“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”- George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman
In modern, popular culture – there’s no one more unreasonable, if you can suspend disbelief, than the Superhero. Often (s)he is the alter-ego of an average Joe, possessing strong morals, principles and tenacity alongside a superpower. Typically he is secretive, unsocial, pigheaded and self-delusional with a God Complex. If he were your neighbor – you’d probably suspect him of being a serial-killer and call the cops every time something went bump in the night. Yet the world just adores its superheroes. What is it about the idea of superheroes that we can’t resist? How have they evolved over time to continue being relevant? On this 75th year of Superman – as commemorated by the Man of Steel – let’s explore the nature, evolution and relevance of the archetypal Superhero.
First, it’s necessary to concede that there are superheroes who defy a mold: the moral absolutist Rorschach, the alcoholic Hancock, the psychotic, fourth-wall-breaking mercenary Deadpool, the nerd-turned-slasher Kickass and his friend the foul-mouthed Hit-Girl are just some examples. If they may be considered exceptions to the rule, we can ask the fundamental question: who is a Superhero?
The Superhero is Not Just Super
In searching for the answer, let’s define him as a being with unusual – even non-human – powers and a strong sense of philanthropy. It’s easy to see why many claim that Horus, Zeus, Gilgamesh, Achilles and Hercules are the original superheroes. But the difference between them and say, Superman – lie in their motives and who they represent. Most ancient heroes are gods, demigods, kings or kings’ champions. They represent the powers that be, which, perhaps explains why their myths have endured.
The modern Superhero is a hero by choice (as opposed to divine inspiration or royal decree). His aim is social good over glorification of self, realm or king. He is a supernatural extension of the citizen activist. He represents the People – the cornerstones of the modern Democracy. He is a watchdog, sniffing out and preventing crimes, swooping down on drug-pushers and dirty-cops alike. The Superhero fights foreign enemies (mostly Russians, Arabs and Aliens) and oppressive national governments – in the end, ensuring the rights, security and farewell of commoners. If this means going up against the Law, so be it. As such, he is not only a product, but also a key ingredient of the modern, democratic society.
The Superhero’s Fight is Ageless
Obviously, the Superhero symbolizes the eternal fight between good and evil. And who hasn’t faced at least one great Evil in their lives: theft, usurpation, bullying, greed, oppression, ignorance or disloyalty? In superhero stories, these Evils resurface as great villains. Gilgamesh has Enkidu, an equally-strong, primitive man, who is covered in hair and lives in the wild with the animals. Superman has Lex Luthor, Batman has the Joker and the Hulk has the Red Hulk. And it is an extension of ourselves that, deep down, takes on these villains.
The Superhero is Human Too
The Teenage Mutant Ninjas, despite being turtles, are humanoid, love pizza and can probably appreciate European Renaissance painters. Po the Kung Fu Panda, Masters Oogway and Shifu, the ThunderCats – all appear to be humans with special powers. They even think and act like us: “(Superheroes) express in today’s idiom the ancient longing of mankind for a mighty protector, a helper, a guide, or guardian angel who offers miraculous deliverance to mortals,” writes RC Reitberger in Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium. The Superhero reflects the values of the society that produces him. He loves his country, averts catastrophes, helps damsels in distress, prevents crimes being committed or injustice being done – all to save the world.
Psychologist Robin Rosenberg suggests superheroes’ motivation comes from three primary sources: a) morality and a sense of destiny (Superman, Rorschach), b) trauma and vengeance (Spiderman, Batman) and c) coincidence and experiment (Dr. Manhattan, The Hulk). The three also represent, respectively, the positive, negative and indeterminate forces that shape our lives.
We can relate to the lonely journey of the Superhero because we’ve all been changed by these forces. It helps us understand why the Superhero turned out like he did. More importantly, we learn to see selfless heroism as the utopian, human response to such events and borrow a frame of reference to understand our own actions.
