It’s always interesting what the American superhero genre does to reveal the contemporary zeitgeist. While I wouldn’t doubt that children of all epochs have wished they could fly or had super strength, the American superhero mythos is a particular phenomenon which reveals all manner of interesting thins about the Western understanding of power and selfhood. This has been well documented by John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett in their excellent book, The Myth of the American Superhero. They note a variety of key themes in the superhero genre, particularly is continuity with the classic Old West genre: the lonely hero who ventures into a community from outside of it, saves it, and must then leave and continue his heroic isolation for the sake of others (think Superman’s ‘Fortress of Solitude’ here). Now, of course the superhero genre is multifaceted and there are exceptions to this standard narrative (Spiderman being a notable one). Here, however I am interested more specifically in the very idea of “super powers” themselves and what the fact that such powers are an object of fantasy in our culture says about our understanding of selfhood and identity.
So here I will venture a perhaps indefensible thesis: Within the superhero genre, broadly speaking, the ultimate superpower is telekinesis. Moreover, the very idea of telekinesis as an ultimate superpower implies a very specifically modern ontology. Telekinesis is, of course the ability of move and manipulate objects with one’s mind. While flying, having super strength, and telepathy are certainly important superpowers, when it comes right down to it, the person with telekinesis will win every time. This is seen most clearly in NBC’s Heroes which chronicles the exploits of a wide range of “ordinary people” who develop “extraordinary abilities”. The main villain of the series, Sylar is a fundamentally insecure watch-maker whose dysfunctional maternally-instilled drive to be “special” drives him to murder other people with abilities, and through his own (somewhat vague) power, absorb their abilities for himself. In the course of the series he has acquired more than half a dozen unique abilities, but out of all of them the only one he generally uses is telekinesis. And it is precisely this ability that makes him an object of fear and terror. Bullets shot at him are flung back at their caster, people with super strength are immobilized and easily decapitated by his finely tuned ability to manipulate things simply with his thoughts.
Telekinesis is the ultimate superpower in the Western imagination precisely because it embodies the ability of total immediate control. The possibility of controlling ones environment and other persons simply through thought is the zenith of the desire for unimpeded control and mastery. An insecure, timid watch-maker named Gabriel Gray is transformed into the all-consuming power-monger of Sylar simply by gaining the ability to move things with his mind. Indeed, one of the things that Heroes shows in a distinctly clear manner is the way in which the quest for immediacy, power, and control issues in the creation of monsters who lose touch with any sort of co-humanity.
The American mind imagines telekinesis as the ultimate super power precisely because it is the apogee the modern ontology. In a world in which persons are self-enclosed individuals who exist in fundamental strife with one another, the lure of total immediate control is precisely what is most desired. The Siren’s song to the modern mind is precisely to lust after such a vision of total immediate control. Telekinesis, then embodies within the American superhero mythos the Promethean height toward which modern humanity reaches, and in reaching it loses their relational and creaturely nature. The ontology of telekinesis is the ontology of modernity, the desperate drive to become the Nietzschean übermensch. Indeed, whether inadvertently or not, one of the things that the superhero genre, and Heroes in particular shows most clearly is the inherent incompatibility between exercising dominating power and being human. To be human is to eschew the kinds of power that are the objects of fantasy in the world of superheroes. To take up the reigns of power is always to imperil or eviscerate one’s humanity. To be human is to live in essential vulnerability. When this vulnerability is forsaken for the pursuit of power, any chance of living a truly human life vanishes into the void of the eternal antagonism between superheroes and supervillains.