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Why Superheroes Disappoint Us: Political Power Is Kryptonite for the Soul

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Superheroes have always been a colorful and often comical way for cartoonists, writers and filmmakers to process and filter the darkest problems of society, guide audiences on a path of inspiration and restate lessons handed down through mythology. As science and medicine made progress in leaps and bounds, Superman came along to preach the value of physical fitness in fighting natural and manmade disasters. As the Great Depression brought our great grandparents face to face with despair, Batman showed us that in order to effectively combat darkness, we need to tap into our own dark sides. And as women and African Americans fought for equality, X-Men warned us against the dangers of bigotry while demonstrating the unparalleled strength of underdogs and outcasts.

In July, 2010, after being immersed for five years in online social networks like Myspace and Facebook, seeing the rise of YouTube celebrity and Warhol's prediction of 15 minutes of fame for everyone come true, I began writing the script for Alter Egos, a dark superhero comedy. I wanted my superheroes to confront what it means to have two separate and conflicting identities: one public and one private.

Internet-induced multiple personality disorder and the growing division between the right and left brains of our culture were minor issues compared to economic injustice so infuriating it was almost paralyzing. There would be no punishment for those who knowingly abused their positions of power on Wall Street, plunging the global community into financial crisis, and there would be no help for their victims. The small group of bankers and traders who had created a devastating depression was still inexplicably making tons of money, but there were hiring freezes for firemen and teachers.

And the superhero we had elected to save the day (President Barack Obama) seemed to be teaching us that political power is like kryptonite for your spirit and integrity. There he was, the first black man in the White House, working and playing golf with some of the same greedy white men who had caused this crisis to begin with, or at least those who had let it happen... and he wouldn't tell us why. When asked by John Stewart why he was working closely with Larry Summers, whose policies had ushered in this era of reckless investment, all that the president said was: it's very complicated and Larry had done "a heck of a job." In running for re-election, the president abandoned his superhero persona altogether and allowed his alter ego to rule. Instead of offering a grand vision of the future, as he had in 2008, he based his campaign on attacking the character of his opponent.

So, in Alter Egos, I wanted to set my characters in a world where superheroes disappoint us, the way our politicians, advisors and leaders often do. Unlike Superman, who has multiple powers and immense generosity of spirit, my guys in "the Super Corps" have only one power each and are as confused and petty as the rest of us. Clarke Kent was clearly Superman's disguise; the Man of Steel was always in control. My protagonist, Fridge, who shoots ice from his hands ("the most common of superpowers"), is actually a disguise invented by his civilian alter ego, Brendan, and the two constantly battle for control. Clarke was almost bemused by Lois Lane's crush on Superman, but Brendan feels betrayed when his girlfriend falls for Fridge.

Where Batman had a well-funded armory of hi-tech gadgets, weapons and all terrain vehicles, my guys are losing their funding and have to walk or take the train. Think of our G.I.s in Iraq, patrolling the desert in obsolescent Humvees. My superheroes have also been stripped of any right to carry firearms, so, if you're like the yellow-suited C-thru and all you have is X-ray vision, your Supercorps-issued tazer is the closest thing you've got to weapon.

With the decaying façade of superhero-ness comes ambiguity: blurring of the line between right and wrong, friendship and betrayal, justice and corruption. In an effort to have Supercorps funding restored by the Senate, Captain Amazingness, the self-named Supercorps leader, spins a web of deceit and treachery that entraps his trusted underlings and plays out a personal grudge. I wanted the world of Alter Egos to be an alternative version of our world, as it really is. Every character has ambivalent motives and hidden agendas, every superhero has problems controlling superpowers. If superheroes existed in our world, this is what they'd be like; and with the sorry state of the economy and the constant debate to cut social services like arts education, NPR, PBS and Planned Parenthood, wouldn't their funding, too, be cut?