I just saw Doctor Strange in theatres. It’s a good movie, but this is not a review. I went into the movie not knowing much about Doctor Strange. His was not one of the titles I followed in 80s. But when I saw the movie, I recognized something familiar about his origin story: like most superheroes, he starts rich.
I guess I started to realize something was up with the economic distribution of superheroes when I thought about all the gadgets Iron Man and Batman both had. Unlimited weaponry, endless supply of toys. But it was when I was teaching a class on Superheroes, Social Justice, and the Principle of the Common Good (the kind of class you can develop at a Catholic Marianist University like University of Dayton) and as a class we started to see a pattern in the heroes. While each of them manifested different powers—most of them, most of the famous ones, had something each of us did not. Most had sources of wealth and positions of elite privilege before they got superpowers.
This is important to think about when we think of Superheroes and Power—that power is often not given to those who have no power before, but is given to those who have always had power. With a few notable exceptions, becoming a superhero requires money. This means that the average person doesn’t become a superhero without money—just like they don’t become a lot of things in the real world without money. And that is an interesting thing to think about when you think about superhero escapist fiction. We have all these possibilities! We can choose ANY storyline. We think it’s about a redistribution of power—that ANYONE can become a superhero–but analyzing origin stories, the results say something different.
The Net Worth of Superheroes
Those who have power in the superhero universe and who have the job of protecting citizens are often unacquainted with most of the 99%, are used to being wealthy and powerful, and are often living far removed from common society in Fortresses of Solitude, atop penthouses, or in private academies on large estates, or in mansions or whole buildings in downtown NYC (there are exceptions—I can hear you already, bursting to say names—but I’m talking about a surprising majority of the major superheroes we have today).
Our class did not start from the premise of money. We didn’t seek out the rich. We were just naming our favorite superheroes! We wrote names on the board—trying to understand these characters and what they meant to us, to see if there’s some common factor that makes certain superheroes popular and well-loved: Batman, Iron Man, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, Prof Xavier & the X-Men, Fantastic Four—and we suddenly realized that many of these superheroes had one major, unspoken commonality: they started with wealth or positions of privilege.
Batman’s parents have a personal fortune and he grows up wealthy,
Iron Man is an American Billionaire playboy before he becomes a superhero,
Thor, a god, is the son of Odin, chief god of Asgard,
Wonder Woman is a princess, daughter of a Queen,
Green Arrow is a billionaire businessman, owner of Queen Industries,
Professor Xavier was born into wealth,
Most of the X-men, no matter where they are born, are transported as children/teens to live at, basically, an Ivy League Academy in either the Berkshires or Westchester County, NY with what looks to be hundreds of acres of land; (except for Wolverine, which I mention below)
The Fantastic Four live in the penthouse of the Baxter Building in NYC,
Black Panther is the King of Wakanda,
Dr. Stephen Strange was a renowned highly-paid surgeon.
In the case of the X-men, we have an interesting distinction. The children brought here come from a lot of economic backgrounds and from very different parts of the US—which does make the claim that they didn’t have wealth when they became super-powered. However, they attain wealth almost immediately after they start exhibiting superpowers. Becoming a mutant means that the X-men (using Cerebro) will find you, and you will be taken to live at the Xavier Institute (formerly Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters). It is a bonus to have powers because you suddenly become both RICH and powerful. It also puts them in a private boarding school far away from other people, see images below. Students may lose touch with what it means to grow up in their respective cultures. To mangle an adage: “Some are born with wealth, and others have wealth thrust upon them.”
There are exceptions to wealthy superheroes—the best one being Spider-Man whose origin story makes him unique in the superhero world in many ways as he is poor, and throughout the 80s and in the first batch of movies, at least, had trouble making rent, and his troubles with financing his dual life as superhero and college student was a major plot element. He was the everyman risking his life for others, but constantly on the verge of being kicked out onto the streets. It made him real. It made him sympathetic, and for many readers, it made him relatable—because most of us could see ourselves as him. The reboot in the movies to Amazing Spider-Man gives his parents, especially his father, a lot of access to wealth and technology, and even Aunt May looks richer. This upgrades Spider-Man to upper middle-class; he comes across as the recipient of a surprise trust fund. But the classic Spider-Man was not wealthy. (We’ll see what Spider-Man: Homecoming does to Peter in July).
