Real-Life Superheroes or Masked Activists?

It sounds like a ridiculous premise for a bad Hollywood script. A very, very bad Hollywood script. But a confluence of forces over the past two years could be contributing to a bizarre rise in real-life, mask-and-spandex super heroes. With a heightened sense of online activism and large-scale cuts in a number of police forces, these pseudo-superheroes appear to be part vigilante, part activist. That's right, superhero activists.

The cuts in police forces across the Western world, from England to Michigan, have inspired fears of impending crime waves. And while not every region has seen a sudden rise in crime, the past few years have seen the emergence of a fascinating networks of street-fighting superheroes inspired by a century of iconic comic culture. A culture, mind you, that has seen recent record prices for old superhero comics.


In a bizarro parallel of online activist networks, a number of traditional mask-and-spandex pseudo-heroes have taken to the web to mobilize. One of the first calls from action came from a New Jersey resident calling himself Phantom Zero, a masked man who seemed to fashion himself more a humanitarian than a crimefighter. The idea of the superhero-as-activist has indirectly contributed to a number of sites, like Superheroes Anonymous, which looks to inspire “the superhero in all people through outreach, education, and creative community service.”

But community activists (of sorts) are doing more than borrowing the basic superhero ethos. There has even sprouted a national network of costumed individuals patrolling streets across the country. You can follow a number of them on an official World Superhero Registry. And in a bizarre case of life imitating art, mainstream media, both print and online has embraced the work of these individuals in a not-completely-ironic way. Even Hollywood has jumped on the concept of the DIY superhero with upcoming films like Kickass and Defendor.

So is all this emerging superhero activity a vigilante uprising or a call to activism? Perhaps a bit of both. Either way, there is no denying the dozens of people suddenly fashioning themselves in the Superman mold.  Some, like Captain Australia, even have their own web site. With 2010 already declared the year of the real-life superhero, it’s hard to tell how many of these street fighters are embracing a true activist imperative. There are some we already know of, including Mexico’s Superbarrio, who acts primarily as a political organizer. Nobody’s saying masked vigilantes are the future of activism, but it certainly appears to be a new take on an old standard.

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