'I'm a Virgo' Points Toward a Leftist 'Superhero' Future

You probably know about Watchmen, the comic book series from the late '80s that has long been regarded as a literary masterwork and helped catapult mainstream superhero stories into maturity. It presents a world in which superheroes are ultimately ineffective, actively harmful, or, in the case of the godlike Dr. Manhattan, often apathetic to humanity's struggles. Writer Alan Moore might have meant for Watchmen to be a sort of a death knell to the superhero myth, but the industry seems to have only considered its surface level aesthetic. Superheroes continue to hold up the status quo, but now a gritty palette is more common place. 

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Moore lamented the state of fandom in a 2022 Guardian interview:

“I said round about 2011 that I thought that it had serious and worrying implications for the future if millions of adults were queueing up to see Batman movies. Because that kind of infantilisation – that urge towards simpler times, simpler realities – that can very often be a precursor to fascism.” He points out that when Trump was elected in 2016, and “when we ourselves took a bit of a strange detour in our politics”, many of the biggest films were superhero movies.

Characters written to be satirical like Rorschach have become fan-favorites. Moore tells GQ:

I’m making this guy a mumbling psychopath who clearly smells, who lives on cold baked beans, who has no friends because of his abhorrent personality. I hadn’t realized that so many people in the audience would find such a figure admirable. I was told—this was probably 5 or 10 years ago—that apparently Watchmen has quite a following amongst the right wing in America. In fact, do you know the far-right website, Stormfront?  
They did a reproduction of the fascist hymn that I wrote for V for Vendetta. And they said that, “Yeah, this person is supposed to be the exact opposite of us politically, but having read these beautiful words, I think that he must secretly be one of us, inside.” I think I understand fascism, and I know what kind of hymns people like that would probably like. But if this stuff can be so fundamentally misunderstood, it does make you wonder what the point of doing it was.

Homelander, a Superman-type, from the comic book series The Boys by Garth Ennis is yet another fascist favored by the right. In the Amazon adaptation, he teams up with a Nazi literally named Stormfront, and so, of course, Trump supporters proudly wear his costume at MAGA rallies. 

The fascist-inclined are going to identify with any anti-hero or villain who is aligned with their worldview regardless of the author's intent. Still, I believe there's value in speaking to the much larger and more casual part of the audience. But perhaps it's time for creatives on the left to be a lot more explicit and hopeful with their politics, because the cynicism of shows like The Boys and the milquetoast liberalism of the MCU are becoming tiresome.

That said, anyone else notice the shoutouts to leftism in popular tv and film recently?

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023)

They may come off as throwaway lines, but their presence is promising and an indication of a more accepting general audience. After all, socialism has become less of a taboo in the U.S. ever since Bernie Sanders became a household name, especially among Millennials and Gen Z

Birds of Prey (2020)

The recent seize of power by conservatives is certainly part of a continuing backlash against progressive gains. 

Yet leftist ideals are to trickling into the mainstream. Disney's Andor feels like a revolutionary work of entertainment, with its grounded focus on everyday people fighting an empire that brings to mind lefty classics like The Battle of Algiers. Though it's still clouded behind its Star Wars setting, taking place in a galaxy far away, within a conflict often associated with old-timey wars and so one might easily dismiss it as irrelevant. 

I'm hoping for even more direct messaging in my pop culture, but that sounds contrary to what authors like Moore favor. That is: open-ended conclusions for the audience to interpret as they wish.

In regards to V for Vendetta Alan Moore said this back in 2005:

I mean, yes, politically I'm an anarchist; at the same time I didn't want to stick to just moral blacks and whites. I wanted a number of the fascists I portrayed to be real rounded characters. They've got reasons for what they do. They're not necessarily cartoon Nazis. Some of them believe in what they do, some don't believe in it but are doing it any way for practical reasons. As for the central character of the anarchist, V himself, he is for the first two or three episodes cheerfully going around murdering people, and the audience is loving it. They are really keyed into this traditional drama of a romantic anarchist who is going around murdering all the Nazi bad guys.  
At which point I decided that that wasn't what I wanted to say. I actually don't think it's right to kill people. So I made it very, very morally ambiguous. And the central question is, is this guy right? Or is he mad? What do you, the reader, think about this? Which struck me as a properly anarchist solution. I didn't want to tell people what to think, I just wanted to tell people to think...

I get that didactic storytelling is a turnoff. But when it comes to a piece's core message, going too far the other way and leaning into the grey area between two opposing points can lead to thematic conclusions that are too cowardly to say much at all. It starts to feel a lot like a misguided centrism that advocates for listening to all sides, even if one houses white supremacists. A firmer stance from Moore might have kept more right-wing fans away.   

HBO's follow-up TV series to Watchmen arguably falls into the centrist trap. Moore had nothing to do with it, as per usual when it comes to any adaptations of his works. The caretaker role went to Damon Lindelof, who, by the way, has been recently called-out for his racist behavior as the showrunner on Lost. Maybe his Watchmen was a way to make amends, because the racial politics are the most interesting part of the show. The credits for that goes to the writing team. Lindelof's intent was to explore what would happen if liberals took overwhelming control of America, post the events of the comic book series in which Nixon held the wheel.  

