Not just superheroes, really. Jedi too. Super-spies like 007 or Agent Carter. Badass detectives like Sherlock Holmes (whether Downey Jr, Bumblecatch or Miller).
Seriously, if I had an Iron Man suit waiting in my spare room, it’d be even dustier than the broken vacuum cleaner. If Thor’s hammer Mjolnir found me worthy then I’d use it to impress moralists and for cheap interstellar travel, but not to hit people with. If I had a lightsabre and some nifty telekinesis abilities, I’d think they were badass toys to help cut wood for the fire. If I was bitten by a radioactive spider then I would probably enjoy touring the rooftops of Canary Wharf and the City, but doubt I’d fight much crime.
Because a vital element in superhero narratives is the supervillain. As escapism, heroes are not only fantasies because they show ordinary people given the power to right the world’s wrongs: they are fantasies because they present evil as simple and soluble. They present the world’s wrongs as problems that a well-placed lightning bolt can fix.
Ultron – killer robot intent on wiping out humanity. Kill him.
Loki – killer god intent on subjugating humanity through alien invasion. Smash him.
Doctor Octopus – killer scientist willing to blow up a city for progress. Kill him.
Darth Sidious – practitioner of a sadist magic intent on a galactic dictatorship. Electrocute him.
Moriarty – killer genius in various forms. Throw him off a cliff.
Red Skull – killer Nazi demon general. Bring him up in every internet debate. Also: kill him.
The world’s real problems just don’t have such discrete short sharp shock solutions; that is why they’re frustrating, and it’s largely why they are our problems.
Let’s take the most cut and dried evil on the planet at the moment, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and Isis. Yes, if you were Wolverine you could make a bloody mess of them and probably kill their leader. Except killing their leader does not work. Boko Haram’s founder and leader Mohammed Yusuf was executed in 2009. The movement got stronger. Osama Bin Laden was shot by US troops. Al Qaeda currently controls over half of Yemen. Western bombing has (possibly) killed several Isis commanders. They’re still on top across northern Iraq and Syria.
Right, OK, so you need to Hulk out and kill all their fighters. Let’s say that’s fine, you take down every living Isis member. What now? Bashir al-Assad retakes northern Syria and continues to repress it. You kill all Assad’s army. You leave a chaotic traumatised husk of a country full of petty warlords, many of whom have the potential to become a second Isis. Most of the population hate you because you hit their cousin with your green fist of justice.
Oh, and you’ve doubled the refugee crisis. Now everyone in the Middle East is trying to get away from a genocidal green monster. Are you going to stay in hulk form to rebuild roads, airports, factories and tower blocks?
(That’s quite a nice image actually)
And those are just the easy problems. What could a hero do to resolve the Israel-Palestine problem?
Luke Skywalker or Professor Xavier could, with great effort, mind control every hawk on both sides for the rest of their lives so they come to a permanent settled solution. That seems, however well motivated, a level of authoritarianism that nobody would choose. It means Luke/Charles have the perfect solution to the problem and need no other input.
Then you get to the serious problems. What are any of these heroes going to do about stock market instability? About racial aggravation or homophobia? Gender violence? How are they going to convince Europe and America to take hundreds of thousands of migrants? How are they going to reverse climate change or tackle local government corruption in developing states?
Then there’s the accountability problem. The whole point of masked avengers is that they’re vigilantes outside the usual responsibilities of law enforcement, but is that something we actually want? Even with laws and accountability, many people across the world hate their police forces. They can be over-violent, prejudiced, corrupt. Plus they, and even more so a solo hero, have fallible judgement.
In Iron Man II the Senate tries to take Tony Stark’s suit away. The senators are painted as stupid fools getting in the way of Stark, the only person who can use his creation, the libertarian hero protecting his intellectual property. Well, maybe he should be able to keep the suit itself, but he should basically never be allowed to use it. Whenever he takes off he breaks numerous airspace safety measures. Are civilians actually allowed missile launchers and machine guns in all US states? And when he flies to the Middle East, how does he know he won’t trigger a wider war with every illegal repulsor ray he fires? Would he accept being called to Geneva Convention trials or war crimes tribunals?
Obviously some superheroes can do good. Bruce Wayne could put his money to philanthropy, jobs and anti-corruption to make Gotham a sustainable clean city. Tony Stark can design all kinds of non-weapon useful technology and promote energy efficiency (as he briefly fantasises in his first film) as well as the above. The mutants can make a good case for inclusion and acceptance. But solving the world through violence or mind control? You can only do that if there’s a baddie bad enough to get badass with.