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Superhero iconography is popping up on both sides of America’s Black Lives Matter protests

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Superhero iconography cuts both ways

A dark-skinned man dressed as Batman speaks into a megaphone, as protesters demonstrate In Washington D.C. Against Death Of George Floyd By Police Officer In Minneapolis Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the police killing of George Floyd prompted a large group of protestors to march across the Brooklyn Bridge in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and in defiance of New York City’s 8pm curfew. One of the protesters garnered more attention than the rest when they clambered up onto a ledge on one of the bridge’s pillars and held up a cardboard sign proclaiming “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” Cheers erupted.

They were dressed head-to-toe as Spider-Man.

In the video above, posted by Anya Volz, one person in the crowd shouts “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us,” quoting from a scene in 2002’s Spider-Man, in which a multiracial crowd of New Yorkers pelts the Green Goblin with debris from the Queensboro Bridge. Shortly before the video cuts off, another person can be heard asking the costumed protestor to “do a flip,” a reference to a Queens-set scene in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Spider-Man and Batman (seen above at a June 3 protest in Washington, D.C.) aren’t the only comic book characters whose iconography has been brought to protest locations over the last two weeks — non-protestors have done it, too. In Chicago, federal prosecutors arrested Timothy O’Donnell after he admitted to being the looter photographed placing a lit object inside the gas tank of a Chicago police vehicle. At the time, he was wearing a mask modeled after ones worn in last year’s Joker.

The protests have also drawn renewed attention to the widespread use of the four-toothed, lower-jawless skull symbol of Marvel’s the Punisher — a vigilante who could not find legal justice for his dead family in part due to corrupt police officers, and so takes it upon himself to become a one-man judge, jury, and executioner — by police and pro-police organizations.

Despite objections from the character’s creators, and the actor who most recently portrayed him in a major TV adaptation, and direct condemnation from the character’s comic, the Punisher death head skull has come to be worn by voices speaking in support of police crackdowns on peaceful protestors. Everyone from right-wing pundit Sean Hannity in a recent appearance on Fox News to the police themselves have been seen sporting the emblem.

Marvel Comics did not respond to Polygon’s request for comment on Hannity’s choice to wear the pin. The company has previously brought lawsuits against manufacturers of bootleg Punisher merchandise and iconography — including weapons manufacturers, gun enthusiast groups, and militias. In the past week, several comic book creators urged Marvel’s parent company, the Walt Disney corporation, to take a more proactive stance on use of the symbol.

The way that superhero stories are passed from creator to creator has allowed them to grow into the closest thing we have to modern folk heroes. But it has also given their archetypes a great amount of flexibility, while at the same time pairing them with iconic visual symbols, some of them tempered by nearly a century of graphic design tweaks. And as with Guy Fawkes and the V for Vendetta movie, the reach of a Hollywood blockbuster can stretch that elastic until it snaps — if it hasn’t already.

At NYCC 2017, while talking about writing his first Joker story as the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting unfolded, Batman writer Scott Snyder told a panel audience that “You become very aware, very quickly, of how careful you have to be with these characters, just in terms of keeping them true to core and speaking about things you’re passionate about — and yet also not giving them such elasticity that they can be used or co-opted by things that are ugly.”

Though one strength of superheroes is their ability to adapt to changing times, it will always be the case that the genre’s standard bearers — Superman, Captain America, Spider-Man, and more — were created for the downtrodden and marginalized, not the powerful and privileged. They were power fantasies, crafted by writers and artists who saw their own communities marginalized, if not destroyed, by an international wave of racism, nationalism, and authoritarianism, the unaddressed effects of which we still see today.

In the wake of the deadly Charlottesville protests of 2017, Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee resurfaced a column he wrote for the backmatter of all Marvel Comics issues. “Racism and bigotry are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today,” Lee wrote nearly 50 years earlier, in 1968, the apex of the Civil Rights Movement’s mid-century struggles.

“But, unlike a team of costumed supervillains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them, is to expose them — to reveal from the insidious evil they really are.”