We’re back for another thematic episode – do superheroes hold people back from doing things for themselves? Do we stay on topic? Well… you’ll have to listen to find out!
Issue 153- Holding Out for a Hero
- Holding Out for a Hero. Not just the single-most overused song on movie soundtracks in the 21st century, also the name of a trope denoting the tendency of individuals, governments, and entire societies who exist in worlds where there are superheroes fighting crimes and averting disasters all over the place to become overly dependent on them, to the point where heroes actually breed a degree of learned helplessness at best, and breathtakingly casual recklessness at worst. Do I need to take the time to check that my safety harness is properly fastened before I climb up this building’s spire to do maintenance? Ehh…if I fall, there’s someone out there who will save me. Do we need to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to install Positive Train Control throughout our rail system? Why? It costs nothing for a superhero to just save everyone whenever there’s a derailment. If they’re a super-strong superhero, they’ll even put the train back on the track for us. Should the government seek a diplomatic solution in this international conflict? Are you kidding? Look at all these superheroes we have on our side. We’ll do whatever we want and you can take it up with them if you have a problem with it.
- This is one of my favorite story mines of the superhero ethos. The conflict between helping people and making their lives better versus doing so much for them that they lose the ability or the will to do anything for themselves. Probably because it’s extremely relatable here in the real world. Sociological interactions from the individual level of parent-child all the way up to the global level of government-citizen have always involved a need to strike that kind of balance. Guaranteeing people’s safety, security, and relative prosperity has a tendency to lessen the responsibility people feel for providing it to themselves and one another on an individual level. Superheroes intervening to solve dangerous situations as they’re happening can create a type of bystander effect that dissuades anyone else from even trying to help out, especially if it’s something that’s an everyday occurrence. Man oh man, does this have a lot of real-world parallels that we’ll get into. But first, as always, some comic book examples.
- 1) Elliot S. Maggin’s classic Must There Be A Superman? The Guardians of the Universe let Superman know that one of the tenets of the Green Lantern Corps is to handle the much larger, world-threatening crises and not do everything for sentient races, because it can actually stagnate evolution itself. When Superman gets back to Earth, he tests the assumption out by landing in a random small town, where the citizens ask for his help with EVERYTHING, including fixing a leaky roof.
- 2) During Mark Waid’s first run on The Flash, a recurring theme is that part of the reason that the scientific community of Central City is so groundbreaking in its work is that they can push the boundaries of safety in their experiments well beyond what would normally be considered acceptable. They view having The Flash around if anything goes wrong as the only safety measure they actually need.
- 3) Ultimate Spider-Man Annual 2. After Peter’s ninth or tenth run-in with The Shocker, he is shouting at the top of his lungs in frustration as to how he’s still not in jail after all the times he’s been caught. Thankfully, Foggy Nelson happens to be nearby and tells him straight up: dude, you have to get someone to hang around and give a statement to the police afterwards, or a first-year law student could get any criminal charges dropped. When there’s a big crowd of people who just watched a superhero battle, every individual person is going to assume someone else is handling that, and go about their day.
- 4) Watchmen. President Nixon doesn’t even try to reach a detente with the Soviet Union or China at the height of the Cold War. America has Dr. Manhattan as the ultimate trump card against anything the Communist world could ever do. As a result, they wipe out the North Vietnamese Army in a heartbeat and behave aggressively on the world stage throughout the 70s and 80s. This bites them back in a major way when Manhattan decides he doesn’t want to be a part of humanity anymore and leaves Earth.
- 5) Red Son. A villain-ish example. Superman creates a utopia in the Soviet Union largely by solving all of the problems that arise himself. But he’s cognizant of the fact that he’s doing it, and tries very hard to get his citizens to start stepping up and following his example. He also could simply take over the world and install communism upon all of humanity by force. But it’s critically important to him that humanity makes the choice to adopt it themselves, or the ideology won’t have triumphed, only he would.
- Real-world examples? You want real-world examples? I’ve got real world examples for you. Seat belts. Introduced in the 1940s, it took over 5 decades for them to become mandatory in all 50 states, and the public fought against them every step of the way. One of the reasons why, that we’ve all just forgotten about, because it’s been decades now and people just accept it? Studies done at the time laws were being implemented showed clear evidence that drivers disregarded safety behind the wheel more readily, they drove at unsafe speeds more frequently, and engaged in carelessness and negligence more often, viewing their seat belt as the ultimate form of protection. As recently as 2001, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study conceded the likely possibility that the presence of seat belts were a contributor to more frequent accidents even as they decreased fatalities.
- (21:53) In economics and political science, as you know, we call this the Moral Hazard. Safety rails in public policy meant to provide government help to people and institutions in hard times can increase the likelihood that they will engage in behavior more likely to bring about said hard times, as the fear of the consequences is taken out of the equation. Nowhere is this more prevalent today than in the world’s financial industry. It has just become accepted now as a matter of course that the world’s governments will always step in with currency support, quantitative easing, and outright bailouts when there is an economic downturn, allowing the large investors of the world to socialize the risks of their operations among the entire population whether they’re a customer who’s opted in to do so or not. Because of the interconnectedness of the global financial markets, the costs to the world’s economies of a full-scale collapse of large banks and investment houses is seen as much higher than the occasional large payments it takes to keep them afloat.
- (36:42) On a micro, individual level, there’s the bystander effect and the diffusion of responsibility. The tendency of individuals being less likely to offer help to someone in need when there are a large group of people present, figuring someone else will handle it. The Kitty Genovese case that first brought these terms to the lexicon in the 60s has largely been discredited, but for my money, you need look no further than any instance where there’s someone in some kind of dangerous situation anywhere in a public place, what is the first thing almost anyone does? Do they step in and help? Call 911? Scream for someone else to call 911? No, they take out their freaking cell phones and start recording it to post on the Internet, as if the 300th camera angle is going to document what’s going on in a way the other 299 won’t. It. Drives. Me. Freaking. Nuts.
- (50:39) So as a superhero, how do you use that light touch, and do for people what they can’t do for themselves without taking away their ability to do anything for themselves?
- Recommended reading: Everything we talked about
- Next episodes: Wanda Maximoff, Beast Boy, Sue Storm
- Plugs for social
- Naked Gun – “That’s my policy” – Doc (40:10)
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