Theorizing superheroes

With the upcoming Yale symposium at the end of this month, I’m starting to try to organize some thoughts and ideas that have been circulating in my mind, and in some cases taking shape in recent lectures, articles, reviews and discussions. One of these concerns the ambiguous relationship the superhero seems to occupy towards theories of modernism and postmodernism. In some ways, they seem to be the ultimate embodiment of the heroic ambitions of early 20th-century modernism: Superman and Batman are – after all – the ultimate incarnation of individual human accomplishment, constituting modernism’s ambivalent relationship to technology in its two major figures: Superman has no need for technology, and his first cover (and most iconic moment) is one of him lifting up and destroying a car. Batman on the other hand uses individually customized technological gadgets to overcome challenges. On top of that, we have the strong, frequently defining relationship between superheroes and the modernist architecture of the early twentieth century.

On the other hand, the forms in which we have traditionally encountered them seem to be more characteristic of most notions associated with postmodernism: the stories tend to be predictable and highly generic; the comics clearly recycle dominant ideologies associated with mass culture of the various periods in which they were produced; superhero mythology as a whole tends to contribute to a nostalgic de-historicizing of the present, in a classically Jamesonian way; and with their massive accumulation of varied, often contradictory histories, superheroes also seem to have become Baudrillardian simulacra: free-floating signifiers that can come to stand for anything from an ironic fashion brand to an ideological position.

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