Superheroes, Science Fiction, and Social Transformation

Since we are in a science-fictional mood around here lately, I thought it might be an appropriate time to share an idea I have been pondering ever since I finished the most recent season of Mr. Robot. I have mixed feelings about Mr. Robot‘s entertainment value, but I am intrigued by the conceptual corner they wrote themselves into. The first season was basically an extended homage to Fight Club, complete with a big reveal that two apparently separate characters were split personalities and a massive terrorist attack that should change the world in unpredictable ways. When season 2 started, you began to realize why there isn’t a Fight Club 2: the burden of world-building required by the consequences of the hack were too much for the show to bear. By the end of season 3, they had more or less resolved the damage done by the hack and returned us to a halfway recognizable version of our own world, where our heroes can use their unique abilities to pursue personal vengeance against a small group of individuals who have personally wronged them.

While Mr. Robot is not literally either a superhero or a science fiction show, I think this narrative dilemma is an interesting way of thinking about the difference between the two. In a superhero narrative, the conceit is that there happens to be some individual or group of individuals with special abilities, and this effectively changes nothing about how the world actually works. The world they live in is, broadly speaking, the same world we inhabit. I think we all recognize the absurdity of this scenario, because if there really was a Superman in our world, things would be very different — in unpredictable ways, based on the moral caliber of that person and who he allies himself with in our world.

By contrast, science fiction requires building a self-consistent new world. If it is supposed to be “our” future, there has to be some kind of account of the long road getting from there to here, at least in a long-running franchise like Star Trek. To the extent that a superhero franchise starts to take seriously the burden of world-building implied by the existence of a superhero, it begins to verge toward science fiction — but this is often a temporary plot arc that must be undone. I think Watchmen is exemplary here, because the discovery of a real superhero in this world that is populated by costumed, but merely human, crime-fighters does change everything (Dr. Manhattan develops new energy sources, for instance). And the arc of the story is that this must be undone so that we can return to our regular world, meaning that Dr. Manhattan must be driven away (which, by the way, is done more elegantly in the otherwise execrable film version than in the original comic book series). Among other things, then, Watchmen is a story about how to prevent a superhero narrative from turning into outright science fiction.

This distinction can apply by analogy to other genres. For instance, The Wire sometimes introduces plot elements that push toward more of a science-fictional world-building approach, most notably in the “Hamsterdam” plot in season 3. The creation of a “free zone” for drug use by a desperate police commander opens up all kinds of thought experiments about what the world would look like post-legalization — and it is pretty clear that it would not be all sweetness and light — but the need to give us a show about “our” world requires them to wind down the “Hamsterdam” plot by the end of the season, alongside the experiment in a peaceable drug co-op among the various dealers. Similarly, in season 5, McNulty’s desperate gambit of faking a serial killer to open up adequate police funding can’t make any long-term difference and turns out to end only his career. Bunny Colvin, Stringer Bell, and McNulty are not exactly superheroes, but they are unique in their ability to see beyond the boundaries of “the Game,” and they must be removed (whether through violence or retirement) in order for the show to return to our regular world.

For all its pessimism, The Wire‘s flirtation with the notion that one visionary could somehow make all the difference is wildly optimistic, undermining the show’s putative “gritty realism” — as naive, in its own way, as the superhero comic book’s view that the existence of super powers would leave our world unchanged. This inverted superhero bind, where the system must remove the individual who alone could change it, may point toward a deeper truth of the superhero/science fiction dyad. That is to say, maybe the two genres, as in Adorno’s theory of high art and pop culture, are two halves that don’t add up to a whole. The fantasy of a self-contained alternate world and a superhuman individual who nonetheless changes nothing both point toward a fatalism about the possibility of social transformation. The only form of agency we can imagine under capitalism is individual agency, but we know deep down that individual agency is not up to the task.

A hypothetical fourth season of The Wire where the “Hamsterdam” and drug co-op experiments were allowed to play out in full would represent the unification of these two halves into a whole — a fully realized alternate world that is grounded in an equally fully-realized portrayal of our world, brought about by the actions of merely human agents whose only superpower is an ability to mobilize social forces in unexpected directions.

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