Culture

Watchman State

How Real Life Superheroes fight crime and help the helpless

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Long before Barack Obama incited our movie stars to give up plastic grocery bags in the name of a more righteous America, long before Rick Warren persuaded millions of spiritual seekers to fill their lives with purpose, a growing number of lower profile yet visually arresting altruists began serving their fellow citizens by taking on local thugs, helping stranding motorists, volunteering at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and participating in blood drives. They call themselves Real Life Superheroes, or Reals for short, and as their name suggests, their inspiration comes not from elected officials, religion, or the Kiwanis Club, but rather Batman, Spider-man, and the countless other icons of spandex-clad virtue who populate our supposedly meaningless and morally corrosive pop culture.

According to the creators of the World Superhero Registry, an online forum and resource center where freelance crusaders network and exchange ideas, an individual who wears a costume, performs heroic deeds, and is not functioning as a paid representative of any organization are the primary characteristics of a Real Life Superhero. Some explicitly position themselves as vigilante interventionists eager to protect their neighborhoods from bad guys; others imitate their comic-book role models in a more metaphorical sense, applying their standards of justice and social responsibility to various community service efforts. They go by names like Fox Fire, Civitron, and Knight Owl, and at least one of them, Superbarrio, an international crimefighter whose domain is Mexico City, has been plying his trade since the 1980s.

Recent feature stories on Reals in Rolling Stone and the Sunday Times have led to a flurry of interest, but much of the media coverage has exhibited a mocking tone, focusing on the ways in which Reals do not quite live up to their better equipped and more physically impressive fictional counterparts. The Sunday Times piece, for example, opens with an anecdote in which one Real is reconsidering his avocation after getting punched in the face by a "tiny girl." Ironically, at a time when the ideals of service, sacrifice, and community are enjoying great cachet in the national conversation, Reals who are doing more than merely talking about such notions are attracting ridicule in large part because the better angels of their nature like to sheathe themselves in colorful, tight-fitting uniforms.

But is it really so wacky what they're doing? After all, soldiers, police officers, milkmen, firefighters, priests, nuns, Girl Scouts, judges, and football referees all use clothing to signify their commitment to virtuous service. Real Life Superheroes are simply putting a contemporary, hyper-individualized spin on the time-honored notion that clothes make the man. Institutions have long capitalized on the transformational power of uniforms—a young Marine recruit donning his Dress Blues for the first time find himself summoning new reservoirs of courage and discipline as he feels compelled to live up to all the values his uniform embodies. A novice in the Catholic Church undergoes a similar transformation the first time she dons her habit.

But what if you're not a member of the Marine Corps or the Catholic Church, and yet you'd still like to experience the magic of sartorial transformation yourself? While there isn't a "virtuous sweater" section at Urban Outfitters or Banana Republic yet, you can get a custom-made BattleSuit from Hero-Gear.net, for the surprisingly reasonable price of only $140. "Once you get suited up, you're a hero and you have to act like one," explained a Real who calls himself Geist to City Pages last year.

Hero-Gear.net was created by Jack Brinatte, a professional wrestler in Minnesota who started making costumes for himself and other wrestlers. When he advertised his wares on the Internet and started getting inquiries from aspiring Real Life Superheroes, he found himself catering to a new niche; eventually, he created a superhero persona for himself, Razorhawk, and now wears his blue-and-yellow uniform while engaging in community service. "We go out there and try to inspire people to do do good things," he recently told Fox News. Volunteer in your regular everyday persona, Brinatte suggested, and it doesn't have as much impact as when you put on a mask and assume a dramatic superhero persona. "People tend to remember that," he concluded. "Kids see it and it sticks in their mind."

Of course, it's not just a selfless act for the adults who don the suits. The U.S. Army used to promise new recruits an "Army of One," but when they put on their new uniforms, they looked just like every other soldier. That's part of a traditional uniform's power—it evokes the strength of all who've ever worn it—but in the Internet era of conspicuous self-promotion, it's easy to see why a flashy and unique outfit, coupled with a proprietary brand name, is appealing to potential do-gooders. Just because you want to serve a cause greater than yourself doesn't mean you don't want to be the center of attention while doing it. And have a little fun while you're at it.

Indeed, while we may have entered a new age of service, sacrifice, responsibilty, and hard work, do we have to be so high-minded about it? Take this YouTube clip produced by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, in which a gaggle of casually pompous celebrities promise to help President Obama transform America by smiling more, curing Alzheimers, and foregoing bottled water—wouldn't it be a whole lot easier to swallow if Ashton and Demi had nixed the ridiculously solemn keyboards and required all the participants to wear Spandex skinsuits while delivering their lines?

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his Reason archive here.

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  1. Oh great. Once the Watchmen movie comes out we’re sunk.

  2. Yeah, but think of the YouTube potential. You know some nut will try to irradiate himself while working out complex equations in a vain attempt to be the next Dr. Manhattan and end up looking like one of Seth Brundle’s beta tests with the baboons.

  3. Oh great. Once the Watchmen movie comes out we’re sunk.

    I had the same thought.

  4. I have GOT to get me one of those spandex suits once I reach my fitness goals, as a present to myself (and all the ladies of the world – who need saving..)

  5. Let’s bring the free market to Reason!

    A simple comment rating system would eliminate most of the trolls (or at least consign them to posting below the radar of most of us) and make this a great place for libertarians to hang out again.

    These kinds of rating systems are used at Slashdot, Urban Dictionary, DKos, etc and aren’t hard to implement.

    Bring reasoned discourse back to Reason!

  6. I don’t think this is such a good idea.
    If I decided to become a Real, it would look more like the Boondock Saints then Superman. Which would not go well for me.

  7. This would be way more funner if there were supervillains to counter these guys. What is Batman without the Joker?

  8. Nick –
    We have Dick Cheney, don’t we?

  9. FOOLS! ALL FOOLS! You people are missing important points to ponder with your buffonery!

    Will there be a Wonder Woman, a Scarlet Witch, an Electra, etc . . .

  10. Naga,

    Real Superheroes. The girls are going to look like this.

  11. We have Dick Cheney, don’t we?

    Blago’s doing a pretty good Lex Luthor in the Chicago Political Machine’s direction at the moment. Those spandex jogging pants….could it be?

    A simple comment rating system would eliminate most of the trolls (or at least consign them to posting below the radar of most of us) and make this a great place for libertarians to hang out again.

    joe would never survive.

  12. This would be way more funner if there were supervillains to counter these guys.

    We have heard your call, citizen!

  13. Two bits, four bits, six bits, a peso. All for Zorro, stand up and say so!

  14. SugarFree,

    Oh ye of little faith. No doubt some will look like East German steroid freak athletes BUT . . . I’m optimistic that most will look like this and this.

  15. and Litter Lad

    Now that actually got me to laugh, out loud even.

  16. WE DON’T NEED ANOTHER HERO.

  17. SugarFree,

    That was creepy.

  18. It made me feel funny in my pants. And by funny I mean horrible.

  19. *grovels at Urkobold’s feet*

    Yes, my lord. But were does Stripperella fit into this world?

  20. Naga, clean it from your brain.

  21. You’ll be fine, bro. Pop some viagra and you will be good as new.

  22. It made me feel funny in my pants. And by funny I mean horrible.

    Gotta love the one with the black legs though

  23. SugarFree,

    Ok. That was hot.

    *tugs at collar of shirt to release . . . steam*

  24. SugarFree taketh, and SugarFree giveth back.

  25. Hmmmmmm . . . I wonder if I can talk my girlfriend into some role playing . . . Legend of Zelda style!

  26. Just offer to show her your magic sword, Naga.

  27. Gotta love the one with the black legs though

    They might be quite lovely under those heads, but the dead eyes trigger some sort of reflexive scrotum withdrawal.

  28. *writes down Xeones one liner*

    Got any more for me?

  29. I wonder if I can talk my girlfriend into some role playing . . . Legend of Zelda style!

    That’s gotta be sexier than Samus style

  30. I think she’d just be happy if he finally found her triforce.

    “Does he think it’s near the vag-anus?”

  31. SugarFree,

    I used to watch a lot of Manga before it became cool(is it cool yet?). I always found the women bizarrely proportioned. That photo sent chills up my spine . . . who am I kidding. I’d hit it. Just sayin’.

  32. I’ll try to think of some, Naga, but i haven’t played Zelda since SNES times.

  33. That’s gotta be sexier than Samus style

    Not necessarily, R-moose.

  34. SugarFree,

    Throwing stones in a glass house are we? Fat people attempting to have sex with skinny people=hilarious!

  35. Damn. I’d prime her Metroid.

  36. I gaze across the morally corrupt screen at Hit & Run. Drew Carey’s vacant eyes stare back. This wasteland of liberal-apologists and potheads sickens me. Some day when they are overun with trolls they will look to me and cry “Save us,” and I will log in and say “no.”

  37. I have been proven wrong

    I am a little concerned, however, with how SugarFree knows all of these things…

  38. Asian girl with a wig in a Metroid outfit? To complicated for my mind.

  39. And in an effort to find more cosplay, I found an examination of Swedish nightclubs vs. British nightclubs. SFW, mostly.

  40. SugarFree is the left hand of God, Reinmoose.

  41. Well, Sweden wins. Next, Sweden vs. Iceland.

  42. I am a little concerned, however, with how SugarFree knows all of these things…

    As discussed on this trainwreck of a thread… I mentally store all these things for the day we upgrade our comment software and I reign in blood.

  43. I totally forgot what I was supposed to be comparing til I got to the UK side. Is it just my opinion or are English turning American?

  44. in an effort to find more cosplay, I

    Um. When you find yourself typing these words, it is perhaps time to reevaluate your life.

  45. My favorite British one is the guy in a wheelchair with a black eye.

  46. SugarFree,

    Are you suggesting some dead Japanese girl is gonna find me in seven days and kill me?

  47. I wrote that one off as soccer hooligan and moved on back to the Swede side.

  48. Naga,

    I wouldn’t write off American women just yet. Especially in comparison to the UK.

  49. Xeones,

    I’m just really, really bored. The entire university is shut down, my entire building is completely empty. I had to come up here on roads that are snow/ice/snow sandwiches and let a guy in so he could work on some machines. I am so, so bored. And the heat is off in the building. If the internet connection was down, I was going to take a nap in the lobby.

  50. It’s 81? in Tampa.

  51. Naga,

    Don’t worry. We don’t have the software yet, and I am still working on a tagline that will carve itself into the human mind even after the briefest of glances.

    Fun fact: The first attempt the film the novel Ringu was a Japanese TV adaptation. Sadako (Samara in US version) is played by a Japanese porn star and commits all the murders in the nude.

  52. Pro Lib,

    You know as well as I do that a redneck dive has the most fucked up looking people in it.

  53. I guess that’s understandable then, SugarFree. An understimulated mind goes to such strange places. Plus, anything that makes Naga uncomfortable is A-OK.

  54. Interesting . . . could you send one of these ladies to . . . er . . . finish me?

  55. PL,

    I figure it evens out since we don’t get many hurricanes. But I have the wife seriously considering moving somewhere warm. If my mother tries to move in with us, I’ll already have an escape route.

  56. Xeones,

    I’m a soldier buddy. Lots of things make me uncomfortable but I carry on. Now something that actually makes me admit I’m uncomfortable? That has to be pretty creepy.

  57. Now something that actually makes me admit I’m uncomfortable? That has to be pretty creepy.

    Sounds like you’re offering SugarFree a challenge.

  58. …though, based on that last link, maybe not much of one.

  59. I don’t know, Xeones. That would be an awesome paperweight.

  60. When we cleaned off one the computers in the office a couple of years ago it had about 200 megs of female weightlifter porn. None of the students would cop to it.

  61. Hurricanes? In Tampa? No, we just watch them clobber everyone else.

    Naga,

    Trailer trash women can be unpleasant to behold, but even they can be attractive for a brief while–cf. Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears. Not my taste, but obviously acceptable to many human males. And, for that matter, to our primate brethren.

  62. Damn, can’t wait to get home and follow all those doubtlessly way-NSFW links.

    Personally, I’m hoping for one female real-life superhero who looks and dresses like the one drawn by artist Chris “Coop” Cooper.

  63. Pro Liberate,

    It would appear you are correct. I was gonna post a link to British pornstars and WHOA! Hideous! I had no idea England is full of ugly people. I just thought it was a stereotype.

  64. I contend that KY local news station interviewees are the most fucked up looking people you can encounter. Makes those British people look like Master-fucking-piece Theatre.

  65. Tonio, they are disappointingly pr0n-free. I don’t want you to get your… uh… hopes up.

  66. SugarFree,

    Samus just isn’t on my radar screen. Strange.

  67. Trailer trash women can be unpleasant to behold, but even they can be attractive for a brief while…

    “The proles experience a brief flowering of beauty around age sixteen.” -George Orwell (quoting from memory)

  68. Wow – who f’ing dresses up like Racoon Mario!?

  69. Reinmoose, don’t make fun of my night out.

  70. Reinmoose,

    Someone likes Raccoon Mario enough to get him tattooed on his neck.

  71. Damn, can’t wait to get home and follow all those doubtlessly way-NSFW links.

    They aren’t bad, click away.

  72. I wish I could participate in alleviating NutraSweet’s boredom. But I am writing this from my phone on the train from Manhattan and just one post is a pain in the ass. But at least the full browser on the phone lets me read reason and open NutraSweet’s links.

  73. SugarFree,

    I’m sure he’s never gonna regret that one. What with women flocking to guys with large raccoon marios tatted on their necks.

  74. Episiarch,

    Get home. I need someone to talk about these guys behind their backs with.

  75. Pshaw! I don’t even HAVE a back.

  76. Are you two also gonna stay up all night eating ice cream and watching Kyle XY, while pinky swearing your diets start tommorrow?

  77. That was better than I thought I could come up with . . . BURN!!!!! LOL!

  78. As for my post at 2:24, it appears I was mistaken.

  79. Naga,

    You are just jealous of what Epi and I have. It’s a really ugly emotion you are feeling right now.

  80. What kind of hero gets off on helping stranding motorists?

  81. The Samus girl dresses up as two characters from Battle Royale, including the instructions girl. Words fail me. And Naga, I note that you only gather the courage to insult me while my typing capability is limited. Such cowardice, but befitting of a Camaro driver.

  82. -a young Marine recruit donning his Dress Blues for the first time find himself summoning new reservoirs of courage and discipline as he feels compelled to live up to all the values his uniform embodies

    The ‘discipline and courage’ is more of a feature to the utilities. A marine donning the dress blues on his first foray into public is thinking ‘i’m going to get laid’. And he’s usually right.

  83. which I suppose takes its own discipline and courage to execute successfully.

  84. A marine donning the dress blues is putting on the most dashing uniform in the Western Hemisphere. And the ladies know it.

  85. but befitting of a Camaro driver

    Ouch.

  86. What kind of hero gets off on helping stranding motorists?

    The Car Jacker!

  87. Everyone calm down. No need for anyone to go FULL RETARD here.

    Epi,

    I’m old enough to understand the value of surprise and kicking people while they are down.

  88. SugarFree,

    Was a pun intended on that last post?

  89. Naga,

    I tried to layer many meanings.

  90. This is all getting very childish. Naga – maybe you should go find your own bromance rather than try to steal SugarFree’s with those “I’m old enough” statements of yours.

  91. Since I was over in London in 2002, I feel compelled to stick up for their women, (who can be quite friendly, and attractive). The rather unfair comparison above is Stockholm vs. Newcastle. This is rather like Los Angeles vs. Cincinnati. Where would expect to see better looking women?

    For proof, check out some London nightclub girls. (All SFW, unless you are in a mega-PC culture.)

  92. reinmoose,

    LMAO! Okay, okay. Burn on me. No harm was meant.

  93. BP,

    Is true British women like an American man’s accent like American women like a British man’s accent? I heard that, but I continue to wonder.

  94. SugarFree, I can’t really say about the accent, but there’s something. I am not an especially physically attractive guy, but I did much better than I would have here, going after women I wouldn’t have a shot at here.

    Of course, I won a bunch of money gambling on the World Cup, had my own (large) hotel room, and was spending freely. That may have had something to do with it.

  95. Don’t sell yourself short. What woman could resist The ‘Guin in his full feather?

  96. Thx – I’ve always been a snappy dresser…

    Part of it may be that England has yet to catch up with us re: obesity. I prefer women a tad plump, so they might have looked like behemoths to the British men, but looked great to me.

  97. Of course, I won a bunch of money gambling on the World Cup, had my own (large) hotel room, and was spending freely. That may have had something to do with it.

    An equation that could work to your favor not just in Britain, but pretty much the world over.

  98. The Internet Writes… Batman

    “Bullets… my one weakness.”

  99. SugarFree,

    Fabuloso! That was great!

  100. First time I’m seeing that youtube video.

    “I pledge to serve the President of the United States.”

    Really? Since when do we serve any head of state?

  101. Since the death of Dave’s Longbox, ISB is the funniest comic blog for my taste.

    Dave’s Longbox Highlights

    The Batmobile: What A Pain In The Ass

    And the epic series: BOOB WAR!

  102. The U.S. Army used to promise new recruits an “Army of One,” but when they put on their new uniforms, they looked just like every other soldier.

    Really? If you know Army insignia you can read a soldier’s name, rank, awards, current unit, service branch, overseas experience, campaign experience, last combat unit, specialized training, and more. Try to glean any part of that from a standard business suit.

  103. As a member of this Movement ( NADRA ENZI AKA CAPT. BLACK ) I enjoy providing creative counterbalance to crime and poverty. Inspiring fellow citizens to step outside society is our essence.

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