We Can All be Superheroes: A Look at Heroism, Politics, and Fixing the World We Live In

I’ve always been interested in politics and keeping track of history: after 9/11 I remember making a scrapbook of newspaper and magazine clippings about the events of time. It’s still sitting around my family’s house somewhere, and it kept track of the major news of the event itself, as well as the war following, for about two years. I was a journalism minor in college and for a long time, actually thought I might like to write for a newspaper. That’s all changed, but my interest in social and political issues, as well as a significant desire to play a part in helping better the world hasn’t. Living in DC and watching the inner workings of national government play out around me is certainly an even bigger incentive toward a desire for change, and since moving here I’ve researched, read, and expanded my political views perhaps more than ever before. This has all been a long time coming. What is new, as my previous post about the new Captain America film indicates, is my love of superheroes. I’ve recently started reading the comics, and this past weekend had a Marvel movie marathon with a friend, re-watching the majority of the movies that have so far come out in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All the while my brain was spinning, looking for connections between the different characters, my English major brain looking at characterization and themes, lightbulbs going off so often that by the time we were done on Sunday afternoon I had several different pages of notes on my iPhone.

One thing that’s always stood out to me about the Marvel movies ever since I started watching them a few years ago was how very layered they were. One aspect was always what everyone wants to see in a superhero film:  good fighting evil, the origin stories of the various heroes and their subsequent journeys and struggles. action mixed with character development, with some wonderful humor thrown in. The stories and characters that inspire us to do and be better. The Marvel movies have all of that, they make you think along with being massively fun to watch. But on a second level these films also deal with issues that are incredibly relevant to our time, and manage to sew that theme through the entire universe they’ve created, both in the full length movies as well as the spin off TV show Agents of Shield (and soon the new show Agent Carter, which will feature Peggy Carter from the Captain America films, EXCITED). While watching the movies this weekend and noticing these themes, I zoned in on the Iron Man films, the Captain America films, as well as the first Avengers movie.

In the first Iron Man movie we see Tony Stark kidnapped by a terrorist group in the middle east called the Ten Rings, who plan on forcing him to build one of his own Jericho missles to use against American troops. Eventually Tony breaks out in the first rudimentary version of the Iron Man suit. Once he’s home he opts his company out of making weapons any longer, having seen the very things he created for the military  turned against young American troops in front of his eyes. It eventually  comes to light that Obadiah Stane, long time friend and business partner of both Tony and his father, was the one who had him kidnapped and nearly killed. Not only that, but he was also the one double dealing weapons under the table. The terrorists of the Ten Rings were villains for certain, but Obadiah Stane was the overarching evil, and a most unexpected one. A friend. A partner. And more importantly for this post, a wealthy man at the top of the corporate chain. There’s a similar scenario in Iron Man 3. While the villain isn’t close with Tony, Aldrich Killian is someone from Tony’s past, a man who creates an incredibly elaborate scheme, hiring an actor to play what looks like a foreign terrorist calling himself the Mandarin and bombing places all over the country and hijacking the airways in order to cover up and distract the entire country from what was really happening beneath the surface, from the fact that he’d funded the creation of Extremis, a highly volatile, dangerous attempt at recreating the Super Soldier Serum that was successful with Steve Rogers. Not to mention that he attemped to kill the president and had other people in positions of power on his side, including the vice president. The power behind the throne, so to speak. Again, someone we might never suspect. The wealthy owner of a privately funded think thank that had government connections. As Aldrich himself said, he reveled in anonymity, working and manipulating events from the shadows and distracting the country with a terrifying facade.

This theme continues into the second Captain America film in a way that overturned the very bedrock of everything that’s happened so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: from the very beginning of SHIELD, the institution founded by Howard Stark and Peggy Carter and currently run by super-spy Nick Fury, had been infiltrated by Hydra. Hydra, the Nazi organization headed by the Red Skull in the first Captain America film, an organization thought long dead that grew under the nose of Shield for 70 years, that created conflict that the good Shield agents then went out to solve. An internal threat right under the nose of the good guys that sewed external conflict to distract and cause terror, to prevent the agents of SHIELD, to prevent anyone, from knowing that ultimate evil stood side by side with heroic men and women, biding their time until the moment was right. Hydra had SHIELD build helicarriers they believed were meant to snuff out terrorists before they ever even committed the act (which is scary enough in itself, depending on who they marked as terrorists) but instead were meant, by way of an algorithm, to destroy any good person who stood in Hydra’s way. Not just superheroes. Anyone. Any good person who stood up, possibly far before they might even have the chance to do so. Hydra had the good guys doing their work for them unknowingly, twisting  the good in with the evil until it was hard to tell which was which, hard for the good people to trust each other because what if they people they’d known for so long were working for the other side? At one point in the film, before the larger agency of SHIELD knows that they have long been infiltrated by Hydra, they are told to turn against Captain America himself, and chase Steve Rogers down through DC on national television, Hydra trying their best to make a much beloved American hero look like a villain by attempting to turn his friends against him (it doesn’t work, in the end). This all ties back a bit to the first Avengers film in which the team realizes that SHIELD has been making weapons of mass destruction using the tessaract, something that Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, and Steve Rogers discover when the Avengers team up against Loki. Was that order given by Hydra or by SHIELD? Who influenced the unsuspecting Nick Fury into it and what were their plans? No one can really ever know.

