Reconciling Superheroes and Social Movements

Nick Rabb
Nick Rabb
May 1 · 5 min read
“Proletariat: Endgame” is much less catchy; though likely much more relevant.

A megalomaniac laughs menacingly as he watches a violent repression of his workers through an enormous flat-screen television. A grim smile frames his veneers. Images of beatings and bloodied faces flash across the crystal diodes while signs advocating for fair treatment litter the pavement. We are left to wonder what can be done in the face of such injustice.

Suddenly, a militant body is hurled through the air. It lands and rolls with a satisfying thud and the camera pans to a heroic figure clad in high-tech spandex, wearing a look of determination that screams “justice.” A superhero has come to save the day; equipped with super-strength, bullet-proof skin, and an infallible moral compass. The workers rejoice as the violent scabs either retreat from fear or are doled out the retribution they deserve. Peace is returned to the city, and our menacing, capitalist villain grimaces, turning off the television as he walks out of frame, defeated once more.


Such is commonplace in the films that adorn our screens in the age of the superhero. When the world seems too bleak to bear, unadorned humanity can only rely on the charity of “metahumans”, aliens, sentient A.I., or a host of other characters, to right the wrongs. However, in the real world this is hardly the case. As much as we may wish to transfer our struggles to super-strong shoulders, the existence we return to after the glow has left the screen necessitates a different kind of power to win freedoms for the oppressed.

History shows us that strength in numbers, in solidarity, is the most time-tested way to win freedoms and rights for those who, individually, get the short end of the stick. Today, on International Workers Day, the world celebrates the right of those who labor to seek to consistently improve the conditions under which they toil. We speak up for our well-being because a capitalist system left to its own devices tends towards worker exploitation rather than liberation.

May 1st, 2019, could not have a more ironic setup. Millions around the globe march and strike to stand up for justice, while simultaneously, the aforementioned superhero savior fetish is indulged in: having already grossed $1.2 billion worldwide for a company that could very well stand in for our introductory megalomaniac. How can our society reconcile the two disparate notions? Do we look to heroes for our salvation, or to ourselves? Are we being quite hypocritical by filling the pockets of Disney-Marvel, devouring their message of messianism, and also saying that we stand for human dignity?

Now, this is a poster I can get behind. [May Day Parade, NYC 1936] | Source

Real Villains Abound

I believe that many of us are, indeed, being quite hypocritical in this sense. However, I also believe that there is a reason why the superhero genre, over the last few decades, has become so popular in the first place. We have been living in a world of extreme inequality, where ordinary people’s power to fight for their dignity has been all but eradicated by wealthy interest groups. Politics around the world has devolved into ideological wars where neither side seems to care much for the average worker. Wars rage on globally. Terror spreads throughout regions destroyed by superpower countries — including their own mainland. The world, to put it lightly, has been ravaged by villains.

Our collective psyche craves salvation. Perhaps we indulge in stories of heroes overcoming immoral oppression because we so desperately wish we had the same power to take control of our lives. We should not be faulted for our insatiable appetite for justice. The superhero craze is, in my opinion, clearly symptomatic of the times we live in.

We should, however, take issue with the fact that a company worth $52 billion is taking advantage of our desire to break our modern shackles. The superhero story is satisfying, but delusional. We see similar tales play out in real life, as we worship the memory of former President Obama, wishing that he would return to liberate the United States. This is the narrative we are most likely to hear from mainstream news, or our history books. Presidents and great men, have shaped history by giving us the rights we enjoy today. Disney-Marvel is simply recreating these myths with a modern, sci-fi spin.

We Know the Truth

Active and mobilized workers know the truth, where many are inundated with lies. Social movements win rights for the oppressed. Workers’ movements, through non-violent organizational tactics, win guarantees and equity for those who don’t have the luxury of wealth. Powerful individuals only expand freedoms once they are sufficiently demanded by the people. How would a wealthy leader even know the struggles of the average worker until brought to their attention by organized action? Power lies with the people. There is incredible strength in numbers and in solidarity. No laser eyes, magic rings, or wall-climbing could ever measure up to the unified human spirit.

On this International Workers Day, we must remember our collective strength even amidst the seductive tales of superhero charity propagated through our culture. It is fine to enjoy a fun, cathartic film, but we should do well to take its inspiring message and bring it back to reality; channeling it into an equally, if not more, heroic act of organizing and standing with all marginalized groups. When we act together, we can win.

We see an image of workers, signs in hand, amassed opposite armored police vehicles. As officers in SWAT gear pour out of the trucks, a nervous tension grips our bodies. A lone protester walks out of the crowd, moving carefully but confidently forward until she is alone before a wall of riot shields. She calmly explains the plight of the workers to the officers, that the struggle is common to both groups, and reaches out her hand. The officer directly in front of her ponders this for a while, drops her shield, and shakes the hand of the people.

Other officers and workers follow suit; joining together in unity and solidarity. Both groups are employees of the same mega-corporation that has been slowly chipping away at their bonuses and benefits. The strength of the many is too much for their employers to bear, and their demands are met. No cape-clad celebrities needed to swoop in to save the day. The day was saved as soon as we all remembered that we have the power to control our futures; if only we are brave enough to reach out a hand, and join together.

Nick Rabb

Written by

Nick Rabb

Engineer, philosopher, and teacher. I am a big fan of flipping preconceived notions on their heads.