Superman was adopted by farmers, raised in Kansas on a farm, next to a small town, and as a man, goes to work for the Daily Planet, in Metropolis (aka NYC). This might make us believe that he is an exception. I think in many ways, Kal-El has kept his rural, American values as a superhero. He understands what it means to go to a county fair, for the crops to fail, for storms to threaten, for city halls and local churches to be the places where decisions are made by a community. But while he was raised with rural parents in a rural background, once he leaves home, he doesn’t seem very poor or middle class, even. We rarely see his apartment. In NYC, apartments aren’t going to be cheap, and a reporter for the major newspaper of the city would make a good salary. But he also has the Fortress of Solitude—a mansion in the Arctic made of ice that is a base for him. Batman may have his batcave; Superman has his fortress—they work the same, and Superman would have had to afford all the computers in the Fortress. I imagine, if I were a Best Buy worker, looking at both the Batcave and Fortress, I would say that they probably cost the same. Clark Kent keeps an apartment (344 Clinton Street) in “midtown” Metropolis. For comparison, I looked up prices of apartments in Midtown NYC. The cheapest (around $1850 studio looked too small for what’s in Kent’s apartment which includes a secret room, a trophy room, false doors.) 1 bedroom was $2350 —but his is probably 2 bedroom, so $3600-$4500 a month. That’s a salary of $159,800 (if rent shouldn’t be over 30% of your income) from being a reporter. Not too shabby. But that Fortress of Solitude requires a lot more money to realistically keep updated in computers. I’m gonna say that Kent’s salary at the newspaper doesn’t realistically relate to how much he needs to run the Fortress of Solitude. Fictionally, of course, none of these heroes have to show their tax returns. But it does mean that it’s going to take a lot of money to keep Superman able to be Superman. And that’s my point.
The NYC triumvirate of Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Daredevil are major exceptions to the rule of wealthy superheroes—and probably a good reason why their series are so popular right now. They are struggling financially. They live in living situations that we find recognizable, but also probably in neighborhoods that aren’t noted for their elite, wealthy patrons. They are living WITH the people they protect. Matt Murdock helps them both as a superhero and a lawyer working pro-bono. Luke Cage, in an out of gangs in NYC, ends up framed and put in prison, and is recruited by a scientist for an experiment. But he goes back to NYC as a “hero for hire”. Jessica Jones WAS a superhero but opens up a detective agency—for people to find her and hire her. Each of these three superheroes actually depends on the interaction of regular people to keep them in financial stability. They are also part of a community. But they are also, until their Netflix series, second and third string superheroes, not as popular or as known as the major titles and superheroes.
Captain America is another exception to this trend—but he was created at a time when most superheroes didn’t have fortunes. He was a soldier. At first he was a comic book artist who signed up for the military, was altered by drugs, and became a super-soldier. When he’s not saving the world from mad dictators or aliens, he has an apartment (maybe in Wash DC, maybe in Brooklyn, maybe in the Bronx) and since he doesn’t have another job, one wonders if Tony Stark covers the apartment rent. He also shows a better understanding of people, and more compassion.
Logan, aka Wolverine, pre-Xavier is a big exception in the X-Men (thanks, Brian D.). I wrestled with Logan (oh, I wish I had wrestled with Logan…lol…watch out for the claws) Granted he’s in a helluva nice house in Alberta in one of the films, and luxury in many places in Japan, but he’s also used to sleeping in bars, holes in the ground, somebody’s couch, etc. He had a long life before Xavier and not a privileged one. He’s basically got PTSD, and seems to be homeless at times. Before Xavier. After Xavier, things do change, some. While he does stay and sometimes teach at the X-Mansion, he’s like a tom cat. He leaves whenever he wants and stays away for long times. He hasn’t been made wealthy because of his interaction with the X-Men, or privileged. However, he can always go back there, so he’s got quite the financial net if he needs it. That’s pretty privileged. Like a credit card in your pocket you don’t use. He just chooses to live outside of that wealthy realm.
