Joe Mathews: California keeps waiting for superheroes to rescue it

Rich Hanna of Sacramento, dressed as Captain America, leads the children’s superheroes race in July 2014. Joe Mathews says that California is too fixated on superheroes.
Rich Hanna of Sacramento, dressed as Captain America, leads the children’s superheroes race in July 2014. Joe Mathews says that California is too fixated on superheroes. Sacramento Bee file

Maybe it’s because Superman, Spiderman and Batman all live in New York (or its fictional doppelgangers), but Californians have failed to grapple with our own dangerous dependence on superheroes.

This peril is most obvious in Hollywood, which could collapse if the public gets tired of superheroes; two dozen superhero films are scheduled over the next five years.

But California’s problem goes beyond the cinematic glut. Superheroes – and our tendency to await one to save the day – have taken over our culture, our industry and our schools. In Silicon Valley, the success of startups too often depends on the blessing of elite investors. Nonprofits and advocates routinely seek a celebrity as spokesperson and funder.

Our politics are now driven more by individual superheroes than coherent political parties or associations. We chose our last two governors on superhero logic; Arnold Schwarzenegger was supposed to transfer his cinematic superpowers to Sacramento, and Jerry Brown (himself a sequel) was sold to us as a superhero wizard (bloggers call him Gandalf, the “Lord of the Rings” character) capable of conjuring a way through the state’s budget mess. Ambitious change in California now requires expensive ballot initiatives that require superhero billionaires – Tom Steyer, Charles Munger Jr. – to fund them.

I may be extra-sensitive to superhero centrism as the father of three young boys. This month, my 6-year-old’s summer camp and my 4-year-old’s preschool both had superhero weeks. The latter produced a new superhero for California’s pantheon: Super King, who fights “bad kings,” and won’t clean up his room after his adventures.

Why do superheroes have such power over us? The director of my son’s preschool, in an email to parents, argued that “there is something innate in a 3- and 4-year-old that craves power,” and so the preschool “will be building on this innate need to control things by tying in superheroes to experiments with science and projects to broaden their view of the world.”

It’s easy to see how that craving for power extends beyond the preschool set. In San Diego, for a reporting trip that coincided with Comic-Con, I rode the trolley with Batman and three ninjas – and never felt safer on public transit. In San Mateo recently, I happened upon Draper University of Heroes, a residential program founded by venture capitalist Tim Draper to train entrepreneurs. Students even take a superhero pledge (“I will help prepare the next generation of Superheroes”).

This hunger for superheroes reflects concern about the slowing pace of innovation. Why are our companies giving us more texting apps instead of new technologies? Perhaps that’s why we’re drawn to Elon Musk, the SpaceX founder and Tesla CEO.

Musk, although supposedly an inspiration for the movie “Iron Man,” is a gifted leader of teams of engineers, not a superhero. But Ashlee Vance’s new biography shows how Musk’s companies lose key employees because of his unreasonable demands for superhero-level devotion, and his need to be portrayed in the media as a scientific genius.

Given our collective sense of powerlessness in an age of gridlock and inequality, our devotion to superheroes is understandable. But it’s also a way of avoiding the truth that progress requires bringing many different people together behind a common goal.

And superhero dependency feels like desperation. It’s instructive that “Superhero” – the hit from Los Angeles rock band Jane’s Addiction that became the theme song of TV’s “Entourage” – is really an expression of desperate love. Be a superhero if you want. But do it someplace else.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square. He wrote this column for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo.