Hit & Run

Supergirl Has a Libertarian Main Villain, and He's Pretty Interesting

The series makes sure to show his actions as wrong, but not necessarily his ideology.

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The evil paternalist-industrialist who wants us to give up fossil fuels. Wait, what?
"Supergirl"

Warning: This blog post spoils plot points from Monday night's episode of Supergirl (as well as several previous episodes).

Supergirl represents CBS's efforts to wade into the superhero serial drama that is dominating both television and blockbuster films. It's the first of these hero shows from the DC Comics universe with a female protagonist, and, yes, it "leans in" to the feminism in ways that are sometimes effective, sometimes corny. "Sometimes effective, sometimes corny" is actually a good capsule review of the series after 12 episodes. It is entertaining, but often uneven (compared to more confident shows from the DC universe like Arrow and The Flash) and the dialogue is often lackluster. The solid acting tends to elevate the worst of the writing.

For casual viewers the show can seem like a young adult, gender-swapped knock-off of Superman. She fights a lot of space aliens. There's another crop of evil Kryptonians attempting to cause mayhem. There's a definite familiarity of style.

The show has its own version of Lex Luthor in the guise of Maxwell Lord (played by Peter Facinelli). Lord is a wealthy industrialist-inventor very much in the Tony Stark/Iron Man vein. He's also a hardcore libertarian who could have stepped right out of an Ayn Rand novel—he built a high-speed train, apparently without government subsidies. He is deeply distrustful and critical of government, explaining early in the series that his scientist parents died while following government-approved safety procedures that turned out to be inadequate. He doesn't trust Supergirl and doesn't think people should rely on her to keep them safe (the television show is tied to the most recent Superman movie, and Lord takes note of the tremendous destruction Superman's fighting caused in Metropolis).

As of Monday's episode, Lord is also certainly the primary antagonist of the season.  He experimented on a comatose young woman to give her the same powers as Supergirl—a "bizarro" version of the heroine, in a variation on the comic book version—and the two women fought. He also uncovered Supergirl's real identity and her foster family. As a result, Supergirl's foster sister Alex Danvers, a special agent in a secretive government organization that addresses threats from aliens, "arrested" Lord with no actual warrant and no real authority, and dragged him off into a secret detention facility with no legal representation. The show does not ignore the ramifications of this move like it might have decades ago. Lord, stuck in a high-tech prison cell, notes, "Holding people indefinitely against their will; can't get more American than that."

Once it became clear that Lord was heavily influenced by libertarian and objectivist ideologies, I decided to keep an eye on the show to see how he developed. It wasn't clear at first whether he was going to become a full-on villain or more of a critical antagonist who wasn't necessarily evil (in the comics Lord has gone back and forth between heroic and villainous attitudes). I also wanted to see how the show represented Lord's beliefs—did the writers understand the underlying concepts of libertarian thought? If Lord became a villain, would it be portrayed as an indictment of libertarianism itself or would it be driven by Lord's personality?

After watching the trajectory of Lord's development into a nemesis, I'm actually a bit surprised at the nuance on display (mostly because of the generally unsubtle writing). Lord has all the signs of a complex, interesting villain. The show doesn't paint his criticism and skepticism of government itself as wrong. Characters who disagree with his attitude are also heavily connected to the government, like Supergirl's sister, and not exactly dispassionate observers. Rather, what makes Lord a villain is how he acts in response to his ideology, which ultimately corrupts his own argument. There's nothing libertarian about experimenting on a non-consenting human in order to prove that he's not reliant on Supergirl to protect earth from evil aliens. It's a villain mentality reminiscent of the deeply complex X-Men villain (and sometimes hero) Magneto. Magneto, a Holocaust survivor, accurately notes that a huge swath of humanity is hostile toward his mutant peers. Readers/viewers are intended to agree with his perception. But then, his solution has frequently been to wage war on humanity in response. He's a villain the audience can "identify" with while still grasping the evil of his actions.

There is a big trap I expected the show to fall into when presenting a libertarian as a villain: The misrepresentation of libertarianism or objectivism as a selfish philosophy that cares only for individual success and achievement and has no interest in social cooperation. So far, to the show's credit, it has not fallen into this trap. In fact, I've been noting an interesting trend that libertarians might actually identify with: Lord is perceived as selfish and self-interested by the "heroic" characters on the show even as he talks about using his skills in his own way to help others and mankind (without the yoke of the government) and supporting the concept of spontaneous order. Watch this clip below from early in the series, before it became clear that Lord had some sinister intents:

That's Alex Danvers, Supergirl's sister, he's talking to. Note that she doesn't actually engage in his argument at all that he's helping people without using the government (or a gun). She just accuses him of not trusting anybody. In a later episode, Supergirl temporarily loses her powers and isn't available to assist in response to an earthquake. Lord uses the situation to argue to the public that they can't depend on the government (or Supergirl) to protect them, and that they need to rely on each other in times of crisis. This is characterized by Supergirl as "sowing panic," even though Lord is also shown desperately trying (and failing) to save the life of a person injured in the disaster. He's also, interestingly, pro-renewable energy, complaining at one point about the media reporting about plunging gas prices and reinforcing dependency on fossil fuels, meaning they're also avoiding the characterization of the libertarian industrialist as reinforcing the wealthy pro-oil status quo and the anti-Koch sentiment that drives a lot of anti-libertarian criticism.

It's possible for the show to still fall into this trap of turning Lord's beliefs themselves into caricatures, but for now it's being remarkably thoughtful about them. It is not clear from last night's episode that we are supposed to support the decision to hide Lord away in a secret prison, even though he does represent an actual threat to the safety of Supergirl and her family. I have my own theories as to where Lord's story arc is going to end up taking him. For now, I'll give the show credit for making a libertarian villain who is not a mockery of libertarian philosophy.