Lindelof told Vulture:
Liberals get two things wildly wrong, in my opinion as an unabashed liberal. One is we spend way too much time wagging our fingers. The second is we don’t know when to stop regulating. Regulation is important, it’s necessary, but that’s what the people on the right legitimately fear. So, when does it stop? What is it to be 30 years into a liberal regime? 
Lindelof is arguing for modest reform where conservatives keep liberals in check, as if the middle ground between a Republican and a Democrat is the best place to be. In reality the leaders of both parties make their bed on the right. The channel Second Thought elaborates on the complacency of moderates in American politics. Do check them out. Suffice to say, Lindelof fails to imagine beyond the norm. In their essay 'Watchmen, Copaganda, and Abolition Futurities in US Television' Jessica Hatrick and Olivia González sum it up: 
Watchmen depicts central law enforcement characters who commit violence as heroes, uplifts the main police character as an eventually almighty arbiter of justice, portrays white supremacist law enforcement characters as anomalous individual infiltrators (a.k.a. “bad apples”), and was created in collaboration with various members of law enforcement.
So I've been longing for a courageous leftist voice with a platform to take on superheros for a while now. Someone like Boots Riley. You may know him as the writer/director of the 2018 indie hit Sorry to Bother You, the only movie about organized labor that I can think of since 1979's Norma Rae.

Well, this year Amazon gave Riley a chance with his superhero TV show, I'm a Virgo, and it's good, folks. First off, Riley's surreal style sets the show apart from the current slate of superhero media. The series' most admirable feature, though, is its unapologetic fervor. A coming-of-age story about a giant black boy at odds with America isn't exactly subtle, but the show's pungent ethos is refreshing in a landscape of dull insights from Marvel and DC. Critics on the right will call it leftist propaganda like it's a bad thing. Boots Riley, a communist, admits that it is propaganda.  

All art and entertainment is promoting a worldview, often by simply upholding the conventional. It's about time we get some serious counter programming to the heroes of Hollywood. 

It's unfortunate that season one of I'm a Virgo ends just as its skewering of capitalism is at its most potent. It feels unfinished because it is. Due to budgetary constraints, two scenes following the climax where left unshot. The hope is to wrap it up in season two, but who knows if that'll ever happen. The business is largely on shutdown right now because the heads of the studios don't want to pay their writers and actors fair wages or acknowledge the career-ending potential of AI. The WGA and SAG/AFTRA strike isn't going away anytime soon, and executives are willing to wait it out until the writers start losing their housing. Coincidentally, a leader of an eviction defense group is a prominent character in I'm a Virgo.

[SPOILERS for I'm a Virgo ahead. Watching the full season is recommended.]

[If you're okay with thematic spoilers and want to read about the show's standout leftist message just skip one paragraph. To bypass all potential spoilers, skip the following three paragraphs.]

Jones doesn't look it, but she's a superhero, a potential model for other leftist superheros to follow. She has the power to immerse people inside a theater-like mindscape during arguments or fiery speeches. She essentially brings the energy of a leftist Youtube explainer to the streets. Jones is the one who defeats the the main baddie of the story, a satire of a crime-fighting hero, by educating him on how he's part of the problem and in fact holds up a system that perpetuates poverty and thus crime. Sure, it probably would take more to convince someone like "The Hero" in real life, but I can buy that within this world Jones' powers are sufficiently persuasive. The important thing is that Riley takes down capitalism in way yet unseen in the mainstream, and might actually enlighten casual viewers just interested in a superhero show.

See, the usual superhero story pits the hero against a super villain representing easily identifiable evils like world domination or the killing of innocents. Even a story like Watchmen which is more critical of superheros, isn't precise enough with its critique. Through Jones, Riley points out the actual villain in plain words. Her climatic proclamation can be summed up like this: capitalists rely on unemployment, because it gives them a reliable source of laborers to exploit. The class divide and poverty that capitalism enforces leads to crime for the police to indulge in. Cops and, thus superheros, are used as tools to uphold an unjust system that keeps people, disportionately of color, poor and in prison for the benefit of the upper classes. 

So what's a hero to do? Be wary of the champions of incremental reform, like Elijah Woods character. He's working on a technique to make capital punishment a bit less painful. No, that's not what a true hero would do. Jones knows what she'd call an actual superhero: a revolutionary


I hope I'm a Virgo gets more attention from the superhero fandom, but especially that it makes an imprint on today's top architects of superhero media. The genre is in a bit of lull at the moment, arguably more due to the quality of its recent offerings than general superhero fatigue. To gain more traction outside its core audience, it wouldn't hurt for the genre to actually move forward. Watchmen got people thinking. Maybe I'm a Virgo will push creators into action. 

People like super people because they want escapist wish-fulfillment in a world where they feel powerless. In addition to fantastical cosmic wars, why not tell stories of heros standing with everyday people set in a material reality they can relate to? I don't expect Wonder Woman to become a revolutionary overnight, but I can imagine a story in which she fights a union-busting super villain. Unionization and worker strikes have been on the rise since the pandemic. Which superhero is going to be a hero for the working class?

