The Semiotics of Superheroes

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Ever since George Lucas mashed up Gene Roddenberry and J.R.R. Tolkien to create one of the most profitable movie franchises in cinematic history, fantasy has come to dominate the American box office—whether involving sci-fi space operas, sword-and-sorcery medievalism, extraterrestrials, superheroes, vampires, or zombies (just to name some of the most popular examples over the years).  So dominant has fantasy become that the question today isn’t whether any competing genre has emerged to challenge it but, rather, which sorts of fantasy are currently the most popular.  In the 1990s, for example, extraterrestrials seemed to be everywhere (The X-Files, Roswell), but they were eventually overtaken by vampires, who for quite some time looked like they would never be dethroned… until zombies came along, and then it looked like it was going to be all zombies, all the time, for all time.  But now superheroes rule the roost, with such one-time leaders of the cinematic super-pack as Batman and Spider-Man being currently eclipsed by Black Panther, Thor, Loki, Ant-Man, Shazam!, assorted Avengers, and a gang of Guardians that includes a highly precocious raccoon… just to name a few.

The semiotic question accordingly becomes: what does the currently unstoppable hegemony of the superhero tell us?

As is always the case in a semiotic analysis, we can begin to answer this question with the construction of a system of associations and differences. In the case of superheroes, that system begins with the invention of Superman in the 1930s, and extends forwards to every current star in the superverse (if I may coin a term).  What all these heroes have in common—and which is something that they share with such mythological heroes as Gilgamesh, Hercules, and Beowulf—is that they defend their societies from external threats and dangers.  The superhero, in short, offers the comforting reassurance that a fearsome world can be brought under control—that all, in the end, will be well, thanks to the superhero’s prowess and vigilance.

But there is a significant difference between the dangers presented in the early Superman and Batman sagas—threats to American society that were generally posed by such masterminds of organized crime as the Joker and the Penguin—and the fundamentally cosmic threats that haunt the superverse today.  For today the danger is existential: the entire universe is at stake, and without a band of Guardians or Avengers standing between humanity and the super villains who threaten to destroy us all, we would be doomed to extinction.

I think that the most likely (or abductive) explanation for the current preeminence of the existential superhero is to be found in the fact that we are not having a very good century.  From the events of 9/11 to the ever-increasing threat of environmental collapse posed by global warming (not to mention the after effects of the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic), things are not going well, and for the first time in their history Americans seem to be losing their traditional, and heretofore unshakable, optimism.  The current crop of superheroes accordingly reflects a growing uneasiness, a sense of implacable doom.

But popular culture mediates, as well as reflects, social distress, offering for the price of theater admission a comforting reassurance that all, in the end, will be well.  An Avengers: Infinity War, in which half the universe is destroyed, is followed by a sequel, Avengers: Endgame, in which the dead are brought back to life.  When necessary, the hypothetical existence of multi-verses can be trotted out, along with time travel and other sci-fi expedients, to revive the dead and restore normality.  Thus, in spite of how terrible everything looks in reality, today’s superheroes offer not only entertainment but a kind of existential salvation. 

Which, of course, is why such tales are called fantasies.


Photo by Craig McLachlan (2019), used under the Unsplash License.

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