Superheroes Meeting Real-Life Presidents: A Cursed Sub-Genre
We’ve talked here at Cracked about superhero crossovers, for example, here and here. Yet there is one specific type of crossov–oh, and here. There is one type of crossover that–alright, you know what, also here, here, and here. At least you can’t say we’re not thorough. The point is that there is one type of superhero crossover that deserves more attention, given it is almost destined to disappoint. Yes, we mean superheroes and comedians. But also superheroes and presidents.
You see, both DC and Marvel superheroes have met real US presidents, yet it is always an awkward scenario. Take Superman meeting JFK back in 1963, after he was shot. Okay, but that’s just bad luck. Or take Captain America fighting a thinly-veiled Richard Nixon as the evil mastermind of the Evil Empire back in 1974. But then Nixon was a particularly corrupt individual, nothing to overthink too much here either. Alright, how about this: Captain America fought a lizard version of Reagan back in 1988. Although, come to think of it, the plot had Reagan being poisoned with a toxin in the water supply and then returning to normal, so ‘lizard people’ is surely not a smart point to make.
Ah yes, we knew there was a point there somewhere. You see, just like promising eternal love, having presidents in superhero comics is just tempting fate and asking the universe to make your decision age badly. Seriously, what are the options? If the comic is critical, then that will just solidify the douchebaggery of the real president, and in that case, you’ve unwittingly proven a very cynical, yet realistic, point about politics that hence makes comics ‘political’ (as the dumb-dumbs that resist acknowledging that they always have been like to say). And if, on the other hand, the comic is a fluff piece, then real-world developments will end up making it look exactly like that (ahem, here’s looking at you, feminist superhero Faith trying to suck up to Hillary Clinton).
So what’s going on here? Our guess is the insistence of the above-mentioned cynical point is ruining this trope. The fact is that putting symbols of idealized good like superheroes in the same stories as presidents is indeed setting up a conflict that cannot possibly age well unless you truly accept the cost and go with it -- like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns having Reagan treat Superman like a just-following-orders goon, or Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Graphic Novel With No Zack Snyder Movie being set in a proto-corporate dystopia with Nixon as a perpetual US president. Those works get it, man. But standard superhero fare cannot help falling into the trap of treating presidents like either pure, honest public servants or narcissistic plutocrats who are necessarily put in the position of subordinating the hope for change to the whims of the rich.
In this regard, there is one comic that brings us full circle; insofar it is the most perfectly paradigmatic example of this entire problem, without even realizing it. Back in 2009, a week before Obama’s real-life inauguration, Marvel published a short backup feature in which Spidey saves the day during a fictional version of said event Before that, Biden had helped a kidnapped Obama, McCain had helped Peter Parker, all moments within the story promoting healthy, politically-mature bipartisanship, which is as realistic as radioactive spider powers. Yet the key point in all of this is the villain of the feature: the Chameleon. A shapeshifter. Yeah, we know you know where we’re going: it’s structural analysis time, baby!
The morality of the superhero format fundamentally clashes with that of presidents in a way that has little to do with whether the latter are ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ So the comic’s plot is that the Chameleon turns into an Obama double and tries to be sworn in, Spidey defeats him, yadda yadda yadda. Yet, the villain’s plan was morphing into an up-and-coming politician who built his political ascent on ‘hope’ and ‘change’ and on a bunch of progressive ideas dating back to when the US understood that ‘a bit less systemic cruelty’ does not mean ‘scary communism,’ and moreover that the ideological consensus ruling politics for decades was kind of a grift. To repeat: usurping said politician was the plan of a villain whose name was the Chameleon.
Long story short: let’s just say the ‘real’ president has sure spent many, many years trying to expand on this cosmic irony. Speaking of political chameleons, then, Harvey Two-Face (an actual politician) summed up the problem with this sub-genre the best:
Top Image: Marvel Comics