Sean Penn: Postmodern superhero?


Image Credit: 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

Comments (25 total) Add your comment
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  • James Malone

    I wish Sean Penn would do more movies. We see too little of him.

    • mral

      I wish he would direct more. Into the Wild is one of the best movies. So touching and moving. If you haven’t seen it, I HIGHLY recommend you view it asap.

      • lisa g.

        Not the nicest guy to have to work around.

  • otter

    Im certain that he is a Venezuelan national hero.

  • Bob R

    he absolutely positions himself as a role model – he’s a BS artist who is all about self promotion

  • Jill

    I like it. And Penn was brilliant as Joe Wilson in “Fair Game.”

  • pastafarian

    So long as he is crusading on his Save The World tour, how about he make a stop in NY and put in a good word for our own folks protesting at Occupy Wall Street?

  • Stacie

    I don’t mind him. He’s trying to make a difference in his own way. He’s not as good-natured as George Clooney, but it’s nice that he doesn’t beat people up or throw telephones and such.

    • V


  • stella

    A d-bag for the most part. Sorry, I don’t buy the image he is trying to display for one moment.

  • Beepela

    If I had money, power, and fame, I can only hope I would be out there trying to better the world as much as this man. Being a celebrity should not prevent you from sharing your views, in fact it should almost require it, and Sean Penn puts his money where his mouth is every time.

  • Barack Palin

    SEan Penn is the typical Hollywood left-wing radical who apologizes for Amnerica and is enamored with all things Marxist. He is obviously infatuated with Hugo Chavez to such an extent that he really should go live in Venezuela. A typical empty-headed Hollywood commie.

  • Matt

    Sean Penn a super hero. Please. I think EW is drinking from the Kool-Aid

  • CG

    I’ve always said Sean Penn should be in politics and this is just another reason why

    • diane

      u r nuts

  • Shannon

    Can’t stand the man.

  • Jasmine


  • Todd

    Just because Egypt went through an “Arab spring” doesn’t mean Egyptians want American-style freedoms.They may want a more religious government, e.g., Sharia law, fundamentalism. Sean Penn, to me, seems a little naive.

  • diane

    Always full of himself……………sick to death of this snob.

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