As a comic book geek in my personal life, and a cultural studies scholar in my professional one, I encounter superheroes every day. I frequent the associated websites and social media accounts, and my friends and I post comic book images, thoughts, and memes. You don’t have to be a superhero nerd, though, to have encountered the latest trend. Everyone from celebrities to people next door are posting images of heroes punching Nazis. Captain America seems to be the favorite. I’ve seen Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and even Indiana Jones as well. These panels come from actual stories. The comic books from the WWII era featured heroes joining the war effort in almost every issue. As one who understands the vital inspiration our culture’s heroes provide for our country, I’m heartened to see people taking solace in such characters. Nevertheless, I must point out that people are adopting and expressing a dangerous sentiment by taking these images out of context.
People are angry and rightfully so. I was born and raised in Charlottesville, Virginia. I spent countless hours as a teenager hanging out on the Downtown Mall, on the very street on which Heather Heyer was murdered. The sudden realization that such hatred can touch you where you live is world shattering. For many, white supremacism was a fringe horror, too evil to truly exist. Surely, we thought, the demonstrators descending on our city didn’t really wear pointy white hats and swastikas. Protesting the removal of a historic statue is one thing, but reciting Nazi propaganda? They had come to our city once before, thankfully without injuring anyone that time, and they left us scratching our heads as to how anyone could believe such things. So after the violence and assault last weekend, we, and the entire country, had enough of scratching our heads. We realized that we had to take a stand. We could not allow such hatred to prey on us.
But in their anger, people lashed out on social media. I read posts everyday saying “This [punching] is how Cap [or Superman, or Wonder Woman, and so on] deals with Nazis!” The implication, and sometimes the explicit conclusion, is that is how we too should deal with Nazis. Punching, whether literal or metaphorical, is the only way to deal with Nazis, they say. Shut them down swiftly violently. This sentiment disturbs me. I’ve written my own posts occasionally. I’ve posted Captain America saying how he doesn’t want to kill anyone, but that he doesn’t like bullies. I’ve posted panels from Wonder Woman comics in which she explains how in order to achieve justice she cannot allow herself to act out of fury and revenge. But most people simply don’t want to hear it. One person even told me that my Wonder Woman panel was out of context because THIS is how she deals with Nazis (cue another punching image).
The fundamental flaw of Nazism, white supremacism, or any racism is that it dehumanizes a group of people. It paints them as the other. They don’t have the same rights, it says. They aren’t worthy of the same respect. Shut them down and cut them out of our society! But the way to fight this poison is not to treat it the same way it treats you. Othering the Nazis, hating those who hate, only perpetuates more hate in the world. If we want a better culture, one where such hate isn’t tolerated, then we need to start by being better ourselves. Education, building relationships, reaching out with respect where none is given, these have been the tools for changing hearts and minds for as long as humans have existed.
Do Captain America, Wonder Woman, and the rest punch Nazis? Absolutely! When they are at war or swooping in to save victims of racial or fascist violence, they do what must be done. But violence is not the MO for all their dealings with any group of villains. Angry people on the internet would say, “see someone wearing a swastika at the movie theater? Go punch them!” “Overhear a racist conversation at work? Go punch them!”
If our favorite comic book heroes existed in our flesh and blood world, they would have been in Charlottesville last weekend, standing between violence and the innocent—even if that meant throwing a punches of their own. But our superheroes don’t exist in our real world. They exist in our mythology. They inspire us to be the heroes.
If you see such an assault taking place, choose heroism. Depending on the scenario, that might mean calling the authorities, helping someone escape a dangerous situation, or, yes, sometimes fighting back physically. Superheroes punching the bad guys is a metaphor for those of us without super powers. It means taking a stand and fighting for a better world. It does not mean dehumanizing the dehumanizers and screaming about how they started it.
Michael Critzer is an author, a speaker, and a cultural studies scholar. He teaches college courses on writing, literature, and superheroes as modern mythology. His new book, Heroic Inspirations, is available now from Hero House Publishing