Superman Works for Monsanto:
Why Superheroes are Bad for Our Survival
Joe Moncarz, November 2021
Superheroes are more popular than ever. It seems like every week, there's a new superhero movie, with some new superhero, with some new amazing ability (He can scratch his armpit with his own toes!) playing in theaters. What's this all about? Okay, I can admit that some of these movies may be well-made and entertaining – and that's usually all that anyone cares about. BUT, from a survival perspective, superhero movies actually promote all the wrong values and thinking. They promote dependency, helplessness, and slavery. And because of this, they simply defend our current abusive and always-destructive way of life. At this point, I expect most readers to become highly defensive and yell out, “Fuck you! You don't know shit!” I understand that we all grew up with superheroes, that it's deeply ingrained in us, and many of us still enjoy watching them. And heck, how can you bash those wise-cracking characters who “defend civilization” and “fight crime”?! But hey, this is about survival, so hear me out. It's about survival as an individual, as a community, as a species, and as one of countless forms of life living on Earth. That's the perspective I'm writing from.
The first thing to notice about superheroes is who they fight against; ie, the “villains”. The villains are over-the-top, often dressed in black, often with black eye shadow, and as soon as you see them you know they're evil, they're psychopaths, and they're murderers. It's obvious. They're often ugly, or have a scar, or can't sing in tune. However, in real life, it doesn't work that way at all. There's no better place to start than Hannah Arendt's 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, describing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the top organisers of Hitler's “Final Solution” to murder Europe's entire Jewish population. In observing the trial, she noted that Eichmann was not so much an “evil Nazi”, as much just a bureaucrat thinking about his career, refusing to think for himself, and not able to consider the implications of his own actions. In other words, the evil we see in the world most often takes the form of looking ordinary. (Carrying this idea even further, see Ward Churchill's essay on 9/11, in which we are all “little Eichmanns”. See the references, below.)
The point is, in real life, villains don't look like villains. They look like any ordinary person on the street. Clinincal psychopaths look ordinary. They might look like your psychotic ex-husband, who looked totally normal to you when he first asked you for your phone number (and your credit cards and house keys). They look like Stalin, Napolean, Hitler (okay, he didn't look normal), and any U.S. President, from Washington to Biden. They look like Mark Zuckerberg, they look like Bill Gates, they look like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and countless faces we don't even know, like the former CEO of Monsanto (now owned by Bayer), Hugh Grant (who actually does look like a villain), and any CEO of any large corporation such as GE, Raytheon, Shell Oil, Exxon-Mobil Oil, Lockheed Martin, BP Oil, Walmart, and so on. Thus, superhero movies confuse and distort our thinking, so that we expect to be able to recognize a threat, simply from the way they look. And this is absolutely not the case. It rarely is. From the perspective of being able to survive, identifying the threat is critical. If we can't identify the threat, we're done for.
Another way superhero movies mislead us is that the villain is always an individual, or small group of individuals. In their day-to-day lives, superheroes appear to fill their time stopping drug dealers and small-time criminals. The movies aren't about that, but my point is that small-time criminals are extremely minor threats in the big scheme of things. They are a symptom of a much larger problem, which is never addressed: structural racism, structural unemployment, structural poverty, and so on. So when Spiderman drops down and knocks out some small-time thieves, is he doing the world a favor? No! He's doing the police and the rich a favor. He's a fucking tool. And he's giving spiders a bad name.
The main movie plots usually involve the superhero fighting some crazy, Jeff Bezos-looking individual (with a scar) trying to destroy the world or take it over. (Which Jeff Bezos is actually trying to do. In real life.) The movie villains who are trying to take over the world or destroy it in the movies are made to seem like aberrations and anomolies in life. As if most CEOs and political leaders are decent, and there's just the rare nutcase. But these movie villains are a distraction from the individuals who actually are trying to take over the world and destroy it in real life! And they're also a distraction from the very way of life which is taking over the world and destroying it.
