THE NEW AGE OF SUPERHEROES

Being rich isn’t a superpower, and Steve Jobs isn’t Spider-Man

By Tim Carmody

Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is now rich. In the comics, Peter Parker—once a schlubby, penny-pinching student, freelance photographer, and amateur scientist from the modest side of Forest Hills, Queens—is now the founder and CEO of Parker Industries, a global consumer technology company akin to Batman’s Wayne Enterprises or Iron Man’s Stark Industries. Like Tony Stark did for years with Iron Man (and Bruce Wayne more recently with Batman), Parker now even pretends that Spider-Man is his own bodyguard, as well as a Parker Industries company mascot/spokesperson.

Marvel’s long resisted major changes to the Spider-Man template. But in The Amazing Spider-Man’s relaunch this week, Parker’s company is bigger than ever, with offices in New York, Shanghai, London, and San Francisco. Its main product, Webware, is like a cross between Facebook’s Internet.org and the Apple Watch made good: inexpensive worldwide wireless access to the Internet via a wrist device that ever-so-slightly resembles Spider-Man’s web shooters.

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In his debut in Amazing Fantasy #15, Peter Parker learns that “with great power, there must also come — great responsibility.” In the new Amazing Spider Man #1, the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko motto gets an update. “With great power…” Parker says in a Webware ad on the comic’s first page, “comes greater speed, storage, and battery life.” (Apparently, appealing to responsibility doesn’t exactly move product.)

This same week also sees the release of the Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin film Steve Jobs—a film that Sony, the studio with the rights to Spider-Man, lost. It’s almost as if the two characters have switched places: Spider-Man’s recent movies haven’t been great successes, so we turn to Steve Jobs; Jobs isn’t alive to be a heroic inventor figure any more, so we have Peter Parker. Two orphans, two origin stories, two examinations of power and neurosis. Sorkin and Boyle admit Steve Jobs is not really about Steven Paul Jobs, the man who was born in 1955 and died in 2011, any more than Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex is about the real royal family of ancient Thebes. Instead, it uses the character of Steve Jobs—the myth—as a vehicle to tell a story. Sorkin compares it to a painting rather than a photograph, but perhaps the better analogy is to a comic book. Steve Jobs is a reboot, a retcon; a fresh approach to the subject: a powerful, conflicted man with the ability to distort reality—sharing an actor with the X-Men’s young Magneto. It is a superhero story, and the superhero’s identity is Steve Jobs.

“With great power… comes greater speed, storage, and battery life.”

That these two stories appear in the same week seems more than mere coincidence. It doesn’t seem like an accident that Spider-Man now joins Iron Man and Batman in the ranks of the rich, making three of the world’s most popular superheroes wealthy inventor-entrepreneurs by day, crime fighters by night. It seems like a symptom.

• • •

Every age gets the heroes it deserves—or rather, the heroes it needs to do a certain kind of cultural work. Superhero stories have become our Greek dramas — popular entertainment built around larger-than-life figures with rich histories playing out complex fables of power, morality, and democracy. We tell the stories over and over again, either taking their characters back to their roots or placing them in fresh scenarios. We use these stories to explore new fantasies and solve new problems.

There are many issues playing themselves out in contemporary superhero stories—race and gender representation, surveillance and militarization, LGBT rights and identities, to name just a few. It’s strange, however, that one of the most important is one of the least talked-about: the disproportionate power wielded by the rich, whether wealthy individuals or wealthy societies. Wealth may be the buried theme of both contemporary comics and contemporary politics. Talking about superheroes and superpowers without talking about money misses an enormous part of the story—not least because the business of superheroes is bigger than ever, and the companies behind our most popular superheroes are some of the largest conglomerates in the world.

Now, it’s true that many superheroes have been rich: Batman’s Bruce Wayne and Iron Man’s Tony Stark were created as millionaire playboys decades ago. And this makes sense. As Spider-Man’s adventures showed for years, super-heroics don’t pay the bills: it’s difficult being a gadget-driven superhero (or any kind of superhero) without first having money to burn. But over time, Bruce Wayne stopped being just an idle heir and Tony Stark stopped being just an eccentric arms dealer, and both became hero figures much more recognizable to the 21st century: the genius entrepreneur. These characters are less Howard Hughes (the original model for Tony Stark) and more Elon Musk, less J. Robert Oppenheimer and more Mark Zuckerberg. They are brilliant futurists, larger than life—the people we ask to show us the future, and hope that they will help make the world one worth saving.