The Superhero is Shunned
Ever notice how the ones superheroes protect almost never invite them into their homes? It’s almost as if they’re perceived as a government service – generally good for society, but also taken for granted. Like any public service, being a Superhero is a thankless job. In X-Men, there are important parallels, including mob violence and familiar hateful slogans, such as “The only good mutant is a dead mutant.” The X-universe is populated by a variety of anti-mutant hate groups such as Friends of Humanity, Humanity’s Last Stand, the Church of Humanity and Stryker’s Purifiers. Still the Superhero goes on. It’s this unnoticed, unappreciated crusade of the Superhero that resonates deep within our own emotions.
The Superhero Reflects His Times
The two creators of Superman were Jewish immigrants – ousted from their country. In a way, Superman was their alter-ego and fighting – at least in the early days – the Nazi war machine. Steve Rogers aka Captain America aka Cap – the quintessential American – was smacking Hitler in the face during WWII or reveling in his role of ‘Commie-Smasher’. The same ‘Cap’ became disillusioned during the Vietnam War and reflected, “In a world rife with injustice, greed, and endless war, who’s to say the rebels are wrong?”
It’s not surprising that the first colored superhero, Black Panther, surfaced during the late 1960s – just when the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak. X-Men Writer Chris Claremont once wrote, “The X-Men are hated, feared, and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry, and prejudice.”
In 1975, the revived X-Men featured a Kenyan Storm, a German Nightcrawler, a Russian Colossus and a Canadian Wolverine. In 1992, Marvel revealed that Northstar, a member of the Canadian mutant superhero team Alpha Flight, was homosexual. Later, Young Avengers’ Wiccan and Hulkling were revealed as gay. A couple of months back, the world met the transgender SheZow, a 12-year old boy who transforms into a girl complete with pink skirt, thigh-high boots and a pink car for saving the world. All of the above represent dominant issues of the respective decades.
In 2001, Spiderman, the Hulk, the Silver Surfer, Captain America were seen at Ground Zero alongside the real-life heroes of the 9/11 attacks. They were featured in ‘Heroes’ – Marvel Comics’ 64-page tribute to fire-fighters, policemen, emergency medical workers and ordinary New Yorkers.
Naturally, early superheroes were more of representations as opposed to discernible individuals: they represented a collective’s morality and aspiration – not that of an everyday individual. He was a child of the absolute Good, standing between the people and the barbarians / hostile-aliens beyond known boundaries. That’s why Superman’s principles are infallible and the Cap is a personification of Nietzsche’s Übermensch.
Society, culture and values have evolved dramatically over the past 75 years. Yet, the popularity of the Superhero is only rising. Three key factors make superheroes as appealing as they have been. The first is immortality. Author Danny Fingeroth writes, “A superhero must, by definition, be virtually ageless and immortal, capable of rising from the grave even after being killed (or, for that matter, canceled).” Neither can they retire, quit, or decide to radically change themselves in any fashion. Die, and they’re resurrected the next episode. Hang up their capes and they’re implored by newspapers and citizens to come back and save the world. And thus, he becomes an enduring symbol.
Secondly, the Superhero reflects the societies and times we live in. In his journey, Captain America has gone from a super-soldier in the 1940s to an outlaw of sorts who works with a secret agency in 2013. The playboy billionaire Tony Stark is running a gun-empire of his own. The Dark Knight is a vigilante with only superficial links with law-enforcement. In the past 75 years, superheroes have extricated themselves out of the grips of Authority.
The post-911 Superhero is seen as an individual character. It’s not wars or foreign-policy, but rather personal choices dictating the storyline. The Superhero has also become more human – he’s become physically and emotionally vulnerable. He lies and cheats, struggles with inner demons, has mood-swings and bad-hair days. We, the viewers, understand that our Superhero is doomed to endure the next tragedy, villain or tyranny that befalls us. Our destinies are intertwined.
Thirdly, the Superhero shows us not how to become super but how to be heroes, choosing altruism over the pursuit of wealth and power. But that is not to say that his sense of morality hasn’t evolved: there’s no black and white anymore. That’s why Tony Stark can sell weapons in Afghanistan, Bruce Wayne can be a playboy and Rorschach can engage in wanton murder. What has not changed is their commitment to Greater Good. Perhaps they are just proxy role models in societies increasingly devoid of actual idols.