I’ve been thinking a lot about the plight of superheroes lately. As a social worker I can really relate to their inner struggles, their doubts, their insecurities. This isn’t to say that I think social workers are like superheroes. We don’t don suits and go out beating up evildoers. It’s not like our professional insurance would cover for such damages either. That literal comparison aside, I find myself so drawn to the journey of a superhero because I feel like the central dilemma that every superhero faces is very similar to one that a social worker faces: that is, can we do more than protect the status quo?
I find that to be an important question. There’s no doubt that both superheroes and social workers do amazing awesome things. They save lives and they try their best to do what they know is the right thing to do. Other than villainous figures like Lex Luthor and J.Jonah Jameson, who’s really thinking that superheroes are bad for society?
It’s the type of things superheroes mull over quite a lot, especially those so burdened by their guilt like Batman, DareDevil, and Iron Man. “What good am I actually doing?” they ask themselves. I’ve just recently started watching The Batman (2004-2008 animated show), in which Batman learns of how his attempt to catch the bank robber Victor Freeze ultimately led to Victor turning into an ice-powered mutant. There’s a short scene in which Bruce Wayne beats feels so much guilt about it that he considers giving up the cowl altogether. If it wasn’t for the Batman, he thinks, would Victor Freeze have ended up into something so horrible? Is the Batman just as bad and criminal as those he beats up and leaves for the police to jail?
For the episode to be tied up neatly in 22 minutes, of course the answer is no. Batman, nor any other superhero is responsible for the horrible actions of others. Before Batman arrived on scene, Victor Freeze was hurting people and robbing a bank. Victor Freeze himself is accountable for such villainy. Freeze’s first encounter with Batman resulted in the unfortunate accident of him turning into a cold-hearted monster (literally), but it’s not Batman’s fault that he continues to terrorize people and steal from people. Superheroes tend to bear the weight of the world on their shoulders, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones that need to be held accountable.
Not all superheroes’ existential dilemmas can be so neatly answered though. Consider this meme which is directed at the first season of The Arrow:
Another interesting one is about superhero collateral damage:
What I’ve found is that in almost all superhero stories, the hero reflects a great deal about what they’re doing. They desire to do good, and even with their good intentions, sometimes, especially as they fall into a villain’s dubious scheme, their actions contribute towards further harm and damage. How is a superhero to live with a guilt like that?
Likewise, I wrestle quite often with my own guilt I accrue as I do social work. I think I’d feel a similar guilt if I worked as a doctor or as a police officer. The helping profession of this sort is where a mistake made can result in some heart-breaking consequences. The collateral damage I might accidentally end up inflicting as a social worker doesn’t destroy buildings, but nonetheless it leaves quite an impact. Some of it feels so guilty, that I can definitely relate to the kinds of scenes in which Bruce Wayne looks at the cowl or when Steve Rogers looks at the shield and wonder if they should ever take it up again.
But they pick it up again, because there is greater guilt in seeing people in trouble and not using your talents to help them. A superhero can’t escape that calling. After all, that is why they’re superheroes.
There is another sort of guilt that comes up for superheroes – in failing. Now, this is spoiler for The Arrow, but in the final episode of Season 1, Team Arrow is not able to defuse the second bomb in time. That results in deaths of tens of thousands. Even though the main scheme “Undertaking” is exposed to the public, Merlin beaten, and Star City saved from total devastation, the superheroes weren’t totally successful, which meant that so many people ended up dead and injured. If a superhero fails, or isn’t fully successful, the results can be so devastating, so tragic. Then comes the endless what if questions. The hero tried his/her best, and still there is loss. It can be so painful to be a superhero.
That kind of pain I can relate to very strongly. Last year was the first time (and still the only time) that a tenant on my caseload passed away. I was very emotionally affected by that. I spent so many sleepless nights wondering about what I could have done better as the tenant’s social worker. I couldn’t ever shake off the feeling that I failed at my job. It was so hard when the tenant’s family members visited my workplace and yelled very mean things to me. All my colleagues assured me that it was not my fault, that there was nothing different I could have done to prevent that tragedy, but it was a constant struggle to not allow my guilt to swallow me whole.
I think guilt can be the most powerful motivator. Maybe not always in a good way, but it’s definitely a compelling feeling. There’s that lingering thought, that if I don’t wake up, get out of bed, and do my social work the best that I can do, then people could be hurt. There are people who depend on me and I have to be there for them. If I don’t, would be able to live with myself and the guilt that will follow? I wonder about how many of the superheroes are written to operate in this manner, compelled and driven by their guilt.
With all that considered, the big thing I wonder about is in regards to superheroes and their relationship with the status quo. When the hero saves the day, what does that actually mean? In the most dramatic sense, the world is saved from destruction, and people that might have died are still alive. But how long until The Joker is set free again and wreaks havoc on Gotham City? Yes, The Avengers saved the bank from being robbed, but what of the many people who’ve lost their savings and pension because of the speculative trading practices of the bank? Can superheroes do more about the unfortunate status quo in which a significant portion of the population are in poverty, unemployed, incarcerated, because of the way the political/economic system currently operates?