We don’t have warriors and war heroes at the center of our popular consciousness any more. We have entrepreneurs and superheroes.

We don’t have warriors and war heroes at the center of our popular consciousness any more; we don’t have kings and queens, gods or monsters. We have entrepreneurs and superheroes: incarnations of a myth of the heroic individual. These are the titanic figures, at the junction of capitalism and futurism, whose actions have disproportionate effects on our world—actions and effects the rest of us are trying to grapple with. The Social Network, Steve Jobs (both the book and the movie), Ashlee Vance’s biography Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In—all are about businesses and entrepreneurship but also have a strong element of inspiration and self-help, and not just for budding business leaders but the larger public, to a degree we haven’t seen since the days of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

They offer, in short, much the same appeal as comic books.

The sociologist Thomas Streeter argues in “Steve Jobs, Romantic Individualism, and the Desire for Good Capitalism” that these myths play an important role in contemporary culture. For Streeter:

The romanticized version of Jobs’ life offers a story wherein one can imagine a capitalism with integrity, a capitalism where one’s inner life, one’s flaws, one’s passions are appreciated and lead to good things. The Jobs narrative offers the appealing vision of an idealized, productive, humane capitalism contrasted with the speculative, predatory kind of capitalism, unconnected to useful objects or activities, that appeared in the headlines after 2008. The name of Steve Jobs has become the symbol for the opposite of a Wall Street financial manipulator. Jobs functions, not always but often, as a signifier of good capitalism, of industrial capitalism with moral integrity. And in a world straining awkwardly, perhaps desperately, for ways to reconcile capitalist production with political democracy, that signifier can seem immensely useful and attractive.

Now consider The Amazing Spider-Man #1. Peter Parker is still a superhero, a good guy—so the story’s authors go out of their way to dot every I and cross every T to make sure we know that he’s still a good guy, one still obsessed with “great responsibility.” Parker explains that his goal with Parker Industries isn’t to save the world—which superheroes do every day—but to “make a world worth saving.” Over the course of the issue, we learn that his factories in China pay fair wages, that he’s taken a minimum salary, and that along with consumer products, the company works on biotechnology and renewable energy. When SHIELD helps Spider-Man stop thieves who’ve made off with Parker Industries’ customer data, Spider-Man strong-arms Nick Fury into handing the data back without the government taking a peek. He’s even started an “Uncle Ben Foundation” with the vague but noble mandate of “going around the globe using Parker Industries technology to help the less fortunate and raise the quality of life wherever we can.” It’s half Gates Foundation, half Batman Incorporated.

The business of superheroes is bigger than ever, and the companies behind our most popular superheroes are some of the largest conglomerates in the world.

“We’re not here to build a fortune,” Parker says, “we’re here to build the future.” In short, as a businessman, a superhero, and a human being, the new Peter Parker, the world’s greatest self-made superhero, is impeccably, improbably, offensively good. Peter Parker is what you get if you tally our persistent anxieties about the power and personality of Jobs, Zuckerberg, Bezos, et al—and then just alleviate them: the perfectly polished superhero entrepreneur. If the real Steve Jobs is not available to serve as our imaginary heroic capitalist—whether because his personality is too flawed, the businesses he built are too imperfect, or simply because we can’t continue to tell new stories about him—Spider-Man is available forever.

This is not to say that all CEO superheroes are as perfect as Peter Parker. For Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Oliver Queen, and other wealthy superheroes, exploring business gives the writers room to explore the characters’ flaws and mistakes: their obsessiveness, their addictions, their immaturity. In fact, often these characters can sometimes seem barely likable. But in many ways—just as with Steve Jobs—this focus on flaws is still an act of reconciliation and never really jars the premise that the story being told is the story of a hero. The assumption remains that, barring a mind swap with a supervillain or a mystical personality reversal, these men (and it’s almost always men) are fundamentally good.

