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Sean Penn: Postmodern superhero?

Sean Penn

(Mahmoud Bakry/AP Images)

Sean Penn has never played an action hero of the spandex and superpowers variety, though he does have a penchant for characters who display a certain type of populist heroism. For Penn, it seems art often imitates life as he crusades around the globe to end war, rebuilds devastated cultures (Haiti), and secures equal rights for all people. Just today, the actor marched with freedom protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, brandishing a flag and demanding the transfer of power from the military leaders who succeeded Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Local media reported him as saying, “The world is inspired by the call for freedom.” This, just a week after the news that he worked to secure freedom for the U.S. hikers imprisoned in Iran, poses the question: If America is looking for a hero, could Sean Penn be it?

Certainly Penn is not someone who positions himself as a role model, and his tendency to wear his Leftist politics on his rolled-up shirtsleeves has been controversial. He’s more of Tony Stark – an agitator – than a Clark Kent, but he’s demonstrated the ability to achieve great change,. Considering the typical traits of a superhero, there might be a case for Penn.

A superhero often possesses…
Extraordinary powers, skills, wealth, and equipment. The two Oscars on Penn’s mantle speak to his extraordinary skills and, by extension wealth, and anyone who saw the photos of Penn boating around New Orleans post-Katrina with a shotgun in hand has to acknowledge he knows a thing or two about weaponry.

A strong moral code, including a willingness to risk one’s own safety in the service of good without expectation of reward. Using Hugo Chávez as a middleman to talk to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on behalf of Americans accused of espionage, check. Facing a lawless New Orleans, check. Co-founding a 55,000-strong tent city in Haiti, check.

A secret identity. According to Reuters, Venezuelan deputy foreign minister Temir Porras, an “American intellectual” approached Chávez to plead Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer’s case. Of course, it has come out that the “intellectual” in question was Penn, but who would have ever inferred “the dude who played Spicoli” from that description?

A number of enemies he fights repeatedly. File under, “Republican Party,” particularly given Penn’s extremely public criticism of former president George W. Bush’s War on Terror, and his willingness to rub elbows with unfriendly strongmen, like Chávez.

A weakness or Achilles’ heel, often psychological and internal, such as anger. Penn’s mouth is his greatest weakness (and perhaps his penchant for young starlets).

Penn is definitely missing a few superhero characteristics. He has no distinctive costume, though I’d certainly look into the Spicoli-style as an option were I him. As far as we know, he doesn’t retreat to any sort of secret PennPad, like Bruce Wayne does with his Batcave. And Penn’s backstory is pretty SoCal chill, without the kind of life-shattering tragedy from which many superheroes have risen. Still, he fits the bill in a lot of ways, whether he wants to or not. As much as any other entertainer, he seems to understand Uncle Ben’s instruction to young Peter Parker: “With great power comes great great responsibility.”

What do you think, PopWatchers? Does Sean Penn fit the superhero mold? If not, who do you think is the closest thing we have these days to a real-life superhero?

Read more:
Sean Penn offers intriguing critique of ‘Tree of Life’
Sean Penn to be honored by Producers Guild

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