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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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