Great, great post from Julian Sanchez on an odd divide among wealthy superheroes and villains, namely that superheroes in that category tend to have inherited their wealth, while supervillains tend to be self-made men. He writes about the historical context for the cleavage:
While the pattern in comics inverts the meritocratic ideal that seems to rule in most modern American fiction, it fits quite naturally with a pre-capitalist aristocratic ethos, which persisted at least through the early 20th century in the form of Old Money’s contempt for the nouveau riche. Jane Jacobs, in her book Systems of Survival, contrasted this aristocratic view, which she dubbed the “Guardian” moral complex, with “bourgeois” or “mercantile” ethics. In this worldview, while wealth and the leisure time it affords may be necessary preconditions of cultivating certain noble qualities (whether that’s appreciation of classical art and literature, or the martial, deductive, and scientific skills of a masked crimefighter), the grubby business of acquiring money is inherently corrupting. The ideal noble needs to have wealth, while being too refined to be much concerned with becoming wealthy. It’s permissible for Stark and Kord to be largely responsible for the success of their companies because their contribution is essentially a side effect of their exercise of their intellectual virtues. Along similar lines, the Fantastic Four have plainly become enormously wealthy from the income stream generated by Reed Richards’ many patents, I don’t recall many scenes in which we see Richards stepping out of the lab to apply his intelligence directly to their commercialization: His inventions are presumably sold or licensed to others who concern themselves with transforming Richards’ genius into cash.
A similar pattern holds for literally noble or aristocratic power in comics. Princess Diana (Wonder Woman) and T’Challa (Black Panther) are hereditary royalty. Doctor Doom and Magneto are members of despised and oppressed minority groups (Doom is Roma; Magneto a Jewish mutant) who actively seize leadership of Latveria and Genosha, respectively. Democratic power doesn’t fare too much better: Lex Luthor was briefly president of the United States.
A couple of extra thoughts. When a character comes from inherited wealth and hasn’t had to work, acquiring superpowers or a sense of responsibility that leads our hero to fight crime can be a form of extreme penance or catchup for all the years the hero spent lounging in the lap of luxury. It’s not just that a wealthy hero is getting acquainted with a high level of responsibility — he’s getting acquainted with responsibility, period, and maybe even reckoning with the fact of his past inaction or the consequences of his wealth. It’s a way of creating a character arc for someone who in normal circumstances might be further along the path to both heroism and manhood. If, say, an extremely heroic firefighter became a superhero, his powers might manifest existing tendencies he had already more strongly. But it’s not like he’s going to have to reckon with his past self and past actions. He was already a solid dude, and now he’s an even more solid dude.
And Julian has this observation, which I think is true, but I’d take a little bit further: “The logic of this, as I apprehend it, is that the hero must wield enormous power in order to effectively perform the superheroic function, but cannot seem to seek it too eagerly, even for admirable ends—perhaps particularly when we consider that they typically make use of their great economic power by translating it into a superhuman capacity for physical violence.” I also think that when a hero moves from having his wealth be the most important fact around him to his capacity for good being the most important fact around him, it invites the audience to reassess how important they think wealth actually is. These reassessments only go so far, of course. It’s not like Batman is liquidating Wayne Enterprises and giving his fortune away. We wouldn’t want to make people think that wealth itself is bad, now would we? Wealthy people who become superheroes are a great way of reconciling us to concentrations of wealth, to convince us of the idea that it’s actually a good thing for some people to have accumulate vast sums of money because they’ll channel it for public benefit.