On the outside they may be flaky, boorish, and arrogant. Still, they feel things, have powerful value systems, and ultimately want most of all to improve the world—if not save it. If they were not superheroes, Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne would be awful people. (They also resemble many young men in the worlds of business and technology.) Because we know Stark and Wayne are superheroes—and because we intimately know the history and personality traits that drive them—we forgive them everything. (Can you think of a better way to try to understand Elon Musk?) Despite their flaws, our superheroes are what we want our capitalists to be.

His goal with Parker Industries isn’t to save the world—which superheroes do every day—but to “make a world worth saving.”

More subtly, they also give us tools we can use to understand ourselves—to reconcile our own wealth and power relative to others, our own status as citizens of global superpowers in a world filled with injustice, a world needing to be saved.

• • •

Last May, venture capitalist and Netscape founder Marc Andreessen posted one of his famous tweetstorms, a multi-part Twitter essay on what he called “the ‘superpowers’ metaphor for how new technologies enhance human capabilities.” After establishing a fairly familiar base—control of fire as a kind of magic, steam power as a kind of super-strength, the ability to fly or travel at super speed through the use of planes and trains, the analogies, focusing on the last 10 years and the near future, became increasingly specific and byzantine:

And in years to come:

Some of these examples are quite compelling, as is the whole of the essay—among other things, it touches on complex ideas about how technology disrupts the relationships between the individual, society, and the state. The superpower metaphor is a powerful way to understand both these new capabilities and the changes that they cause. Still, it is unsettling to see superpowers roughly equated with business plans for existing companies—to have a fantastic power, a magical, genetic, or scientific gift pinned to phrases like “for free” or “for mere dollars”—without acknowledging that this is a significant change in how superpowers work. (It’s also hard to recall, at least without extending the metaphor so far it would break, any superhero who had the power of crowdfunding.)

Traditionally, superpowers have been gifts. Typically accidents of birth or circumstance, they were difficult if not impossible to repeat. Later, with characters like the Thing and the Hulk, comics added the wrinkle of superpowers as a kind of curse, something beyond the person’s control, which cost them greatly and they would gladly be rid of but were willing to use for the benefit of others. These were not just dramatic conventions. They represented fundamentally different assumptions about power and responsibility.

Peter Parker is what you get if you tally our persistent anxieties about the power and personality of Jobs, Zuckerberg, Bezos, et al—and then just alleviate them: the perfectly polished superhero entrepreneur.

In recent years, there have been a handful of comic book stories where superpowers have become consumer goods. MGH (mutant growth hormone), Xperience, and Kick are all mutant-derived drugs that induce or boost superpowers. All of them are addictive and deadly in various degrees.

But in a recent storyline, Iron Man/Tony Stark suffers a magic reversal spell that changes his personality. “Evil” Stark moves to San Francisco, where he creates a smartphone application and nanobot stack that lets users change their bodies to whatever they want, including boosted intelligence, health, beauty, and even immortality. Initially, he gives away the powers for free, but when adoption peaks, he remotely shuts them down, charging $99.99 a day for continued activation. The wealthy continue enjoying superhuman life, desperate users turned to crime, and Stark’s company makes a killing. Eventually, employee/love-interest Pepper Potts stops him, with the aid of a robot programmed with Stark’s old “good” personality. When that fails, Potts—a talented and quite wealthy business mind in her own right—buys out media outlets and blackmails Stark with the promise to expose the scheme.

The Superior Iron Man is literally a story of good capitalist versus bad capitalist, masquerading as a critique of contemporary tech culture. But the funny thing is that the “evil” Tony Stark doesn’t seem all that different from the “good” Tony Stark of past years. A little more craven, a little more louche, less evil than he is amoral. The difference between superheroes and supervillains turns out to be little more than a matter of perspective and degree.

It is tempting to think of our new capabilities as superpowers, because that makes us, in some way, superheroes. It is tempting to think of the inventors of our new technologies as heroes, icons, brilliant men and women of vision and ethics who overcame their own limitations and external opposition to save the day. It means that to cheer for them is to cheer for good. It means we live in a world that is both more magical and more ordered—even more human— than the one we know. It is much more distressing to ask ourselves, “What if we are not the hero in the story? What if we are not even the villain? What if the story was never even ours at all?”

Photo via Dennis Hill/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed