less traditionally girly sister, Alex Danvers, who works for a top secret organization fighting villains with enhanced capabilities. Jenna Dewan-Tatum plays Superman’s Lois Lane’s sister Lucy, a high ranking lawyer for the military, and Calista Flockhart is Cat Grant, head of a media empire and Kara’s strict, no-nonsense boss. Almost every episode features an explicit dialogue on sexism. Marvel has their own foray into feminism with Netflix’s Jessica Jones, a season-long allegory on rape culture and consent. As a woman, it’s inspiring to finally see characters I can identify with on the screen fighting a battle typically associated with men, an emotion Luke Cage hopes to appeal to in the black community, too.

These topical dialogues are important to a franchise based around moral idealism and magical powers. Although these narratives are completely fictional and extraordinary, they’re grounded in some truth. There are people out there dedicating their lives toward working for what’s good and true. Superheroes tap into a hope so deeply rooted in society that I’d be terrified of a world without them.