Superhero deconstruction is big business. From Watchmen to The Boys and including the odious Man of Steel, creators are thinking seriously about what superheroes are, and they’ve concluded that they’re assholes.
The genre was created to be one of hope for the little guy. When Superman was created, he didn’t take his power and use it to take over the country. He took on corrupt politicians and their goons. When The Bat-Man was created, he wasn’t beating economically disadvantaged muggers into hamburger on the streets, he was taking on evil capitalists like the kind who’d caused the Great Depression. They quickly fell into fighting costumed villains who wanted to overturn the status quo, but Superman’s optimism and Batman’s good-natured two-fisted justice brought the kids back for more.
But deconstruction took a dark turn in the eighties. Thanks to The Dark Knight Returns, the fun-loving, straight-laced Batman of the fifties and sixties (and the globetrotting adventurer of the seventies) was turned into a fascist, sadistic psychopath, and he’s pretty much remained this way ever since. The image of Superman was forever tarnished because Frank Miller couldn’t imagine the US government not turning the Man of Steel into a mindless weapon for Reagan-era politics. DC’s top two heroes were turned into the worst versions of themselves.
Now we have Zack Snyder’s Superman destroying a trucker’s entire livelihood because he hurt his feelings, and the audience cheers. We have Batman turned into a middle-aged, murderous fogey. Snyder was inspired by The Dark Knight Returns, and it shows. Superman v. Batman took away all of the heroism of their characters and turned them into empty punching machines.
Meanwhile, in The Boys, we have Homelander, the Superman analog, and he is the answer to the question, “What does a 900-pound gorilla do?” Specifically, an indestructible 900-pound with laser vision and a great publicist. Garth Ennis, creator of The Boys, hates superheroes. He loathes them. He wants to do everything in his power to destroy them, so he turned the Justice League into murderous, drug-addled, Nazi rapists. (Ironically, in an issue of Hitman, Mr. Ennis told a Superman story with warmth and heart and positivity not seen in the character in some time.)
Even Quentin Tarantino got in on the action. He’ll never lower himself to make a comic book movie because he makes Art(tm), but in a monologue in Kill Bill: Volume 2, the titular Bill breaks down the meaning behind Superman in a way that makes his whole character pretty unsavory.
It seems like every time a creator wants to look under the hood of what makes a costumed hero run, and all they can find is grit and grime. Why? Because these creators look at all of that power, and they try to imagine what they’d do with it, and this is what they come up with. It seems like the modern concept of deconstructionism is basically: Superhero, but with nasty character flaw. It doesn’t have to be this way.
In the sixties, Marvel came along with their own version of deconstruction. Stan Lee asked questions like, “What does a superhero do when their costume gets dirty?” The answer, you take it to the laundromat, where the bright red and blue colors turn your underwear purple. This is the kind of thing I love. The Flash has a super-high metabolism, so he needs to eat all the time. Spider-Man tries to make money as a superhero, which is the logical thing for a broke college student to do, but the checks are made out to Spider-Man, and he has no way of proving who he is when he goes to cash them. This kind of thing still goes on (see Ms. Marvel), but it’s eclipsed by the horrific violence and perversion that these dark deconstructionists want to inflict.
As someone who owns a leather-bound copy of The Dark Knight Returns and prizes his twenty-two-year-old paperback of Watchmen (and who enjoys The Boys whenever it comes out), I certainly don’t dismiss deconstruction out of hand. But it would be nice if our heroes were heroes, you know? Instead of making them out to be inhuman monsters, make them human beings. Wouldn’t a little positivity be nice?