And I Need Justice In My Life: Daredevil, the Mountain Goats, and Why Superheroes Are Popular

There’s a scene at the very end of Netflix’s new series, Daredevil, in which – general spoilers follow – all of the villain’s plans fall apart. It’s a montage, set to an aria from the final act of Turandot; over the course of the montage, the viewer watches justice come for bribed police officers, double-agent journalists, all the small cogs in the great plan that the powerful, manipulative villain has been building up over the past twelve episodes.

The music rises – the montage of arrests is coming to a close. The last clip plays, the thrilling conclusion: the corrupt senator is hauled down the steps of his office, in handcuffs, surrounded by police cameras. The music swells. The montage ends. The heroes celebrate. The day is won.

The main villain, a mysterious businessman named Wilson Fisk, has still not been captured.

It doesn’t matter.

How can it not matter?

Superheroes have been popular lately.

That’s an understatement. If we count the current Marvel franchise as having begun with Iron Man, it’s lasted for eight years already, and movies are planned out until 2019. Every movie makes more money than the last, even Guardians of the Galaxy, which featured characters and a mythos so obscure literally no one had heard of them. Superheroes haven’t been this popular since the 1940s.

Why on earth is this the case? What makes them so well-received at this moment, in this place? What is it about our culture that enjoys seeing dirty-blond men named Chris dress up in tights, pretend to have special powers, and punch each other?

What is the appeal of superhero stories?

It’s likely that this has something to do with it.

This well-known comic book cover is from Captain America’s early days in 1941. It appears to be simplistic pro-government propaganda, but it’s actually far from that: when it was drawn, America was months away from Pearl Harbor. There was a strong pro-Nazi sentiment in the United States – right-wing German-Americans, eugenics supporters, anti-Semites, and American fascists supported Hitler. The creators of Captain America, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, actually received death threats over this cover.

So why did they draw Captain America punching Hitler in the face? A desire to stir up anti-Nazi sentiment? A need to declare their own ideals? A feeling that America was close enough to entering the war that it was a safe bet? Sure, sure, and sure. But that might not be all of it.

Simon and Kirby were Jewish.

I’m a Jew. I was born in 1995, almost fifty years to the day after V-E Day; I was raised as part of a comfortably sizable Jewish minority in Oakland, far both geographically and temporally from anti-Semitism; I have no relatives who are Holocaust survivors.

But seeing someone punch Hitler in the face – that stirs up a sentiment so gut-level that I can barely put words to it, something between schadenfreude and satisfaction and relief. It scratches an emotional itch; it satisfies something at the level of the id. It makes me feel safer, it makes me feel happier. Even though it is fictional, even though it is from 1941, even though it is an overtly ridiculous drawing. It is good to see Hitler punched in the face, and it is good because I am Jewish.

What is the appeal of superhero stories?

One of my favorite bands, the Mountain Goats, recently released an album called Beat the Champ. It’s about professional wrestling, which is a topic I am profoundly ignorant about; I was expecting to be confused.

The first single released was called “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”, and the lyrics go:

Before a black-and-white TV in the middle of the night,
I’m lying on the floor, I’m bathed in blue light.
The telecast’s in Spanish, I can understand some,
and I need justice in my life– here it comes–

John Darnielle, the songwriter, was abused as a child by his stepfather. It’s a common topic in his songs; still, many of them are surprisingly empowering. (You may have heard “This Year” around December 31 – it’s the one that goes I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.) I’ve heard most of his songs about this, and I love them all. But this one hit me hard, in a way I wasn’t expecting. Something about the raw honesty of it: I need justice in my life.

I haven’t been able to get “Chavo Guerrero” out of my mind for the last three months. And I thought of it, sitting on my bed with my headphones plugged into my laptop, watching Daredevil. Watching cops be handcuffed, watching FBI agents seize journalists who aren’t doing their jobs, watching a senator hauled down fancy marble steps:

I need justice in my life– here it comes.

What is the appeal of superhero stories?

The answer to this question is obvious to any kid who ever fell in love with their favorite athletes so they could watch them triumph and triumph with them, to any kid who tied a blanket around their shoulders and pretended to be Superman, to any kid who loved comic books and superhero movies. The appeal of superhero stories is wish fulfillment.

Something about senators going to jail. Something about policemen being arrested and taken off the force.

Something about men with money and power and guns being held accountable.


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