Charlie Jane Anders is the author of “Victories Greater Than Death,” to be published in April.
At a moment when the public sphere is a battlefield and our leaders seem unable to agree on even basic facts, consider an unexpected source of hope: superheroes.
When the latest superhero team-up, the long-awaited, four-hour version of director Zack Snyder’s “Justice League,” arrives on HBO Max on March 18, it will offer viewers a world in which epic heroes can come together to address major, seemingly insoluble problems — even when they hardly agree on anything.
In recent decades, superhero stories have emphasized — and drawn a lot of their drama from — differences in their characters’ ideologies and worldviews. When Superman and Batman aren’t actively trying to murder each other, for example, they often disagree on fundamental ideas of justice. Starting in the mid-1980s, writers such as John Byrne and Frank Miller highlighted the fact that Batman inherited vast wealth, which he uses in a vigilante campaign to cleanse his city of criminal “scum,” while Superman is an immigrant boy scout, who tries to see the good in everyone.
“A lot of the most interesting internal conflicts within superhero teams are based on deeper ideological divides,” says comics critic Douglas Wolk, author of the forthcoming “All of the Marvels.”
In the Justice League, the left-wing Green Arrow and the right-wing Hawkman have frequently been at loggerheads. And Marvel Comics built a decade of storylines around the clash between what Wolk describes as “Captain America’s defense of individual liberties and Iron Man’s embrace of technocratic surveillance and control.” The key, says Wolk, is that these are characters “who basically agree on ends and disagree vehemently about means.”
And that may be the greatest escapist fantasy of all: a world in which everyone can agree on the nature of the problems we face, even if they sometimes argue about the best solution. Today, it’s almost easier to believe in people who can shoot lasers out of their eyes than to imagine everyone across the political spectrum sharing the same reality.
But when you see a godlike alien cooperating with heroes out of fables and Greek myths, you might not find it so hard to imagine more productive collaborations in the real world. These teams don’t just bring everybody together to work for the common good — they also make room for people from vastly different cultures and experiences, and they triumph when members learn to respect each other’s abilities and perspectives.
The best of these team-ups aren’t just one-offs: What are groups such as the Justice League or the Avengers but nongovernmental organizations, with more capes and fewer acronyms? Now more than ever, we need stories about larger-than-life people who are concerned with founding something altruistic that will outlast them.
It’s no accident that the most famous superhero teams were invented during a time of frenetic alliance-building among major powers, such as the United Nations, the Warsaw Pact, NATO and the Nuremberg tribunal, says Wolk. The writers of superhero comics were inspired by these real-life multinational efforts to create formal organizations, with charters and iconography and some kind of permanent headquarters, bringing together “radically different entities” under one flag. Eventually, the comics version of Justice League received a special charter from the United Nations, allowing its members to operate around the world.
When heroes form permanent teams, they provide a sense of “found family” and “a place to belong,” says Gail Simone, who has written team books such as “Secret Six,” “Birds of Prey” and “The Movement.” Like most families, these teams have their fair share of rifts, betrayals and awkward family dinners. But superhero stories don’t treat those divisions as fatal, just as opportunities to explore big ideas.
The goal of all this team-building? To establish something that can outlast changes of membership and the occasional apocalypse, an organization that is bigger than any one member. In an age when multinational cooperation is on the wane and trust in public institutions at a low ebb, watching superheroes invest in creating a shared symbol can be downright inspiring.
Right before covid-19 hit, the CW brought together every superhero in its web of comic-book shows in a massive crossover, “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” In the story’s final scene, every surviving hero gathers in their new shared headquarters, complete with a table emblazoned with their separate emblems as well as an eternal flame, symbolizing a lasting commitment to one another.
They may not know what disasters await them, and neither do we. But they have one thing going for each other that we could badly use: the certainty that whatever comes, they’re dedicated to facing and fighting it together.