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5 ways to fix the policing problem in superhero stories

Producers and studios are rethinking cop stories for the Black Lives Matter era, and superheroes are next

Graphic featuring a grid of images of Superheroes from comics and movies Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: Various

After months of Black Lives Matter protests and violent police response, America’s faith in the police has been shaken, and so has its faith in police shows. If the cancellation of Cops is any indication, networks now think audiences are less willing than ever to tolerate idealized portrayals of the police in popular media. But the excavation of “copaganda” hasn’t stopped at cop shows: Critical viewers have pointed out that the superhero genre may also be culpable, which isn’t too surprising, considering the genre’s similarities to police fiction.

At their most conventional, cop shows and superhero stories both run off the assumption that crime is a persistent threat to society, and an equally persistent force is needed to punish criminals and maintain order. Whether that force wears a badge or a cape is a minor detail. What remains is that audiences have to accept the necessity of this kind of force for these kinds of stories to work.

The Golden Age of superhero comics started while the U.S. was still recovering from the Great Depression and Prohibition eras. Action Comics #1, featuring Superman’s first appearance, was published while the intentional homicide rate was just starting to come down from its highest peak in the century up to that point. It isn’t hard to see why 1930s children and adults alike would want to escape into stories where the excesses of lawlessness were curbed by strongmen in tights. The Golden Age of superhero movies, on the other hand, is occurring while violent crime in America has been in sharp decline for almost three decades. Police and prisons have an unprecedented amount of power, and the communities with the highest levels of police presence are also the ones being harmed the most.

None of these trends are being reflected in current American movies and TV. When modern superheroes aren’t rehashing the original 1930s vision of rampant domestic crime (like how every other week on The Flash, Barry Allen employs his speedster abilities to arrest yet another costumed criminal in Central City), they’re playing on audiences’ post-9/11 fears by having the Avengers fight terror overseas (Hydra cells in Lagos!) or from outer space. (Chitauri attack-bombers in Manhattan!)

In each of these examples, superheroes do the work of law enforcement, only it’s more palatable because the criminals are supervillains, aliens, robots, and gods rather than everyday people. But even considering the genre’s fantastical remove, the superhero-movie formula largely hasn’t transcended that of the police procedural: A subversive element threatens a peaceful, ordered society. A trustworthy force arrives to eliminate the subversive element, through carceral or lethal means. Finally, order is re-asserted without the status quo needing to be changed.

The parallels between superheroes and police don’t necessarily valorize police. In superhero stories, cops are often portrayed as incompetent, corrupt, or resentful because caped vigilantes infringe on their monopoly on violence. But superhero stories do legitimize the function of police: to punish people, often without any oversight or accountability, in the name of order.

America is going through a cultural shift that may lead to fiction about the police fading in popularity, just as Westerns did. But the superhero genre — in spite of its parallels with cop fiction — isn’t in the same danger of becoming irrelevant. Thanks to the expansive flexibility of science-fiction/fantasy and the work of thoughtful comics creators, superhero stories are actually in a pretty good position to resist the pro-police, pro-prison themes which have, Hydra-like, infiltrated modern Western media. With that in mind, here are five main approaches to making superhero stories that don’t legitimize the police.

Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok
Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok
Photo: Marvel Studios / Disney

Superheroes could be more mythic

Film and TV examples: Thor: Ragnarok, Wonder Woman, Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, Justice League, Arrowverse crossover events, Avatar: The Last Airbender

Comic-book examples: Thor, Wonder Woman, Fantastic Four, every DC and Marvel crossover event, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman, Jonathan Hickman’s House of X/Powers of X, Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ Mister Miracle

Many superhero stories have avoided the thorny politics of policing by avoiding the pretense of realism altogether. These stories don’t usually take place on Earth — and if they do, it’s an Earth with so many fantasy elements that it hardly resembles our own. The heroes in these stories share more with pulp adventurers and ancient mythological figures than they do with vigilantes. Some of them are straight-up gods, like a certain blonde Asgardian who isn’t ashamed to brag about it. The conflicts of these stories aren’t inspired by the news. Instead, they reach into fantasy conventions like prophecies, dynastic struggles, mortality vs. immortality, opposing armies at war, apocalypse, and other topics that lie way out of the average police department’s jurisdiction.