I really like it when the writers of these superhero stories refer to this dilemma. The thing is though, this questioning often comes from the villains.
For instance, in Young Justice, it’s Vandal Savage that raises this question to the heroes of the Justice League, arguing that the likes of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Hawk Girl are ultimately only acting to protect the status quo. The power-hungry Vandal Savage believes in change by his and his associates’ tyrannical will. He argues for the advancement of the human race through dramatic change where the fittest survive and those unfit are left behind.
Granted, keep in mind that the change that Vandal Savage wants is achieved through human trafficking, assassinations, theft, extortion, and so many other villainous means. It’s also not quite clear what actually is the change he wants to implement. Knowing his nature, it’ll probably mean subjugation of the human race under his control. I guess compared to that, status quo would be preferable.
Another show that I watched in which the villains raised this question was the cartoon Avengers Assemble. In that show, there’s a group of villains who call themselves the Squadron Supreme. They scheme and scheme to defeat the Avengers so they can change the status quo. Their idea of change is one in which martial law is in effect 24/7. The world they envision for themselves is one in which their power is absolute and any violation of their law is met with harsh punishment.
Some stories have the heroes themselves be more about how they just protect the current system in place. I quite appreciate this, which I think I saw a lot of in The Arrow. That’s a show in which Oliver Queen wonders about being more than a vigilante who beats up criminals at night. Like so many other superhero stories, it’s apparent that the criminals and villains of the world arise not just because they’re bad people, but because the way the world works currently is unfairly and oppressively set up. Unless the system is changed for the better, beating up criminals equates to putting bandages on symptoms but never actually addressing the root causes of the disease. For this end, Oliver Queen has to become more than just the superhero vigilante Green Arrow and has to utilize his public persona as Oliver Queen.
One interesting superhero to think about in this regard is The Flash. Here’s a hero who can change time. The theme of many of his story arcs though is that the time – the way it has played out – is something to be protected. Changing the time stream – especially for personal motives like saving the life of a beloved – can have drastic negative consequences. It seems to me that really the only story arcs in which changing time is accepted is when it’s done to save the city/world/universe from being destroyed. Basically, the Flash can change time when that means protecting the status quo.
Consider this rather thought-titillating blog from Kotaku which explores why wouldn’t an immortal black superhero Icon have just ended Slavery? What I find so poignant is this argument that superheroes – with all their amazing power, skills, and goodwill – are not able to change the unfortunate political/economical/social realities of the world by being themselves. A political/economical/social system like slavery cannot be willed away by donning fancy capes and beating up the bad guys. Changing the status quo involves changing laws. It involves changing the hearts and minds of the society at large, of creating and sustaining new systems to dispense equity and justice. If superheroes tried to make this change by using their awesome power, how different could that be from Vandal Savage or Squadron Supreme seizing absolute power and enforcing the change they want through ironclad martial law?
I have a tendency to compare a superhero’s relationship with the status quo to my own as a social worker. Can you blame me, when there are memes like these below?
In social work school, my colleagues and I learned a lot about and discussed a lot about being agents of change as social workers. It’s an ideal we hold dear. The reality though is not unlike those superheroes who try to do everything to make the world a better place. On my end, I am a social worker in an apartment building that provides subsidized housing and therapy to people who used to be homeless and living with disabilities. I don’t think what I and my coworkers do has that big of an impact of changing the status quo of there being over 50,000 homeless people in New York City and the status quo of so many of those homeless people struggling daily with their mental and physical disabilities. My caseload at the most is about 23 individuals, and most of my work involves them maintaining their housing and their health – essentially protecting their status quo. That these 23 people had ended up homeless and with disabilities is just a small symptom of much larger societal issues such as wage stagnation, rising cost of affordable housing, inappropriate manner in which the justice system treats survivors of trauma and abuse, and move towards privatized managed care which has ended up apathetic to the needs of poor people with disabilities. The status quo needs changing, and I struggle very hard daily to ensure that these 23 people have their status quo to live with.
Theoretically, I believe strongly that superheroes can do more than maintain the status quo, and I think so too for social worker. The reality though is that it’s so very hard to do more, and there’s a dangerous line that could be crossed when wanting drastic change so badly that you become a power-hungry villain in doing so. Well, in the real world, villains aren’t so easy to point out. I wouldn’t call a Congressman a villain for accepting Super-PAC funds from a corporate lobbyist so that he could have enough campaign funds to be able to run for re-election. It becomes a cycle of wanting to consolidate more power/influence and then wanting to maintain that, all with the intention of using that power to make good changes to the status quo. That’s not villainy. That’s the reality of the corrupt system we live with. Like superheroes, everyday people wrestle with the dilemma surrounding power: can they use it to change the world for the better, or will their desire for power change them for the worse?