In reality, the actual threat is not just from all the big corporations you can think of, or from all the “bad” governments, or from the Zuckerbergs, Gateses, Bezoses, Musks,Trumps, Putins, and so on. No, the real threat is actually the social arrangement and traditions that the individuals represent, perpetuate, and uphold. Take Monsanto. If someone killed the CEO of Monsanto, that's no problem. They're easily replaced. Monsanto continues. If you get rid of the CEO of Shell Oil, or GE, or any corporation, the same thing applies. They just hire a new CEO. Nothing changes except the face. The destruction and murders on behalf of these corporations continue. If you get rid of Bill Gates, some other psychopathic billionaire will take his place. If you get rid of any politician, another narcissist will jump in. While these individuals, like Eichmann, are clearly assholes guilty of crimes against humanity, they are not the cause. They are simply products of the culture and social arrangement into which they were born.
If you want to identify the real threat to survival, it is not the individual face or individual corporation, but civilization itself which created them (more below), but for now, let's blame the current flavor of civilization, industrial capitalism. It shouldn't need much explaining that industrial capitalism is a threat to humanity and a threat to life on Earth. It is a way of life built on plundering the Earth using fossil fuels, destroying living beings to convert to profit, to make a handful of men extremely rich, while the majority of people suffer. It is the reason why the Earth is being polluted, poisoned, and stripped of life. It is that system that is the threat. What superhero ever fights against industrial capitalism? You think Thor is going to use his big hammer to smash capitalism? It's absurd to expect it. First, it's not cinematic. Movies require an easily identifiable villain. Second, the movie studios would not get funding to make a movie which identifies their enablers as the villain, and the economic system which makes the studio executives rich. Not gonna happen.
Keep in mind, industrial capitalism is not the ultimate threat, either. It's only the one we're more likely to have heard about and accept. Civilization is the real threat. Civilization is a pathological social arrangement which has only existed for 6,000 years. Civilization means living in cities, and cities are only possible through agriculture, which is a relationship to the Earth based on domination and exploitation. Six thousand years sounds like a long time, but consider that humans have been on Earth for more than two million years. And we lived all that time primarily as hunters and gatherers. No cities, no agriculture. No electricity! That's how we evolved, it's why our brains grew so large – and it's why we survived for two million years. It was the only healthy and only sustainable way of living humans have ever known. As further proof, it was civilization that brought us poverty, hunger, slavery, taxes, war, prisons, police, governments, slums, patriarchy, schools, classrooms, child abuse, famine, pollution, smog, obesity, overpopulation, infectious diseases like Covid-19, and country music. These didn't exist in a hunter-gatherer world. Civilizations are not sustainable. Not back in Ur, not in the Indus River Valley, not in Ancient China, not for the Mayans, for the Aztecs, you name it. Not even in Atlantis. Every single civilization destroys the land around itself and ensures a population of slaves struggling in misery. And all of them bring about their own end. (Diamond 1987, 2005; Harris 1991; Jensen 2006, 2011; Ryan 2020; Scott 2018; Zerzan 1999, 2018)
Civilization is the real threat. But what superhero fights civilization? Or, what superhero at least fights against the defenders of civilization, like the politicians, bureaucrats, billionaires and CEOs? Of course, not. Another absurd idea for a movie.
To identify civilization as the real threat goes against the interests of movie-makers, as well as being too complex an idea. Superhero movies, like all television, are reliant on a simple, easy to understand, no thought involved, black-and-white way of looking at the world. (Mander 1978) Villains are bad people, while everyone else is good. And if it weren't for those few “bad apples”, then everything would be just fine and dandy.
Now let's look at the very idea of a superhero. What a superhero really is, is a savior. A messiah. Just like religious messiahs, the idea of a superhero represents the longing for some other-worldly person to come and save us. It signifies the belief that the challenges facing us are too big, and that only a messiah figure can do anything. It reflects helplessness, despair, and the feeling of being imprisoned or enslaved in a life in which we have no control or power. Superhero movies reinforce the idea that we mere mortals can do nothing of consequence and that we have no power other than to just sit around and pick our own nose (and possibly, our friend's nose). That only the messiah (or messiahs) can help us.
