There’s an idea that sometimes raises its head in pop culture discussions that superheroes are fundamentally fascist. (Here’s a version of the argument from a few years back, some pushback from the time, and some more recent reflections on the same idea.) The essential argument is that superheroes are a version of the might-makes-right ideology of fascism, grounded in the idea that the only way to solve problem is to look to a single, nearly (or actually) superhuman individual who reshapes the world, often with violence. Superhero stories portray a world incapable of coping with injustice without the intervention of such a superior individual, which is the same claim made by fascist movements, whether past or present. Others have objected to this idea, pointing out that while fascists seek power, superheroes traditionally reject it, many of them even hiding behind secret identities to avoid even taking credit for the good they do.
As with many challenging ideas, there may be some merit in both sides of the argument, but I think it helps us make sense of the debate to look at it from a greater distance and think about both superheroes and fascism in the deeper context they both draw on: heroes. I’ll speak specifically about the heroes of Greek mythology—in part because they are the ones I know best, and in part because they were particular points of reference both for the fascist movements of the twentieth century and for the creators of early superheroes—but similar patterns can be found in cultures throughout the world.
Heroes in ancient Greece were not just figures of myth and story; they were surrounded with religious, cultural, and political significance. Their significance varied, though, with time and context.
Some of the earliest signs of the veneration of heroes is archaeological. In the 800s and 700s BCE, there is evidence for religious rituals at tombs dating from the Mycenaean period hundreds of years earlier. The people of the ninth and eight centuries had very little understanding of the realities of the Mycenaean kingdoms, but they seem to have associated those tombs with heroic figures from their mythic past. These characters first appear to us in literary form in the Homeric epics as warrior kings like Achilles, Agamemnon, and Odysseus, but their legends must have been circulating in oral tradition for generations before.
In the eighth century, these heroes were claimed as literal, direct ancestors by aristocratic families around Greece. These families maintained the ceremonies at the Mycenaean tombs and sponsored the poets who performed epics like the Iliad and Odyssey. The claims they made to descent from such famous heroes were political, part of how they competed for power against rival families. The epics reflect the way in which heroes were perceived as the exclusive property of the aristocrats—when the rank-and-file soldier Thersites dares speak up against Agamemnon in the Iliad, the hero Odysseus gives him a dressing down for daring to challenge his betters and threatens to strip him naked and beat him with Agamemnon’s scepter. When Odysseus returns home to Ithaca, he comes home not as a leader of the whole community but as an avenging warlord defending his own property against rivals. (Homer, Iliad 2.212-277; Homer, Odyssey 22)
But heroes did not remain the sole property of the aristocrats. In the volatile politics of the seventh and sixth centuries, those who agitated to wrest power from the entrenched aristocrats and create more inclusive democratic governments also laid claim to the heroes. Figures of myth were reinterpreted not as the literal ancestors of specific families but as part of the shared heritage of whole communities. Some heroes were claimed by cities in the regions they were historically connected to, such as Theseus in Athens or Orestes in Sparta. Other heroes, like Heracles, were more wide-ranging, and could be invoked by the Greeks who traveled and settled throughout the Mediterranean.
The process of making these heroes the collective heritage of a community rather than the exclusive property of aristocratic families had many aspects. Unlike the private tomb cults of the ninth and eighth centuries, heroes and their worship became part of communal religious practices, including public shrines and festivals. The stories of heroes were reimagined; unlike the Homeric heroes, who behaved as larger-than-life aristocrats defending their own private interests, heroes of the later archaic and classical periods were defenders of their homelands and peoples who stood for justice. Theseus, for instance, is portrayed unifying the people of Athens by journeying through Attica and around nearby coastlands slaying dangerous monsters and subduing bandits and murderers—a long way from Odysseus slaughtering his wife’s suitors to defend his own home and property. Heroes were often physically incorporated into the life of the community through the practice of collecting and preserving what were believed to be their bones. Herodotus recounts how the Spartans brought the bones of Orestes back to Sparta from neighboring Tegea to give them victory in war and how Greek preparations for the naval battle against the invading Persians at Salamis included sending a ship to the island of Aegina to retrieve sacred images of the hero Aeacus and his equally heroic sons. These relics belonged to whole communities, not to single families. By these means, the exclusive, aristocratic heroes of early Greece became the collective, democratic heroes of the classical age. (Herodotus, Histories 1.67-68, 8.64, 8.84; Plutarch, Parallel Lives, “Life of Theseus”)
The tension between these two kinds of heroes—the exclusive ones who justify the power of a narrow elite and the inclusive ones who stand for the best qualities of a whole community—is not unique to ancient Greece. We can see it repeated in cultures throughout history up to the present day. The “heroes” involved need not be figures of myth and legend, either; historical figures, celebrities, and political leaders can receive the same treatment as well.
Fascism and superheroes both draw on this history, but they apply different aspects of it. Fascism looks back to the exclusive, aristocratic kind of heroism that claimed a connection with great figures of myth and history to justify the power of a limited group, whether defined by class, ethnicity, family, or political affiliation. Fascist leaders of the twentieth century claimed the heritage of a semi-historical, semi-mythical past as an exclusive property of their followers. Modern quasi-fascistic movements have a similar obsession with jealously gatekeeping their own chosen semi-historical models, from the inhabitants of medieval Europe to the Founders of the United States.
Superheroes, by contrast, represent the inclusive, democratic response that makes heroes represent not the interests of a self-defined elite but the aspirations of a broad community. Superman is the immigrant experience in the US writ large. Captain America stands for the courage and integrity of Americans at their best, while Iron Man represents Americans rising to do the right thing despite the arrogance and materialism that defines them at their worst. The “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” is the neighborhood Spider-Man for a reason.
So my answer, in the end, is: no, superheroes aren’t fascist, even if they draw on some of the same roots. Fascism is the modern world’s darkest kind of heroism; superheroes are our answer.
Image: A version of Captain America’s shield, photograph by ze_bear via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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