People have mentioned Hawkeye to me too, and while he’s not an A-List player mostly, he has had a lot of coverage with the Avengers. He grew up with carnival folk and was trained by a master archer in a carnival. And he lives a normal life with wife and kids (at least as far as the movie goes; not sure about the comic).
Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, is a welcome addition to the Marvel Universe for many many reasons—and others have talked about her Muslim heritage being a point of connection for many fans. They’ve also mentioned that “she’s the closest character to classic Peter Parker”: “a teenage superhero, juggling her life, making mistakes, trying to do everything right.” It’s the “juggling” I think that is important. Wealthy superheroes don’t have to juggle as much, don’t have the consequences of dropping something they’re juggling. They can delegate to a minion, to someone else. Economically challenged superheroes have to “juggle.”
Superheroes and Money: a reflection of the real world
I’m not saying that wealthy superheroes are bad. Plotwise, early comic book writers would have needed a way to afford all the gadgets superheroes need to fight BIG villians (who are also well-funded, often, but who have also, more than often, turned to crime to make money…something a wealthy superhero won’t think to do—because they won’t NEED to do it.) One of the great storylines of my childhood was Spiderman wondering if he should sell a solid gold notebook to pay off his college tuition, and the ethics behind taking something from his superhero work as profit for himself. (Amazing Spiderman #270s and Web of Spiderman 8-16). He is tempted to use it for himself, but ends up selling the notebook to pay off another person’s medical bills instead. But superheroes–EVEN WITH THEIR POWERS–seem to need funding to be powerful, as if the powers aren’t enough. They need money to supplement them. Again, that could be creators in the 30s, 40s, 50s, imagining a whole laboratory of computers that could help a lone superhero do the work of the FBI faster. But it still comes down to money, in addition to powers.
Now, I can hear my fellow comic fans talking about how “being a genius can earn you money!”—and certainly Reed Richards, Bruce Wayne, Charles Xavier and Tony Stark are geniuses, and earned money from that. But—remember—genius doesn’t happen in a bubble. Bruce and Reed and Charles and Tony had something that makes genius bloom: wealthy parents who can afford the best colleges (albeit Bruce didn’t have them for long—he did have their money). Lots of capable geniuses out there who don’t get to go to great colleges, or make awesome technology that earns them money… but these four did.
Greek plays often imagined the fall of Kings, the lives of people greater than us, so that we could see the balance of power enforced by the gods. However, these powerful people are not falling; they are rising. They were powerful people before they decided to become super-powered. They may go through a loss—loss of parents, loss of hands, loss of homeland—but they gain quite a bit more power in the end. Do they also gain compassion? Is it coloured by their rich backgrounds? Do they think of us paternally? Are we a charity? A burden? I don’t know. They just “selflessly” do it–but they do have a lot of creature comforts to fall back on.
As a kid, I thought: I can become Batman. I may not come from Krypton, or have mutant abilities, but I could train hard and become Batman. This is because I didn’t see his wealth as a superpower. As much as we want to, we cannot become Batman. We don’t have the money. One can achieve his level of detective brilliance, or his incredible physique through working out, or his ability with languages, but owning a submarine, fighter jet, sportscar, batmobile, too? I know many brilliant people…. who cannot have all of this. Being a billionaire is a superpower—it gives us access to many of those Batman-accomplishments because it makes us free of jobs, free of debt, having access and networking with important people who can get us things. But it is too big for most of us to ever achieve. When I saw Batman Begins I better understood Batman’s money as superpower, and his connection to Lucius Fox who practically hands him his entire arsenal, including the batmobile.