It should not surprise us, then, to learn that the very idea of a savior, or messiah, never existed among hunter-gatherer cultures. It was an idea which arose from the endless misery and suffering created by – you guessed it - civilization. It is a very new idea.
In reality, the only thing that can help, and that has ever had some success, is collective action, by ordinary humans. Martin Luther King, Jr., was not a messiah, he was an ordinary human, who encouraged millions of people to work collectively. Gandhi was not a messiah, but an ordinary skinny human, who encouraged millions of people to work collectively. They had their unique gifts and talents, just as we all do. The social and cultural environment in which they lived allowed their gifts to be recognized and used. And the history textbooks and TV documentaries only focus on these single personalities, when in fact, these figures would have accomplished nothing without the countless ordinary people around them, doing important work, all those countless people who did not become a celebrity. So don't throw out superheroes but still cling to the idea of the next Che Guevara coming to save you.
This longing for super-human saviors has crept into other action movies as well. More and more, protagonists in action movies are becoming more like superheroes, as they plummet from a building but still are able to get up and keep going (come on, I get hurt just falling out of bed!), as they get shot and keep fighting, as they get hit by cars then get up and keep running, as they hang onto the wing of an airplane taking off, or as they drink five beers and not once go to the bathroom. Martial arts movies have characters flying and fighting through the air.
I think that one of the reasons action movies originally were popular was because we liked to watch ordinary humans successfully deal with a challenging situation – like Eddie Murphy's character in 1985's “Beverly Hills Cop”. He's average sized, with normal-sized muscles, lives in a crappy apartment, drives an old car, and his boss yells at him all the time. That's most of us! But he still got the bad guy. With normal characters, we can relate on a deeper level, or identify, and imagine that we might have the capacity to successfully act in a similar way (except clearly we can't be as funny as Murphy). But it's much, much harder to identify with characters who we can never be like because they're superhuman, with huge muscles, great hair, millions of dollars, their own butler, and zingy one-liners.
Superhero movies, like all movies, reflect the values of society. Industrial capitalist society values the individual, self-interest, competition, power over others, the exploitation of the natural world for personal gain, the individual accumulation of wealth, and fame. For two million years, these values were seen as dangerous and unhealthy by human cultures across the globe. They were seen as weakening the chances for survival. Of course they do! Superheroes not only do not challenge those values, they are the full embodiment of industrial capitalist values.
Superhero movies also often promote and reinforce the idea that modern technology is a savior as well, or at least, a wonderful, wonderful thing. Some superheros, like Batman and Ironman, are entirely dependent on modern technology for their “powers”. We're led to believe “it's how you use it that matters”, when in fact, any technology that requires destroying the Earth to extract and manufacture, is not going to be good for the planet, ever. Ever! (If I say “ever” more than once, you know it's serious.) Saying that “it's how you use it that matters” is a ridiculous defense that supposedly intelligent people never tire of repeating. Come on, people, wake up and smell the depleted uranium!
That some superheroes get their powers from lethal doses of radiation, or toxic waste, or genetic engineering, is further reinforcing the same idiotic idea that “it's how you use it that matters”. The movie, on some level, leads us to think, “Hey, there might be some benefits to that nuclear meltdown across the street.” Or, “Hey, maybe genetic engineering can create a tree that makes Big Macs.” But no. Any perceived benefits are always swamped by the endless unintended consequences. (Huesemann 2011; Mander 1992)
I don't like watching superhero movies. It pisses me off to spend two hours watching someone with enormous strength and power, making a whole lot of noise and fuss, and who never actually identifies the real villains in life, leaving the billions of people on the planet just as bad off as when the movie started. I just end up angry, yelling at the screen, “No! He's not the real villain! Look around you, dumb-ass!”
