Why do comic-book movies so outrage my inner Grinch? I could tick off a bunch of reasons, beginning with filmmakers who take their themes far more seriously than their incoherent screenplays deserve. (To pick once more on V for Vendetta, someone please explain how our hero, despite wearing body armor thick enough to stop hundreds of bullets, can spin and flip and slice and dice through an army of frantically reloading fascists, like some wet dream from The Matrix.) Of course, writers have been imagining impossible heroes at least as far back as Gilgamesh; I have no illusions that contemporary blockbusters are special cases, beyond what the CGI can supply. And frankly, if my only objections were aesthetic ... well, who cares about my snobby tastes?
But Friday another more troubling objection occurred to me. V for Vendetta is typical of its genre in the lip service it pays to Über-Values such as freedom, justice, and popular sovereignty—the good guys aren't just exacting brutal vengeance on the bad guys, they're empowering the masses! Yet which of these movies has any real faith in the abilities of human beings—not superheroes but ordinary people and the institutions they create—to solve human problems? Governments, businesses, religions, the media—in plot after plot they are the root of the world's evil, or at least corrupted enablers, and humanity must wait for a savior from elsewhere. Born of despair, not hope.
Why is any of this relevant outside popular culture? Just listen to the rhetoric of our current political saviors, certainly on the right and, I fear, increasingly on the left. Is not the appeal of Donald Trump and—at least to hear his most fervent supporters—Bernie Sanders that of the superhero? The incorruptible ideal. The mighty man who will revitalize our institutions not by working within their structures but by blowing them up.
From this perspective, Hillary Clinton's greatest challenge this election season has nothing to do with email servers or philandering husbands. It is convincing voters that the institutions we have built—and especially our government—hold solutions to our problems. She needs to make the case passionately and proudly. And if elected, she—and her colleagues in office—need to solve problems. There are no superheroes to take the lead.