Power Up Cover

Power Up

Leadership, Character, and Conflict Beyond the Superhero Multiverse

Edited by Steven Leonard, Jonathan Klug, Kelsey Cipolla, and Jon Niccum

Casemate, Philadelphia, 2023, 320 pages

Book Review published on: December 8, 2023

When the movie Captain America: Civil War was scheduled for release, my friends and I spent hours debating whether we should be “Team Cap” or “Team Tony.” Both Captain America and Iron Man represented something great that we identified with but also something different from each other. One character, Steve Rogers, was a small unit leader on a battlefield who stood up for the little guy and who used as his primary weapon, a shield, to stand between the innocent and harm. The other was an inventor and CEO of a defense contractor megacorporation, who would likely find himself in the same room with a secretary of defense in discussions on the theater of war and an end state for war. Furthermore, Tony Stark, the inventor and CEO, was a visionary with the foresight to know when to make the ultimate sacrifice as a necessary cost to save half the universe (though we wouldn’t find that out until the release of Avengers: Endgame three years later). Back then, my friends and I searched out internet quizzes to help us decide if we aligned more with Steve Rogers or Tony Stark, but today we might look to Steven Leonard et al.’s book Power Up: Leadership, Character, and Conflict Beyond the Superhero Multiverse (which devotes multiple chapters to the Civil War debate) to help us with examples of superhero leadership and ethical thinking.

Power Up is a compilation of about three dozen essays, each about seven to ten pages long, on the themes of superheroes and the applications for professional leadership and ethics. They are organized into sections about the individual, team building, ethical codes, the use of power, applications of technology, and the dark mirror provided by super villains. The essays are written with serious academic intent complete with endnotes, not in the casual style of an internet fanboy blog. A reader of Joseph Campbell or the Harvard Business Review will find much that is familiar here in discussions of modern mythology and meaning for self-enlightenment and corporate climate.

The essays run a gamut of topics and prose. Each reader will likely find essays that strongly resonate with them and others that are less individually appealing. This judgment will vary in part by the fandom the reader is attracted to, but there is ample breadth in the book for those who have not seen the latest Marvel cinematic universe release to find substance and enjoyment. Different superhero examples cover the spectrum from the big screen to the small screen to the comics panel to general pop culture.

Individual chapters reference cinema blockbusters from Marvel and DC Comics; streaming content like Amazon’s The Boys; graphic novella like the Lumberjanes and The Adventures of Squirrel Girl; other books and movies such as Hunger Games, Kill Bill, and the James Bond series; and even an essay on the musical group, Kiss. There’s a chapter on Marvel zombies, which will draw in everyone from fans of The Walking Dead to owners of the CMON board game of the same name. One challenge of a thematic approach like this is either finding a reference that the audience will understand or providing enough detail to explain a reference the reader does not know. Another challenge is how much an author needs to contort the comic metaphor to fit their noncomic thesis. Those familiar with Star Wars’ in-universe retconning of units for time and distance to explain completing the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs will readily grasp this problem! While individual readers will have their own opinions on specific articles, the book overall strikes the right chord in accessibility without requiring knowledge of detailed minutia.

For the average reader, chapters 4 and 5 on sidekicks and (secret) identity masks may be among the greatest value. Rather than picking examples of someone’s little brother, the sidekicks chapter picks characters better described as partner or as senpai: Pepper Potts, Alfred Pennyworth, and Ben Parker. These roles are important, because they highlight how we each have a choice to help bring out the greatness in others, and that we ourselves are dependent on others’ good choices to achieve our own full measure. This pairs well with the ensuing discussion of identity, since individuals show different sides of themselves to different people—a spouse, a parent, a coworker, a friend, a neighbor, etc.—and that these different sides have meanings for those around us. Our roles shape and mold their identities back to us as child, employee, teammate, etc. Further, our own choices carry impact throughout our social network—the trope about the fear that a villain would use loved ones as leverage if they knew the hero’s real identity, a point especially meaningful for the real world in an era of digital presence and online privacy.

Chapter 7 also has interest for the casual reader. It recounts a tale of the band Kiss literally spilling blood to contribute to the creation of comic art in 1977 in the pages of Marvel Comics Super Special #1. As an extra dash of marketing, the band members had blood drawn, which was mixed with the ink used to publish that issue, so that people buying it would not just have a narrative story about Kiss, but actual fragments of Kiss DNA within the pages in their hand! Stan Lee had once advised in response to Gene Simmons, who wrote Lee some fan mail when Simmons was a child, to “never give up,” and years later, Simmons’ dream of making it in the comic world came true in the most literal fashion possible!

For the readers of Military Times, who are likely more interested in applications for the national security field, chapters 2 and 8 are in-depth discussions of concepts from joint doctrine on “mission command” and Special Operations Command Europe’s Resistance Operating Concept manual. These go to painstaking lengths to link the superhero theme to military topics, using the vividness of pop culture to illustrate their teaching point. Captain America’s leadership actions are discussed at length in a near frame-by-frame dissection of a scene from Avengers that will warm any MCU loyalist’s heart. Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen is compared to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in an application for the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and its potential for expansion in Europe.

Batman is one of the book’s more frequented metaphors. The variety in his depictions range from the campy Adam West series to the brooding Dark Knight movies to the satirical Lego Batman; the depth of his character traits rooted in the death of his parents; and the juxtaposition of him as an ordinary human against the enhanced individuals he encounters. Batman can serve as a mirror to both different versions of himself, as well as in comparison to a range of figures from Superman to Adolf Hitler, and from James Bond to real-life military officers. Batman’s greatness as a superhero comes from his thinking, preparation, and empathy for the human condition. All of these traits apply to the diligence that goes into most government and military staff work: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our preparation.”

Perhaps noteworthy are some of the book’s omissions. There were no examples from the multiple CW Arrowverse TV series, nor was there a Dungeons and Dragons discussion despite the 2023 movie and the popularity of the role-playing game’s fifth edition. The redemption quests for the crews of the Waverider in Legends of Tomorrow and Edgin Darvis in Honor Among Thieves would have both fit in the book as discussions of team-building or dark mirror reflection. It might be a stretch to include Dungeons and Dragons as part of the book’s superhero genre, but as a modern mythology with a heavy emphasis on building complementary team skills, it would have fit well alongside other included essays.

With an “Authors Assemble!” approach to creating this book, it’s interesting to consider the editorial choices in how different articles were ordered and bundled into sections. The somberness of the opening chapter on The Boys weighed over many of the subsequent essays, contrasting the idea of “absolute power corrupts absolutely” against Spiderman’s more noble adage, “with great power comes great responsibility.” If the collected essays in Power Up offer a singular lesson, it is perhaps a mashup of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War rhetoric and Dr. Erskine’s counsel to Steve Rogers on the eve of the super soldier experiment. External factors (like the Captain America serum) only amplify what is already there; it is within each individual to make the choice for good or darkness with their talents. A person becomes great because they choose to be good; and if they cease to be good, they will cease to be great.

Book Review written by: Matthew Kiefer, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas