Marvel Entertainment is planning to release three to four superhero movies a year, with possibly 23 in the pipeline. Solo superhero movies — Superman, Spiderman, Hulk, Iron Man — seeming inadequate as evil grows and gives way to collective forces such as X Men, Transformers, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers.

What has created this obsessive need for superheroes? From the earliest recorded literature, gods, angels and heroes were always invoked at times of war or natural disasters. Gilgamesh, Odysseus, the Knights of the Round Table or Rustum have epitomised courage facing fierce opponents and supernatural beings.

We all have a deep-seated need to be taken care of — by a parent, a teacher, a friend, a spouse or a government. Perhaps the perceived powerlessness of governments and their justice systems is compensated by the fantasy of heroes with extraordinary powers who can protect us.

Psychologists suggest that superheroes validate the collective moral values of humanity. They calm fears, lift spirits and develop resilience. At a time when so much is said about society — especially the young — losing its values, the extraordinary popularity of superhero films is strong evidence that belief in the triumph of good against evil remains unshaken.

Justice once seen as a divine responsibility gradually became the role of government judicial systems. One can argue these institutions, rather than society, lost faith in the power of good to overcome evil.

Parallel to the Superhero, the Vigilante emerged — ordinary people who, while lacking the special powers of superheroes, step up to punish wrongdoers who are beyond the reach of the law.

In 1905, novelist Edgar Wallace introduced — in his book The Four Just Men — respectable citizens: an anthropologist, an artist, a chemist and, occasionally, a highly skilled criminal engaged after the death of the original fourth Just Man. Together they take law into their own hands to rid society of criminals. Batman, introduced by DC Comics in 1940, was a vigilante and did not have supernatural powers. Bruce Wayne, who trained himself to combat criminals and the corrupt police of Gotham City (New York) after his parents were killed by common thieves, was unable to provide justice.

Psychologists suggest that superheroes validate the collective moral values of humanity.

Paul Hoffman calls vigilantism “the last resort of the unprotected” and vigilante groups or individuals operate in many countries of the world. Some protect the helpless, such as Nyx or the Gulabi Gang, while others instigate violence, such as the Klu Klux Klan or Modi’s cow protectors.

Karachi’s vigilantes, Jameel Yusuf and Nazim Haji, established the highly respected Citizens Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) in the ’80s, when a spate of kidnappings could not be managed by the police. Individuals within the Karachi police force also controversially resort to extra-judicial killings, fearing criminals will slip past the judicial system.

Vigilantism has its modern origins in San Francisco in 1851, at the time of the gold rush, when lawlessness was rampant and law enforcers could not cope. Their motto “Let justice be done though the heavens fall” became part of school curriculum. Annika Hagley in her Guardian column “America’s need for superheroes has led to the rise of Donald Trump”, writes that the US need for superheroes is “steeped in the uniquely American pop-culture belief that vigilantism is sometimes better than the law.” It may explain the mayhem the US creates across the world with its ill-conceived international vigilantism. Politics and fiction even reinforce each other as in the film Batman vs Superman, where Batman references a statement by ex-Vice President Dick Cheney, when he says, “If we believe there’s even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty and we have to destroy him.”

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 2nd, 2019