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Posted at 03:52 PM ET, 11/03/2011

Real-life superhero Phoenix Jones fired, and other sad tales of men in capes


It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a man wearing underwear outside of his pants! (STAFF - REUTERS)
As a general rule, if you are wearing a cape, something has gone wrong.

If you are wearing a cape and a mask, get out of there and try to change. Nothing good will come of this. Halloween is over.

Maybe I've just been reading “Watchmen” lately, or maybe I ate the cynical breakfast special by mistake, but there is little that is impressive and much that is disconcerting about actual would-be superheroes.

For anyone who was debating this point — “I don't know, I find that spandex generally inspires respect” — the recent events in the life of Phoenix Jones, aka Benjamin Fodor, a real-life Seattle superhero (as one web comic joked, “What's a crime in Seattle? Too much foam on your latte?”) should prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

Fodor was arrested for pepper-spraying a group of people. He claims they were fighting. They claim they were dancing. He has now lost his job and is banned from working with children.

Now Jones says he hopes to continue fighting crime during the day.

Here is a good piece of advice for him and anyone else thinking of dressing up as a superhero and fighting crime: Don’t.

I realize that my attempts at logical persuasion are unlikely to accomplish anything with a man who built himself a suit of armor, painted it gold and has been patrolling the Seattle streets by dark of night. Fodor even made videos displaying his heroism, his marketing savvy or some combination thereof. Some would say his only superpower was attracting bad publicity, but that is hardly a unique gift in our day and age. This will not stop my trying, however. (If I had a superpower, it would be the unwillingness to abandon a point in the face of audience indifference.)

There’s always trouble when people can’t draw the line between fact and fiction. And the trouble is that people blame the fiction.

But if Mr. Fodor thinks that comic books are actually embracing the idea that you ought to dress up in a suit and fight crime, he’s missing the point of superhero stories. I could go on and on about Joseph Campbell and the power of myth and Ubermensch figures striding through our subconscious since time immemorial (Gilgamesh didn’t involve spandex, but that was his loss), but the last time I invoked Joseph Campbell it went badly and my commenters urged me to go to the Dark Realm and not bother to come back with a boon.

If you ponder the superhero narratives that have sunk into our popular consciousness, obliging us to file respectfully into our multiplexes each summer bearing gold, the clearest lesson seems to be: Don’t dress up in a suit and fight crime, or you will be killed (seldom), or your family will be killed (always), or the Earth will be destroyed by a man on a surfboard, or your family and friends will turn into supervillains, or your life story will be turned into a musical that keeps dropping its lead actors into the audience.

Look, if Superman, an alien whose only vulnerability is that he is excessively Nietschean Kryptonite, has difficulty maintaining romantic relationships and eventually perishes, you are not going to fare any better. Batman doesn’t have to hold down a day job. I don’t actually know where Wolverine lives or what he does during the day, but I assume it doesn’t require clearance to work with children.

Grow up.

As Cracked.com points out, living in a world with superheroes is generally an unappetizing proposition. The fact that Batman, an emotionally unexpressive vigilante with a suit that sometimes includes visible nipples, is viewed as a hero at all indicates how bleak life in Gotham is. Live in the Marvel universe, and mutants keep rampaging through your village, demanding equal rights and shoving allegories down your throat when you are trying to enjoy a quiet evening at home.

Most superheroes are just people who had strange childhoods. Their capes get caught in revolving doors. They have difficulty getting out of their costumes in time to make it to the restroom.

 Sure, most of us have felt the impulse at some time. Our culture is saturated with superheroes. Perhaps if we just found the right spandex outfit and sallied forth into the night, we too might be able to right some wrongs. But then we realize that it is important to have a day job. Or most of us do.

Phoenix Jones’s choices have actually backfired. When someone tells us he works teaching life skills to autistic children (Fodor’s day job), we clasp our hands and murmur, “What a superhero!” When someone tells us he dresses up in a cape and mask at night and attempts to fight crime, we frown and inch away. “Sounds like he had a weird childhood,” we mutter.

According to the comments after his arrest, most of the work of Seattle’s Real-Life Superheroes consisted of escorting drunk people home safely. If only he’d stuck with that.

But even then, I'm not sure you’d need to wear a cape.

By  |  03:52 PM ET, 11/03/2011

 
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