And finally, I have to point out that any movie, no matter what it's about, promotes and reinforces sitting on our asses and watching others. The more we sit and watch, the more natural sitting and watching will become, and the more it will become the only thing we know how to do, or like to do. That is because every technology acts upon us, regardless of its content, and regardless of how it is used. (Bowers 1993, 2000, 2001; Carr 2020; McLuhan 1993, 2001) Surviving in any situation requires action. Failure to act often means death. And with the current state of the world, we need less sitting and watching, and more collective action to fight the real villains around us.
We will never be a superhero and we should stop hoping for them to appear and save the day. But that doesn't mean each and every one of us can't be a hero in real life, and take effective, collective action to defend what is right and to defend life on Earth.
Just remember: Superman will never save us, because Superman works for Monsanto.
References and Further Reading
Arendt, Hannah. (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin Classics.
Bowers, C.A. (2001). “Using Computers in Native American Classrooms: Trojan Horse or Cultural Affirming Technology.” Retrieved from https://cabowers.net/pdf/usingcomputers2001.pdf
Bowers, C.A. (1993). Education, Cultural Myths, and the Ecological Crisis: Toward Deep Changes. State University of New York Press.
Bowers, C.A. (2000). Let Them Eat Data: How Computers Affect Education, Cultural Diversity and the Prospects of Ecological Sustainability. University of Georgia Press.
Carr, Nicholas. (2020). The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W. W. Norton & Company.
Churchill, Ward. (2003). “The Ghosts of 9-1-1: Reflections on History, Justice and Roosting Chickens.” Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20061002092543/http://www.altpr.org/modules.php?op=modload&name=Sections&file=index&req=viewarticle&artid=352&page=1
Churchill, Ward. (2003). On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality. AK Press.
Churchill, Ward. (2001, Sept 12). “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” Retrieved from https://ratical.org/ratville/CAH/WC091201.html
Diamond, Jared. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books.
Diamond, Jared. (1987, May). “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”. Discover Magazine. Retrieved from http://discovermagazine.com/1987/may/02-the-worst-mistake-in-the-history-of-the-human-race
Harris, Marvin. (1991). Cannibals and Kings. Vintage Books.
Huessemann, Michael and Joyce Huessemann. (2011). Techno-Fix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Planet. New Society Publishers.
Huxley, Aldous. (1998). Brave New World. HarperCollins.
Huxley, Aldous. (2000). Brave New World Revisited. HarperCollins.
Jensen, Derrick, Lierre Keith and Aric McBay. (2011). Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet. Seven Stories Press.
Jensen, Derrick. (2006). Endgame, Volume One: The Problem of Civilization. Seven Stories Press.
Kaczynski, Theodore. (2019). Technological Slavery. Fitch & Madison Publishers.
Mander, Jerry. (1978). Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. William Morrow.
Mander, Jerry. (1992). In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations. Sierra Club Books.
Mcluhan, Marshall and Fiore, Quenton. (2001). The Medium is the Massage. Ginko Press.
McLuhan, Marshall. (1993). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. MIT Press.
Ponting, Clive. (2007). A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. Penguin.
Postman, Neil. (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Viking Press.
Postman, Neil. (1993). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage.
Redman, Charles. (1999). Human Impacts on Ancient Environments. University of Arizona Press.
Ryan, Christopher. (2020). Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress. Avid Reader Press.
Sahlins, Marshall. (2009). "Hunter-Gatherers: Insights from a Golden Affluent Age". Retrieved from http://pacificecologist.org/archive/18/pe18-hunter-gatherers.pdf
Scott, James C. (2017). Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Yale University Press.
Suzman, James. (2017). Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen. Bloomsbury.
Zerzan, John. (2018). A People's History of Civilization. Feral House.
Zerzan, John, editor. (2005). Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections. Feral House.
Zerzan, John. (1999). Elements of Refusal. Columbia Alternative Library.