The hidden message of some comics—while being entertaining and fun—is that power and wealth go together. And that those people who are in charge of you and in control of your lives should be rich and powerful already. Our presidential elections are turning into battles between elite billionaires for control of the country. Check out this table of the net worth of Presidents . Also: More than a third of our Congressmen and Congresswomen, or 192 of 538, are worth over a million dollars apiece. You have to have money to have that kind of power.
I’m not saying that rich politicians don’t do good things. I’m saying that they may not remember, or may never have known, what it’s like to be one of their constituents. To make decisions for us, not understanding us, is a precarious position. We cannot always be a politician either. That too, like superheroes, takes a lot of money–and that leaves out a lot of us.
So, it’s not that different in comic book land. Our heroes are wealthy elite people of privilege who decide who is going to be saved, who is going to have power and who is not. Thank God, Xavier is benevolent. Thank God, Superman is compassionate. With very few of them living among us, they normally do not understand our lives, and yet they govern/protect us. The message some popular comic books might be sending is that economically disadvantaged people don’t become superheroes, don’t become powerful, (or if they do, as in the case of the X-Men, they are co-opted immediately by wealth and are not a part of their communities anymore.). They might instead be the people running from the collateral damage of a super-fight, or the victims of a super-villain. It also means that adjunct English teachers don’t become heroes—neither superheroes, nor members of congress, nor Presidents—and that you can enjoy the stories, but power is not for you.
Empowering the Already Powerful
Superheroes give the illusion of giving power to the powerless, but in actuality, most are giving power to the already powerful. The biggest superheroes have the largest net worth going in, and coming out. The most beloved superheroes are wealthy (with the exception of the love for Spider-Man, Captain America and Kamala Khan, which one can only think might come from their “everyman/everywoman” appeal.). In a class on Social Justice, economic justice was as important as security and safety. It’s not enough to be protected. It’s important to have your own power.
It is also important to have a community, and to be part of a community, to feel responsible for and protect that community. Superheroes often lack community with regular people, partially because being a superhero is dangerous and it could put your friends in jeopardy. But if Luke Cage, Daredevil and Jessica Jones can have friends without powers then it shows their humanity, their relatability, and their part in a community of people. Spiderman is the same—he has non-superpowered friends. These superheroes know their communities and the problems of living in their communities. They are also the immediate beneficiaries of their own help. They save THEIR community. They are not swooping in from a mansion, or a penthouse, far away to deal with problems. They are coming around the corner on their way to get groceries. On the other hand, Batman has a butler. X-Men have other superpowered people. Many of the wealthy superheroes spend time at elite functions with the wealthy and with other superheroes. They might save the world, but they don’t know the people in the world very well. Or what their lives are like, or what kind of life they are preserving for folks. After saving the world, most superheroes retire to their batcaves, their fortresses, their penthouses, their mansions for drinks, for recuperation, for sleep, for parties. It doesn’t have an impact on their community.
“The very rich are different from you and me/ Yes, they have more money”*— and, perhaps consequently, they get superpowers. This seems an interesting tic with the creation of superheroes. When you’re doling out power–to dole it out to the already powerful? When you have all the writerly ability to create anyone with superpowers, why not be more generous to the voices who don’t have power? Do we only see those who already have power to be the ones who can handle power? Love to see more superheroes without money, or without the kind of financial assistance that wipes away all their problems, aka Tony Stark Ex Machina. Love to see what superheroes would do with power if they had to pay the rent. Strip them of Xavier would X-Men use their powers to benefit themselves? Is having their physical needs met allowing superheroes to be altruistic? These are important questions when talking about power and the use of power. I don’t think that if one becomes rich, that you automatically lose your compassion, your history, or your ability to connect with people. Maybe once one gets powers, one has to stay away from people–but the rich do this too. These are interesting questions, I think. It’s also important to ask WHO is being given power: nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation-what kind of people get to have powers-but that’s a blogpost for another time. (I do think that’s changing for the better lately….)
