It’s a cliché almost as old as superhero comics themselves: a super-wealthy young man suffers a loss so traumatic that he dedicates his fortune to becoming a hero and saving others from experiencing the same pain he has. Surely, this trope has survived so long for a reason, but are we still clinging to it because it is valuable or because we are just used to it?
Here, in our reality, there is no such thing as a good billionaire because there is no way to accumulate that much money without stealing from others. Hard work and ingenuity don’t build such obscene fortunes: gross mistreatment of employees, exploitation of vulnerable people, tax evasion, political manipulation, and child labor do.
And once they’ve got all that money, what do they do with it? Turn a popular social media platform into their own personal repository for the most virulent, disgusting hate speech on the internet. Buy up land in Hawaii to build ridiculous doomsday bunkers and deprive locals access to their own and public property. Go on self-indulgent trips to space that could make climate change worse.
Is this the type of hero we need: characters based on the most destructive and selfish people on the planet?
Truly, “billionaire superhero” is the oxymoron of our times. Does that mean this trope is past its prime, or does it still have something worthwhile to contribute? I’m of two minds about that. Let’s look at both.
The Case Against Billionaire Superheroes
First, I think it’s important to highlight what is likely the real reason why rich superheroes got so popular: practicality. The big bucks are a simple expedient to ensure they have access to bleeding-edge technology with which to fight crime.
Comics would have us believe that billionaire CEOs are, at worst, a mixed bag. Sure, some of them use their money for evil, but a lot of them are relatable and fundamentally good people. This props up the idea that billionaires deserve their money because they’re just so much smarter, more diligent, and more devoted than the rest of us. Guys like Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, and Oliver Queen are highly intelligent, creative leaders who spend long hours designing, testing, and building their own equipment. On the rare occasions we do meet their disgruntled competitors, the animosity certainly doesn’t stem from our heroes engaging in unsavory practices like violating antitrust laws or destroying the environment and minority communities. It’s always the competitor’s fault for being mediocre, obsessive, ignorant of the facts, or downright criminal.
It’s not enough to dismiss comics as works of fiction when they clearly draw influence from real-life billionaires who are anything but heroic. Iron Man 2 gave Elon Musk a cameo for crying out loud. Such positive associations did not start the myth about billionaire superiority, but they sure gave a boost to the people who still insist that Musk and his ilk are brilliant innovators who have earned the right to take, do, and say whatever they like.
The situation is not quite as dire as with copaganda in superhero comics, where the police are almost uniformly seen as good guys. There are plenty of evil rich folks in comics and always have been, from obscure names like Cornelius van Lunt to top-tier baddies like Lex Luthor. That still doesn’t change the fact that climbing the ladder to the upper classes invariably involves stepping on a whole bunch of other people — and that process is the same for “heroes” as it is for villains.
Some comics have made halfhearted attempts to reckon with that fact, most famously with Iron Man. From the beginning, Tony Stark’s weapons-based fortune was meant to irritate people: Stan Lee co-created him with the intention of forcing his left-wing, antiwar readers to love the most unlovable man alive. Even back then, it was recognized that extreme wealth does not automatically entitle the possessor to respect.
Originally, even being personally exposed to the horrors of war wasn’t enough to stop Stark from developing and selling weapons. That bit was appended to his origin story much later but quickly became integral to his character and even a trope in its own right: the movie Blue Beetle snagged it to make Ted Kord (who stopped weapons production) look good and his sister Victoria (who loves that blood money) look worse.
This Christmas Carol-esque message makes a nice story, but is it enough? At a time when television and movies are busily critiquing billionaires’ conduct, comics seem to be fine with slapping a Band-Aid over the issue and avoiding deep interrogation into whether their biggest heroes truly deserve that title.
In Defense of Billionaire Superheroes
That’s the situation with billionaires in real life. Comics, however, are not real life. They are an aspirational medium, showing humans at their best and most idealized. So maybe we shouldn’t take the billionaire superhero as a veneration of real-life rich people but rather a vision of what rich people could and should be like.
Don’t we want billionaires to recognize and renounce the harm they cause and to find better ways of doing business? Don’t we want them to use their wealth to help people rather than hurt them? Watching a billionaire who actually cares about others and is willing to devote their fortune to improving the world is as much a wish-fulfillment fantasy as watching people fly or throw cars around. It is, therefore, the perfect concept for a comic book hero.
Look at this panel from last year’s Hawkgirl #3, in which Bruce Wayne uses his influence to force a company to reduce pay inequality. You’d never catch a real billionaire doing that. It’s a fantasy version of a billionaire designed to, if not set an example for real rich people, increase reader sympathy for the character.
It’s also worth noting that most of our wealthy heroes were not billionaires to begin with. Back when they were created, the billionaire class didn’t exist, so they were mere millionaires with an M. The ’60s Batman TV show habitually introduced its title character as “millionaire Bruce Wayne.” When Tony Stark debuted, he, too, was a millionaire, though by the time he got his own series, he’d been upgraded to a multimillionaire.
As real people’s fortunes skyrocketed, so too did our heroes’, perhaps without the creators giving much thought to what this implied about said heroes’ moral standards.
Further, most billionaire heroes were not born poor or even middle-class. Stark, Wayne, et. al. were born into vast wealth and built upon the fortunes accumulated by their forebears. As we have seen, getting that rich involves crushing a lot of people underfoot, implying that their parents and other ancestors likely engaged in some pretty shady deals.
Should we blame our heroes for the misdeeds of their parents? Of course not. In that sense, maybe we should read them as less like Elon Musk and more like Abigail Disney, who has devoted her career to calling out the unethical business practices of the corporation her grandfather and great-uncle created.
Finally, while it’s true that our heroes’ business competitors were traditionally depicted as morally inferior, more recent tales complicate that narrative. In the panels above, we saw Simon Williams, apparently unreasonably, blaming Tony Stark for all his problems. In “Everything is Wonderful,” an episode of Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes based on this story, Tony plays a more direct and morally questionable role in Simon’s downfall.
The tendency to blame everyone but our hero for such problems was very likely a result of the Comics Code Authority, which precluded moral ambiguities. With the Code gone, creators are free, if they so choose, to highlight the dark side of extreme wealth.
Conclusion time: is the billionaire superhero worth keeping around? I say yes for a couple of reasons.
First, I’m very reluctant to categorize any subject as completely off-limits to creators, even those that seem ill-advised or ludicrous on the surface. Look at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That is, objectively, one of the stupidest phrases in the English language, but it is also a highly successful and entertaining franchise that has spawned any number of amazing stories. The same can be true of heroic billionaires, a concept that is almost as fantastical as reptilian martial artists. A good creator can spin gold from even the most inauspicious concepts.
On a more practical note, it doesn’t matter what I think. Billionaire superheroes are among DC and Marvel’s most popular characters, and these billion-dollar corporations are not about to stop using or promoting them. They might occasionally take away their fortunes to see how they react, but the status quo will win out, and our heroes will be making bank again in no time.
The real issue here is not whether billionaire superheroes should continue to exist but how we should read their continued existence. It sounds obvious, but we need to be aware of the many ways that superhero comics differ from reality. We all know that real people can’t run at light speed or turn into big green monsters. Now, we need to remind ourselves that real billionaires can’t be heroes.
It’s perfectly valid to despise this trope because of the good press it gives to the worst people on the planet. And it’s perfectly valid to feel neutral about or actively enjoy the trope because of its fantastical elements. It’s even okay if, like me, you feel conflicted about it. The fact that you’re thinking about these things at all is exactly what you should be doing.