The hazard with mythic superhero stories is that some lean on the genre’s escapism as an excuse to not examine its deeper implications. A clear example of a mythic superhero story that updates the genre’s conventions for the modern day is Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok. That film flourishes in fantastical settings and tropes without giving an easy pass to monarchies and colonialism.

Any story with an increasing number of superpowered individuals naturally trends toward mythic status, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its “Infinity Saga” both show. For interconnected cinematic universes, this is a virtuous cycle: Crossovers encourage mythic stories, and mythic stories can provide a buffer from the politicized contexts which might alienate global audiences.

Comic books have been engaging in mythic storytelling since the inception of the superhero genre, but much of our modern cosmic superheroes a debt to Jack Kirby. Kirby was the architect for the space operas of both the Marvel and DC universes, and one of his characters, Mister Miracle, recently had a mythic yet achingly human miniseries by Tom King and Mitch Gerads. It’s a run that reminds us why we create and look up to mythical figures: As humans, we’re always at war with our own selves, so we use larger-than-life characters to play out the emotional conflicts we couldn’t contain otherwise. But the biggest reminder of Mister Miracle is that the battles within us can be just as big as any apocalyptic conflict.

in Watchmen, vigilantes Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) and Sister Night (Regina King) walk into a crime scene flanked by masked police officers
HBO’s Watchmen
Photo: Mark Hill / HBO

Superheroes could be more complicated

Film and TV examples: Watchmen (HBO), Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Super, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Comic-book examples: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, N.K. Jemisin and Jamal Campbell’s The Far Sector, Robert Morales’s Truth: Red, White & Black

The moral absolutism of police procedurals is part of what makes them so easy to digest. That’s true of all propaganda. Alan Moore once called D.W. Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan-romanticizing epic Birth of a Nation “the first American superhero movie.” That film’s self-righteous portrayal of its masked vigilante heroes (read: hooded Klansmen) is decried for its open, enthusiastic racism today, but its very self-righteousness is what made it powerful enough for audiences to follow in the film’s footsteps and revive the Ku Klux Klan.

The usual absolutism of superhero stories can be circumvented if the creators and audience are willing to tolerate grey areas. Stories with complex moral frameworks have a defense against propagandistic themes, pro-police or otherwise, slipping in undetected.

Moore has often exorcised his suspicion of superheroics in his work. That’s why Watchmen’s questions about power and accountability remain potent 30 years later. The HBO series continued Watchmen’s complex moral tradition in several ways, including by depicting American law enforcement’s white-supremacist history, and dramatizing the trauma and deep-seated resentment which motivates even the most “just” vigilantes.

Most recently in comics, N.K. Jemisin and Jamal Campbell’s The Far Sector has been exploring what it means to be a Black cop through the context of an interstellar murder investigation. Green Lantern Jo Mullein struggles between doing what’s right and stepping over her bounds while trying to keep the peace on the incredibly alien City Enduring.

Both Watchmen and The Far Sector are successful because they use complex worlds to make people reflect critically on their lived-in surroundings. This should always be the main impetus behind telling a morally ambiguous superhero story; without a sociopolitical backdrop, these stories risk becoming needlessly nihilistic (like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) or silly (like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).

(L-r) MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD as Huntress, MARGOT ROBBIE as Harley Quinn, ROSIE PEREZ as Renee Montoya, ELLA JAY BASCO as Cassandra Cain and JURNEE SMOLLETT-BELL as Black Canary in walk out of a funhouse tunnel together in BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN).
The whole crew in Birds of Prey
Photo: Claudette Barius

Superheroes could be more progressive

Film and TV examples: Logan, Black Panther, Birds of Prey

Comic-book examples: Action Comics by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Captain America by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ironheart by Eve Ewing, Miles Morales: Spider-Man by Saladin Ahmed

Everyone has heard a variation on the joke that Bruce Wayne could do a lot more for Gotham if he put his billions toward social programs instead of fancy gadgets for breaking muggers’ arms. But imagine if superhero films took this kind of observation to heart.

Superhero stories can get so carried away with crime-fighting that they forget what real-world heroism actually looks like. (It rarely resembles comics’ supervillain battles or wars on organized crime.) Some stories have avoided this trap by presenting heroes whose work centers around community-building, problem-solving, activism, and progress rather than policing and stasis.

In Eve Ewing’s current Ironheart run, Riri Williams is an armored avenger who avoids interring the poor, young gangbangers of Chicago in the needlessly cruel criminal justice system when she can help it, and who also opens up her headquarters, turning it into an after-school community center.

A different side of this can be seen in the latest Captain America run, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. When Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released in 2014, the film was criticized for soft-pedaling its socio-political commentary by blaming America’s moral decline on a fictional terrorist organization. Coates pulls no punches by pitting Steve Rogers against an American populace and government that’s genuinely embracing Hydra’s ideology.

In comics, Cap has a long history of protesting real-world political developments. And comic-book writers have an even longer history of writing heroes as agitators. Action Comics #1 features The Man of Steel challenging corrupt lobbyists and thwarting an unjust death sentence.

Progressive superhero narratives are much more common in comics than they are in film and TV, because the massive corporations which control these IPs aren’t trying to support any revolutions. (After Action Comics became a hit, Siegel and Shuster were forced to tone down Superman’s “social crusading.”) In spite of corporate reluctance, though, a groundswell of demand is making studios cater toward audiences who have been demanding social relevance over pure fantasy. Logan offers a dystopia to fight back against. Black Panther mostly works as a paean to Black liberation. And then there’s Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, a work with punk sensibilities that amplify its feminist themes.

Jon Bernthal stands bloody-handed and glowering in Netflix’s The Punisher.
Jon Bernthal as Punisher
Photo: Jessica Miglio / Netflix

Superheroes could be less violent

Film and TV examples: Doctor Strange, Megamind

Comic-book examples: She-Hulk by Charles Soule and Javier Pulido, The Vision by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North and Erica Henderson

Superhero stories can’t unwittingly justify police violence if they don’t center violence at all. And, if they implicitly make the case that violence isn’t the answer, and they also add more variety to the genre.

It’s natural to assume that where there are superheroes, there are antagonists getting punched. But this isn’t always the case. As cathartic as action-packed splash pages can be, there are a variety of stories which have had no trouble staying compelling even though they’ve passed on the typical action.

Charles Soule and Javier Pulido made a legal satire out of She-Hulk. Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s The Vision is a haunting family drama. Readers of Sandman, Swamp Thing, and Shade, the Changing Man won’t forget their metaphysical ruminations. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is funnier than any of the studio comedies released last decade.

It isn’t realistic to expect Hollywood to start turning out non-action-centric tentpoles, but if there’s one lesson to take away from Joker, it’s that audiences are ready for the occasional cape film that doesn’t end with a fistfight. Doctor Strange’s non-combat resolution was so refreshing that people didn’t care that the rest of the movie was magic Iron Man.

Avengers: Endgame heroes assemble for Thanos fight
All The Superheroes charge in Avengers: Endgame
Image: Marvel Studios

Or all of the above

These four approaches shouldn’t be interpreted as mutually exclusive. Some of the listed stories take multiple approaches. And these tactics also shouldn’t be taken as foolproof against pro-police messaging. The surest way to dismantle police propaganda is by platforming creators from the communities most affected by police brutality.

In her essay on police abolition, Mariame Kaba wrote, “As a society, we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm.” Superhero media has participated in this indoctrination, but hopefully by now, the superhero fan and creator communities have bigger imaginations. A little bigger than a Batman spin-off about the Gotham City PD.