If we look closely at our comic books, they show us that wealth is often the first superpower. Because in the wild fictions and possibilities of the comic book world, we can’t escape the facts that creators gave most of their future superheroes money first–as a gift–before super powers. And in the real, visceral world, it is the superpower of money that determines those in control too. Did the money come to them as they earned their way up, or were they always in families of privilege? And will power just follow them? We can find ways to subvert the power of money. We can also find ways to tap into the source of money. But it is Money, often from birth–not brilliance, not compassion, not talent, not physical strength, not even super powers— money seems to be the most effective determiner, even for superheroes, of what you can do to change or affect your world.
Taking Away the Money Superpower
What would Bruce Wayne have done if he’d been middle-class? Would there have been an avenue for him to avenge his parents’ deaths? Would he have gone to live with his uncle’s family? What would he do now if the stock market crashed and he couldn’t pay his lights or power and had to close down the batcave and his computers? What kind of superheroes would some of our superheroes be without the superpower of money?
Without Xavier to come and rescue you from the awkward and dangerous moment of coming out to your family? As a gay man, I can now see how Xavier interrupts that process by carting away the mutant teens–yes, he’s there to help them learn–but they lose their families in the process. So many LGBT teens lose their families in the process of coming out and they have to make it on their own. There’s no Xavier for us to learn how to hone our cool unicorn wonder powers. Can you imagine the X-Men comic book without Xavier’s school—where everyone’s on their own to cope? Not taught how to be the best superhero, not able to make rent, but finding each other, maybe…
What if Wonder Woman had NOT been the princess, daughter of the queen, but had been a lowly servant girl who found the American pilot on the shore? She has no ambition for power because she already had it. As a servant girl, she would have a different destiny in both worlds.
What if Tony wasn’t a billionaire but JUST a brilliant man, a genius with electronics and engineering? The first movie gave us a bit of that as he builds his iron man suit in a cave, basically. But no billions to come back to. No connections. Tony Stark and his brilliance alone.
Like the rest of us.
It’s harder to be super without money. It’s harder to be altruistic with power without money. Doable, but not easy. In the late eighties and early nineties there was a discussion about Superman having too much power–he could beat anyone easily–so they lessened his powers so that he could only do one at a time, they killed him off, etc. to try and make it more unpredictable for him. I have a suggestion: Start counting his receipts. Mid-Career journalists at the NYT make $55K. If Clark Kent and Superman lived on that, how would things change?
How is Doctor Strange going to eat while he’s holed up at the New York office of the Sorcerers? Who pays for that? Or do they just conjure up a hole to reach out and take a NY deli sandwich?
Perhaps it’s all okay–that our fantasies of superheroes aren’t just about super powers, but also about wealth. Up until the mid-19th century most novels were about wealthy people because we could enjoy their very different lives and, for a moment, be one of them with their mansions, their parties, their political intrigue. It gave us a respite from our boring lives. Our superhero stories do something like that for us. For the powerless, they are fantasies of power, and what we would do with their power. Sure, there are the gadgets! And the cars! And the planes and submarines! But also–for a moment, we can fly, or avenge our loved ones, or battle in space. Our eyes shoot lasers, our backs sprout wings, and we can take weeks to battle the bad guys and save the world. We have the time to save the world because we don’t have to be back at our jobs.
We have time.
We have time because we have money.
(This post is me thinking about economic justice, superpowers, and distribution of power. I’m sure there are hundreds of exceptions to my theories, but I have covered the major, most well-known superheroes in our culture coming out of Marvel and DC. The pantheon of superheroes is hundreds-strong, but the number who have their own comic, are a handful. It does seem odd that so many of our main superheroes have outsized sources of wealth or come from positions of privilege–the sons or daughters of Kings and Gods and Wealthy Parents. Anyway, the post may be edited over time to show my evolution of thinking. Thanks for your input!)
* a misquote of Hemingway’s exchange with Fitzgerald, but a part of it actually shows up in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” ascribed to character, Julian.