In recent Captain America comics this theme holds true as well. In one I read just this week, entitled “Captain America and the Red Menace”, Cap and his friends face a very similar sinister enemy in the form of Alexander Lukin, the very man who had a part in turning Steve’s best friend Bucky into the mind-wiped assassin the Winter Soldier, and who runs a corporation much lauded and respected by the American and international polticians alike. He causes terror, bombings, tries to kill Steve and many others, yet no one will believe that he’s behind any of it because of the “work” his corporation does, because he’s pulled the wool over the eyes of those in power. In the end, these heroes defeat the villains they come up against, but what is wonderful and real about these stories is that it’s never just that simple. Sometimes the fight is long and hard. Sometimes they lose people. Sometimes they struggle with themselves. They fall, but they get back up again, still hoping, win or lose. They know that defeating one villain is a victory, but also know there will be others, and they will be there to fight them. Things in these movies are not so black and white, and that’s true of our reality as well, but it doesn’t meant you can’t fight for the good. Really, it means you should fight harder when the bad can be so veiled. You adapt and adjust and you try to sort through it and make the right decisions knowing that sometimes you will and sometimes you won’t.

These storylines are incredibly relevant to our era and it’s issues. They don’t just exist in a world of superheroes and spies and magical objects, they exist in the halls of our courthouses, within the walls of Congress and the skyscrapers where corporations conduct their business. We live in a post 9/11 world where our fear of terrorism is, rather understandably after such a horrifying, ground shattering event, rather prevalent. We live in a world where those things can happen. But we also live in a world where our chances of being in a terrorist attack are, in actual reality, pretty low. But we focus on it. We fear it. This is not to say it’s an unreasonable fear: it’s not. But watching these movies reminded me that we cannot be so fearful of external attack that we ignore, dismiss, or simply are unaware of the much more prevalent internal struggles and fights we face within the border of our very own country. The Supreme Court has been busy lately, handing down decisions that are destructive to our democracy.

First, here’s the McCutcheon vs. FEC case, in which the limits on campaign donations were lifted. In other words, money now counts as speech, and this has the potential to overpower the voices of average people in the face of million and billionares. The Washington Post did a better job explaining it than I ever could: Everything you need to know about McCutcheon v. FEC

Then they decided to allow states to strike down Affirmative Action, if they so chose, slapping the Civil Rights movement right across the face: The Roberts Court Gave Affirmative Action Its Last Rites, It’s Up to Us to Revive It

Aside from these, income inequality in our country keeps getting higher and higher, and the Republicans recently struck down a raise on the federal minimum wage, and still won’t vote on extending unemployment to a huge handful of Americans who have lost their their jobs. They cut a large amount of funding to the SNAP program (Otherwise known as food stamps). To put it bluntly, 400 Americans have as much money as half the population. 400 people.

Some fantastic sources about income inequality that are easy to grasp without getting into complicated economics:

Robert Reich: The 4 biggest right-wing lies about income inequality

1 Minute Of Some Numbers About Income That Feel Colder Than Any Polar Vortex

And perhaps most frighteningly of all (albeit not surprising, given these types of instances) our country is rapidly losing hold of the democratic system of government we hold so dear. The people’s voices are ceasing to matter. Better and more efficient gun control, something that a majority of Americans wanted, particularly after the Sandy Hook shootings, failed in Congress for several reasons, including but not limited to NRA lobbying. Instead, the opposite of what the public wanted is happening, and in the state of Georgia where I grew up, people are being allowed to open carry weapons in an astoundingly expansive amount of places. A man took a gun to a little league game and terrified everyone but couldn’t be arrested because it was legal. We are losing the republic that we fought a revolution for,  and are turning, instead, into some kind of oligarchy run by the rich and powerful: Oligarchy Nation

This is some scary stuff, but I am, in the end, always an optimist, and I don’t give up hope. I know there are lots of other people like that, people who want to fix things and enact change, that want to save what we’ve lost, to further progress instead of impeding it or moving backwards. But what’s important here, and what rewatching all the Marvel films reminded me of, was that the awareness of as many people as possible is crucial. If we sit, ignorant of these issues while constantly fearing outward attack from external sources, we will miss the fact that we’re being attacked internally by people taking advantage of our own system. By the people we did or didn’t vote for. By the rich and powerful who pull representatives’ strings, and those men and women who allow it. But to sit around and do nothing, lamenting that the world is a terrible place, isn’t a strategy. One doesn’t have to storm the halls of Congress to make a difference: learning, educating yourself and others, standing up for injustice when you see it, those things are desperately neeeded. Smaller things, smaller victories, even losses when fighting for the right thing are as important as the bigger victories taking place in the world of voting and lawmaking and protests because it spurs those things forward. We should take inspiration from the brave characters who populate the comic universes we love watching and reading about, men and women  who stand up for the freedom and safety of all, no matter their differences. We must look in the corner for the villain we might not expect. We must gaze inward and look at our society, because how can we claim to be some kind of moral authority for the world when we cannot even fix our own country’s problems? When people are crying out for change and being ignored?

In the end, we can all be superheroes. We can all make a difference. Because what makes a superhero, what defines these characters, is not the physical traits or magic or whatever it is they possess, that’s simply the vehicle that gives them a way to fight. What makes them superheroes are their choices. Their desire and decisions to hold fast and push forward, never giving up.

These superheroes found their courage, and they found their fight.

So now I’ll ask: where’s ours?

Start your own revolution.


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