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From Right to Left: Ranking the Politics of Superheroes

Alan Moore suspected that most comic book heroes are, at their core, conservative, a theme he explored at great length in The Watchmen. Was he right? With Civil War in theatres and an impending presidential election in the United States, we thought it’d be fun to have a look at some of the more iconic heroes and attempt to place them on the political spectrum. For the purposes of this article, the more a hero tries to defend the status quo, the more right-wing they are. Conversely, those that try to create change in their world lean more towards the left.

I’m sure some of you will disagree. That’s fine. (I can’t believe you did Cap like that. – Disgruntled left-leaning pro-Cap Editor) But disagreement is what makes politics fun, so feel free to let us know what we got wrong!

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The Conservatives: Batman, the Captain, and Most Villains

Batman tries to help his community and his city but it’s hard to paint him as anything other than conservative. He’s rich and individualistic and uses punitive action to beat up criminals. His relationship with police perfectly captures a conservative worldview. While not trusting the government to be particularly competent, he thinks authorities such as Commissioner Gordon generally have their heart in the right place. At the same time, many of the lower level police can’t be trusted. This depiction of a “well-meaning incompetent government”, which needs a rich individual to help it along, captures the essence of conservatism.

The case for Captain America as a right-wing candidate is obvious: he’s patriotic and a living embodiment of the innate exceptionalism of the culture and country in which he was raised. He literally harkens back to another time. However, Cap is admittedly more complex than that. His moral expectation that his country can always become better captures a tinge of leftism that would give true die-hard conservatives cause for concern. Captain America’s strong (and unaccountable) use of power to beat up bad guys is downright neoconservative, while his “right-to-bear-arms” worldview in Civil War incorporates some fringe elements of liberalism and conservatism that mainstream conservatives shun.

Other Right-Wing heroes? Iron Man is similar to Batman, albeit more of a big-government conservative given his military contracts. It does make for an interesting philosophical conflict in Civil War, which sets two types of conservatism against each other. The Fantastic Four are family oriented techno-utopians who carry a certain 1950s domestic worldview, while Dream in The Sandman is probably the most nuanced view of a character who resists change while seeking order.

Villains, meanwhile, are overwhelmingly right-wing. They are often privileged in terms of skill and wealth, like the aristocratic Dr. Doom or the industrialist Green Goblin. They are sometimes outwardly fascist such as the Red Skull. They tend to work alone or in a very hierarchical world, seeking power for the sake of power, like nearly every (poorly motivated) Marvel movie villain. Does that make comics biased against the right? Not necessarily. I’ve always thought villainy is empowering, but that’s an article for another day.

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The Centrists: Superman, Spiderman, and the Majority of Heroes

Superman is a great iconic hero. He’s above the nitty-gritty of politics, which pushes him to the centre. However, a talented writer can make him politicized in an entertaining way, such as in Red Son, where Superman grew up in Soviet Ukraine rather than American Kansas. Is Superman as centrist as we sometimes assume, or is he a product of his environment?

Spider-Man deserves a mention and is perhaps the least politically charged hero of all. His New York working-class background puts him firmly in the centre fighting a mix of corrupt rich guys and low-level thugs. His balanced attitude towards the opportunity and dangers of science shows a very pragmatic view towards progress.

Some villains are just in it for money and don’t subscribe to any ideal beyond “looking out for yourself.” Beginning with Catwoman, there’s a long list of bank robbers that tends towards the right but that has a certain disrespect for “order” that doesn’t quite work with conservatism. Meanwhile, how do you classify an anarchist like the Joker? I’m tempted to throw him to the left because of his rejection of anything resembling order, but leftists generally try to destroy the old to replace it with something new. The two-dimensional political spectrum is inadequate for the Joker and for Deadpool. 

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The Leftists: X-Men, Wonder-Woman, and Others that Try to Change the World

It’s pretty obvious that the X-Men are the most progressive group. The X-Men, rather than defend society, seem to genuinely want society to change. Yes, the X-Men are a little elitist and look down on those Morlocks in a way that doesn’t speak well of their class solidarity, but what leftist doesn’t have a touch of snobbery? The X-Men’s attitude towards government borders on libertarian insofar as they fear any form of registration.

The X-Men are also a cut above the rest when it comes to its attitude towards women and minorities. Giant Size X-Men #1 might have used an international cast as a gimmick at first, but characters such as Storm, Colossus, and Nightcrawler were the first of many important, strong, and diverse characters. The X-Men have always had sympathies with a broad range of people who feel excluded by society, shifting the team decidedly to the left.

Wonder Woman, the feminist icon, has fought her fair share of misogyny, breaking her way into a male-dominated profession. It’s tempting to throw a lot of women and non-white heroes into a centre-left mold, though the label doesn’t always fit. When Catwoman punches the Penguin in the nose, it doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s fighting the patriarchy with every blow (see above). Green Arrow shows a more consistent commitment to a leftist ideal with his “steal from the rich, give to the poor” mentality.

Many of the newer heroes are also more left-wing. The great writers behind Y: The Last Man, Scott Pilgrim, and Squirrel Girl make a point to display progressive worldviews with their characters, and the trend makes sense. Characters without 50 years of continuity baggage are more easily depicted as progressive. A neutral centrist character like Archie doesn’t become a gay rights advocate overnight after decades of saying nothing on the issue.

Left-Wing villains? Aside from the old Soviet villains of the Silver-Age like the Red Mandarin, villains seem to drift to the right. However, Magneto’s mutant liberation shows how he is a villain that is trying to build something greater. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor is typically right-wing, but the depiction of him in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has him attempting to humble the powerful, which captures a certain leftist flair.

Final thoughts

On the whole, I think Alan Moore remains correct. Comic characters are mostly right-wing, at least when it comes to the most iconic ones. Perhaps that’s the nature of icons; they carry a heavy bias towards the status quo and individualism. But I like reading between the lines, and I like when writers play with politics a little. I hope you do too!

Where would you rank other heroes and villains? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

 


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Comments

  • Tommyzax

    This article is so full of crap. Nazis are not “right-wing.” They are socialists who hate everyone not like them. Just like liberals. Just because Cap has a heart doesn’t make him leftist, it makes him awesome, and Iron Man isn’t right-wing at all, he’s apolitical.

  • Evan Forshage

    Iron Man is an Objectivist- not counting Civil War- which is often criticised for not portraying its two main characters well. The Nazis claimed to be socialists but banned socialism and communism from Germany, and are considered center right by historians. Even so, their stated goal was to return Germany back to its roots, which is in line with this articles definition of conservatism as those who conserve.

  • DarthYan

    actually no. The nazis hated socialists and in many ways were not only all cozy but hated change in many ways. Socially they were as right wing as you can get

  • murderousjohnny

    I agree with Alan more. Like a lot of these super hereos wouldn’t even work if they where left wing at their core that being said they are all being written by left wing people lmao. It actually bring balance because no matter how left wing a writer is they won’t be able to alter the core of the character. That being said it is annoying because left wing stuff gets a lot of lip service but people who actually use their brains will notice what Alan moore noticed despite all the left wing lip service.

  • rorschach00

    Some points here: that whole gun confiscation thing by the nazi’s
    doesn’t sound very right wing. And the term Nazi, which is a
    concatenation of the abbreviated ‘national socialist’ party name. That
    doesn’t sound right wing. Hitler’s rise to power using class warfare as
    a primary argument was not right wing. Hitler’s state run labor
    organizations (unions under government control), doesn’t really stick as
    a right wing concept. Hitlers belief that capitalism was evil (an evil
    wielded by the Jews against the German people) is not right wing.
    Hitler’s use of the SA (young, angry, politically motivated thugs) to
    disrupt the oppositions rallies and silence any opposition sounds
    frighteningly familiar to modern left wing American tactics today.
    Hitler’s evolving micromanagement of every aspect of German life, and
    the size and level of government power required to do so, is leftist as
    well.

    The argument that nazi’s hated socialists is a mixed
    bag. Once Hitler took office all bets were off, sure. But he rode the
    national socialist movement to victory using socialist selling points to
    get there. Nazi’s always hated communists, because the nazi rise to
    power was threatened by communist parties of the 20′s and early 30′s.
    Sure, the intent by Hitler was never to maintain a socialist government,
    the goal was authoritarian rule. But the political vehicle that Hitler
    rode to authoritarianism was the consolidation of powers that could
    only be provided to him using socialist means.

    And please,
    before you say nationalism, nationalism is not a left wing or right wing
    only concept. Leftists today point to nationalism primarily because
    today most Americans associate love of country with conservatism. But
    nationalism is a means of rallying citizens to the cause of their
    government regardless of the type of government it is, and can be
    invoked by any entity of any political persuasion, be it left, right,
    communist, socialist, fascist, republic, monarchy, whatever.

    Past that, dig the article. Fun to meditate over this stuff.

  • DarthYan

    When in power hitler gave corporations a lot of cushy treatment and tax breaks; socially his policies against Jews and others were more conservative ideals

  • rorschach00

    “We are socialists, we are enemies of today’s capitalistic economic system.” – Adolf Hitler, may 1, 1927.

    And the use of racial politics for power in any form has been an exclusively leftist trait for the past half century+ in my opinion. I’m sure that’s not a popular answer, but I believe history supports this.

    And finally, Hitler speaking on his evolved sense of socialism, one that goes beyond private enterprise to a frightening brand of political control over the individual:
    “There is no license any more, no private sphere where the individual
    belongs to himself. That is socialism, not such trivial matters as the
    possibility of privately owning the means of production. Such things
    mean nothing if I subject people to a kind of discipline they can’t
    escape…What need have we to socialize banks and factories? We
    socialize human beings”.

  • DarthYan

    Nice try but in general the people who advocate racial dogwhistles are right wingers (welfare queens, the willie Horton thing). Fuck the republicans themselves admitted to the southern strategy (which was basically “appeal to the racists by blaming the ****ers

    So no. Conservatives are the racists

  • rorschach00

    Interesting that you’ve got to dig back a half century or so for your examples. Everyone knows that racial politics is the bread and butter of the democratic party today and has been for decades. It’s all about division and animosity to acquire the support needed to gain power. Dems use that same basic strategy today that all socialists (including HItler) used; declare that the country has ‘sides’, divide the nation by those lines, point to the opposing side and demonize them and use that anger to propel them to power. Just ask yourself: Which American political party today uses class/race/gender/sex as a political weapon? Which party markets anger, not anger over policy, but anger based on class and race and gender and sex? History is very clear about how left leaning movements, be they socialist, communist, or fascist movements, all used this exact same playbook to rally the masses to surrender their power. Pigs in the farmhouse my friend. If you are honest about your answers to these questions, it’s obvious.