Superheroes are reactionary. Not all of them, of course, there are no absolutes, but by and large mainstream “classic” comic book superheroes are reactionary and they serve a reactionary purpose. I’m not talking “modern politics pejorative reactionary,” but reactionary in the sense that they seek a return to the status quo.
Broken down to its basics, the prototypical superhero plotline is “right the wrongs.” Something has happened, something has changed, and we need to fix it. The costumed vigilante swings out, punches a few bad guys, undoes what they’ve done, and we’re back at square one.
Part of this is because of the narrative format Superheroes exist in; serial fiction intended to stretch out into the foreseable future, comic books or cartoons or movie series in which a succession of writers can come in and write the same character in the same setting where nothing ever changes. Hundreds of issues later, the Batman is still the Batman, and Gotham is still Gotham. Occasionally a big shake up happens that promises to Change Everything Forever, but by and large this happens because our heroes fail in their efforts to prevent the big cosmological crisis.
Step away from the narrative, and examine the fictive dream of the superhero. What they do within the context of the imaginary worlds in which they inhabit.
Our friendly neighborhood superhero is out patrolling or investigating a mystery or hanging out in their civilian guise – dwelling in the context of their personal status quo, Campell’s “ordinary world” for people who can throw cars or shoot energy blasts out of their eyes – when a thing occurs. An incident incites. Somebody does a crime, or they get attacked by an old foe, or literally anything.
Our superhero reacts. Even if they were showing some initiative to Do a Thing, this interruption or unexpected development has disrupted the status quo and forced them to react.
Again, part of this is just narrative structure, the first act turning into the second, but outside of the vantage we Dear Readers are looking through, this is the superhero life. They go looking for disruptions of the social contract, the status quo, crimes, and they react to stop them, to return us to our neutral setting. Often with raw physical violence.
Now, don’t get me wrong – much of the time they’re doing a good thing, they’re addressing an intolerable situation, but that doesn’t make it any less of a reaction. Superheroes, by and large, aren’t seeking change. They’re not trying to make something happen, though they’ll often phrase it as something like making the world a safer place, or Making Gotham Great Again, but it comes down to a maintenance of the status quo.
Even when they sympathize with their opponents, or understand the nature of change their villains are trying to bring about. The better written episodes will at least touch upon these moral quandaries and tempt their protagonists with the choice of accepting and embracing this change, or reluctantly opposing it. And in almost all cases, they’ll eventually come through their dark night of the soul on the side of maintaining order.
So. The position that Superheroes occupy within the context of their fictive environment is that of the champion of the status quo. In the rare case that some form of capital ‘E’ Establishment is the villain, it’s because the police or government or whatever have become compromised by some outside force that must be defeated, but we must always strive to keep ICE or the FBI or the Drug War intact.
If a superhero did take that devil’s bargain, if they did seek to redress the flaws in the system to the point of abolishing the system or causing major social changes, we’d call them a supervillain.
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