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2 May 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 11:06am

The privilege behind saving the world: why are all superheroes so rich?

The film industry suggests that only the super wealthy are worthy of super powers.

By Adam Smith

Only the elite can save humanity – or at least that’s often the case in the worlds created by the film industry.

Take, for example, Marvel Studios and DC Entertainment’s buffet of superheroes, which is a smorgasbord of the super-rich where wealth is literally a superpower. For Bruce Wayne, Batman’s assorted bat-paraphernalia has apparently set him back $690m, while Tony Stark has supposedly splashed out a cool $1.6bn on series of Iron Man suits, cars, and artificially intelligent butlers.

This trend continues even among the lesser-known caped crusaders: Doctor Strange was an egotistical ex-surgeon obsessed with his own bank balance. Black Panther is a ruler of a wealthy Afro-futuristic society. Aquaman: the Prince of Atlantis. Thor: literally a god.

Even Peter Parker, the genre’s go-to everyman, has his intelligence codified through an exclusionary education that separates him from the people he’s supposed to defend as Spider-Man.

In the original comics dating back to the 1960s, Parker’s school, the Midtown School of Science and Technology, is your run-of-the-mill, state-funded high school. By 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, Midtown Science is based on the highly competitive Bronx High School of Science, with Tom Holland even spending a few days there researching the role.

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Alumni of the school recall that everyone became “a missile striving to strike their target”: in most cases, an Ivy League college education. This, four years at Harvard, Yale, or Stanford, is likely to set a student back an average of $250,000 – not including the interest from money borrowed to pay for it. All in all, there’s a combined $1.5trn cloud of student debt looming over the heads of 44 million American graduates.

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But for Parker, admission is just a phone call away; “It’s never too early to be thinking about college. I got some pull at MIT, I can call,” Stark tells Parker.

Yet Stark’s generosity doesn’t always stretch to others, as he quickly supersedes the contract of salt-of-the-earth salvage worker, Adrian Toomes (who later becomes supervillain The Vulture), to clean up the devastation done to New York in Avengers Assemble.

“This is a huge deal for us. These guys have a family, I have a family. I could lose my house,” Toomes protests, to no avail. In Marvel’s cinematic universe, those challenging the privileged are presented as villains, while Stark’s real-life counterparts constantly bust-up unions or terrorise workers into peeing in bottles rather than take bathroom breaks.

Stan Lee certainly didn’t set out to create a Spider-Man who never needs to worry about paying rent in a friendly neighbourhood. In the original comics, Parker’s first thought upon getting his powers isn’t heroics but wrestling, and then TV shows, to make a quick buck.

Then, even when he does taken on the superhero mantle, Parker is still plagued by money woes – constantly fighting for funds as a photojournalist from his hard-nose editor J. Jonah Jameson. It’s a stark difference from the silver-screen Spider-Man, who’s gifted with mechanised suits; and when Parker does turn down joining Stark as an Avenger in favour of a “working-class hero vibe,” he believes the opportunity itself was just a test.

In films, giving a character a specialised or expensive education is an easy shortcut to conveying their intelligence (even when real-life evidence points to the contrary), and linking such privilege to heroics isn’t limited to superhero movies, nor the present day.

Of the 2,900 fighter pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain, only 200 went to private school (and of those only 8 per cent came from the better-known colleges like Eton, Harrow, and Winchester). Yet ask an older audience to picture a typical World War II fighter pilot, and it’s likely they think of an upper-class ex-public schoolboy – the textbook definition of posh.

This may be due to their depictions in films, with such roles often played by privately educated actors, such as David Niven in 1942 The First of the Few or Richard Todd in 1955 The Dam Busters. Such casting decisions mean that the real-life sacrifices made by those from humble backgrounds are overshadowed by fictional ones made by the upper crust.

Both then, and now, the film industry implies that those who fight for a better world (the raison d’etre for a superhero) must have the associated kudos of wealth and power.

It’s odd to want to see someone who puts their life on the line also have to deal with the mundanities of life, like an unfulfilling job or struggling with bills. But this would keep our heroes grounded and remind us that we can all have power. And after all, with great power…well, you know the rest.

Adam Smith is the Contributing Editor for PCMag UK, writing about technology and culture. He tweets at @adamndsmith.