Certainly not Batman. We're at the point now where Batman's wealth has become a running joke. 

Justice League (2017)

Harley Quinn (2019-)

In this year's The Flash, he actually verbalizes his inadequacies thanks to Wonder Woman's lasso of truth. 

The Flash (2023)

Again, these quips may point out the problem for those paying attention, but the stories do little to tackle the issues head on. 

But Bruce Wayne can turn his image around and serve as an inspiration to the guilty rich. Here's an idea, Bruce: convert Wayne Enterprises into a co-op and give your workers a say in how the profits are distributed, including the resources for the Bat-family to take on the robber barons of Gotham City. 

As for the man of steel, I wonder what James Gunn is upto with the upcoming reboot of Superman slated for 2025. The official synopsis of Superman: Legacy describes Superman as the "embodiment of truth, justice, and the American way, guided by human kindness in a world that sees kindness as old-fashioned." It's a return to jingoist phrasing, which DC comics updated to "truth, justice, and a better tomorrow" in 2021. I suspect Gunn wants to reclaim the motto as an alternative to the kind of nostalgia desired by mean-spirited reactionaries. In 2018 Gunn clarified that he's the type of independent voter who's fiscally conservative, socially progressive, and completely done with the Republican Party because of Trump. I don't expect anything too radical from the new DCU, but maybe, just maybe the ongoing strikes and artists like Riley will inspire further left swings during this down time. 

For a leftist, reclaiming 'the American way' as something to live by would entail a subversion of American-style liberal democracy, which includes the U.S. led and predatory World Bank, the military-industrial complex, and other American norms that prioritize corporate power over people. Could Gunn at least be progressive enough to include universal healthcare in Superman's new version of the American way?

Among the most popular characters right now, Spider-verse heroes are probably the easiest to convert to the left. They're known as friendly neighborhood spider folk and are often depicted with lower class problems, like struggling to pay rent. Lately, Peter Parker has been seen helping out at a homeless shelter. And in No Way Home Peter just needs to take a couple more steps to start advocating for prison abolition, as he works with the other Spider-men to cure/rehabilitate the villains. The latest Spider-verse movie might be the most progressive in the franchise to date. The main themes of the film rebuke  established canon and democratizes the spider moniker. It features the anti-authoritarian Spider-punk as a prominent character; plus Gwen's father actually quits the police force after pulling a gun on his own daughter. Of course, the story is incomplete and the final movie in the trilogy could regress and double down on copoganda. 

Now, you might think that imagining a future of vocally leftist superheros in the mainstream is just a pipedream. Big business wouldn't want to risk alienating conservative customers, right? Judging by the cinema scores (indication of how much an audience enjoyed a film) and box office earnings, general audiences are at least indifferent to progressive politics in their entertainment as long as they're having a good time. Right-wing pundits and internet trolls may be crying woke this and woke that, but the same movies they criticize are also making the most money at the box office. In regards to this summer's top hit Barbie, according to Deadline: the priority for Mattel's CEO "was to make a good movie versus selling dolls; in the end, the movie would elevate the Mattel brand."  The most enduring companies play the long game to remain relevant, which means they'll combat backlash by presenting their brands as progressive, environmentally friendly, etc. When it comes to storytelling, the way forward seems to be giving writers and directors more creative leeway and with the younger generations embracing anti-capitalism, the future will only be more welcoming to those creators and products espousing leftist ideas. Of course, political messages are diluted when co-opted by the bosses. Barbie isn't as critical of Mattel or gender essentialism as it could be, for example. Neither does the film dare to mention the dire working conditions endured by the women making their dolls. But that doesn't mean people can't supplement the lip service or faux awareness of corporate media with the radical voices that are chipping away at the machine. As artists, critics, activists, and everyday fans, we must stay a step ahead of the capitalists. If anything, the current state of pop culture is an indication of what brands are chasing: the illusion of authenticity. One day corporations might just sell us the ongoing revolution with their dying breaths. 

A TV show like I'm a Virgo existing on Prime Video at least proves that a communist can be given a major platform thanks partly to the perceived value of superheroes. I don't think Riley will be the last. 

I understand Alan Moore's concern with the proliferation of superheroes. They often exist in uncomplicated worlds where they defeat so-called evildoers but do little to upend villainous power structures. Heroic characters with supernatural abilities or top-notch skills and intellect resemble archetypes of fascistic superiority. Historians have compared them to gods of old. Or are they like Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of the Übermensch? That is, they represent the ultimate goal for humanity. The Nazis used that concept to justify their vile ideas of a master race. While anarchist like Emma Goldman interpreted the idea of Übermensch to be more inclusive, as an endpoint for a society with no masters or slaves. Or perhaps superheroes can be the symbolic vanguard of a revolution. We needn't lean into the ugly side any longer. If superheros are to remain relevant to a future of discerning audiences, then they must move toward meaningful change. They can help us imagine a world that no longer needs saving. Though even post-revolution, fans won't have to leave them behind. We could always use lookouts ready to take-on those trying to regress back to oppressive times. 

Superheroes ought to inspire in the best direction. 

"On your left." - Avengers: Endgame (2019)

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