Hey! Look! More time-wasting ruminations on super heroes!
In the first decades of super heroes, their purpose was firmly fixed: Crimefighting. Even most supervillains, to this day, are petty criminals much of the time. This actually makes a lot of sense, given the time period they rose up in. Pre-WWII America was a crime-ridden, nasty place. Even today, America has an absurdly higher rate of violent crime, especially gun crime, than many other industrialized nations. If super heroes were first written today, though, or actually existed, would they be crime fighters? I don’t think so.
Right now, America has the lowest rate of violent crime of any point in its history, with the exception of a chunk of the 1950’s. In the sixties, it shot right back up again. (Thanks, baby boomers. What can’t you mess up?) Things are looking like they’re going to keep dropping, too. I would personally wager that the violent crime rate drops to its lowest point ever in America within the next 10-20 years, except for… well, I’ll get to that. Super heroes busting kids with joints and petty vandals is neither narratively interesting (except possibly for comedic purposes) nor practical for publicity purposes for an actual superhuman. Plus, to top that off, there is our draconian paramilitary police force and private prison system. I’m sure they’d have a few superheroes working for them, to be fair, but definitely not all of them. They most definitely wouldn’t want any vigilantes, though, and with the sheer power of our nation’s security apparatus (Wooo! N-S-A! N-S-A! N-S-A! Panopticon 4ever!) there is zero chance of maintaining a secret identity. It’s not happening. Even ignoring the power of domestic spying, who doesn’t have camera phones? Any appearances by a super hero are going to be photographed dozens of times by random passersby, and someone is going to piece the evidence together and figure out who they are.
Making the assumption that the vast majority of superhumans aren’t gobbled up by various parts of the military, as seems the likeliest outcome, what will they be doing? Even if crime rates go up, possibly due to our vastly increasing poverty levels and the insane recidivism rate of private prisons (why would a private prison want to encourage recidivism? Surely they’re good corporate citizens who wouldn’t want to place their own profit margins above the well-being of society?) crime fighting, except as run by the police, seems unlikely.
What do I think their main job will be? Corporate shilling. Seriously. Any super heroes that popped up would be INSTANT celebrities. Movie deals, merchandising, talk-show appearances, tours, the works. They’d make MILLIONS on endorsement deals alone. Hell, if I had super powers, I’d jump all over this. There’d be superhuman gladiator battles, reality shows, etc. As much as I love X-Men, both as a comic and as social commentary, there would probably be very little fear of superhumans. Our society has been inundated with super hero imagery so much over the last century that we’d absolutely ADORE them, and for much better reasons than many celebrities today. (I’m looking at you, *Insert Popular Culture Reference Here*!) On the darker side of things, of course, there’d be corporate espionage, guarding oil pipelines, helping conceal environmental violations, battling public outrage for worker’s rights violations, etc.
There would still be plenty of good work for them to do, don’t get me wrong. Superpowers would be insanely useful in disaster relief efforts. Super-senses to find injured victims under rubble, super strength to dig them out, water-breathing to rescue drowning people, invulnerability/ fire-proofing to rescue people from fires, flight to carry people away… super helpful, super good publicity. Science could also massively benefit from superhumans. Not just through studying their powers, either. They could be invaluable in exploring extreme environments too dangerous for normal people.
Even withdrawing the assumption of the military NOT drafting every superhuman, I still believe that corporate superhumans would be a definite thing. No one can seriously doubt the absurd political power corporations wield today, and I heavily doubt corporations WOULDN’T want to get in on super hero action. They’d end up acting somewhat like Canada during Vietnam: As a draft shelter, albeit with fewer bears or Quebecois. You’d essentially have the choice of joining law enforcement, the military, or a corporation/ superhuman publicity agency. Freelance crime-fighting superhumans, unless they’re at absurd power levels able to challenge any comers, are simply not going to happen. (Unless they’re born rich, but even then they’ll likely go for the celebrity route anyhow). As much as I love traditional comic book universes…