web
counter


What Superheroes Mean

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 31, 2012 | Comments ()


the_dark_knight_movie_image_01.jpeg

The invention of the superhero genre during the twentieth century was curious if only because of the strangely specific niche that it occupied. Characters with superhuman powers (or not) dress up in costumes to fight crime (or evil more generally).

It is intriguing because the genre was also so closely tied to the particular form of comic books, to the point that to many people the notions of "comic books" and "superheroes" have only nominal distinction. There is of course a rich literature of non-superhero fiction in the comic book aisles, but there are hardly any works featuring superheroes outside those glossy pages, except for animated films and the recent rash of superhero feature films, although those are generally based on creations from the pages of comic books anyway.

This is unique to the genre. Horror, science fiction, and fantasy all came into their own over the last century and a half as well, but despite being associated with certain forms such as serial anthologies and the like, none were ever wholesale linked to a particular form to the exclusion of all others.

The very notion of a superhero is something of a puzzle. As a thought experiment consider what effect a superhero would have on the world, on how they are utilized as characters in classic comic books. They patrol, capture criminals, keep the streets safe. They are the paragon of what a police force could be. They are, in a word, pointless.

These words are not intended to disparage the genre, a look at my shelves full of comic books belies that conclusion. Rather, it is an attempt to pinpoint the appeal of the superhero. Why does the blessing of a smattering of power, powers that offer little more than physical efficiencies in most instances, attract us so much? The lure of these abilities, of flight and invisibility, of telekinesis and obscene strength are such common and trite dreams. They are the powers of the gods prior to this modern age, when such powers moved from the realm of fiction to the realm of engineering. Today they seem like memories of childhood ambitions. We dream to fly if we cannot understand airplanes, of strength when we have never seen hydraulic pistons doing the work of a hundred men, never resting for breath.

The sad truth is that if a radioactive arachnoid created Spiderman in our world, he would be nothing but a curiosity. The world itself would not shift one iota on the basis of a single exceptional man. The individual strength of men has been dwarfed by the gears of the machine age, whether that man has the strength of one individual or a thousand.

So why does the strength of one man matter so much to us? Why do we make heroes out of such characters instead of seeing them as mere entrants in fictional freak shows? The superhero matters as a protest, he is a cry that a single individual still matters, can still shift the world on its axis.

We see characters gaining more and more powers over the decades, Superman becoming essentially a god, yet just as impotent to actually change the world as he ever was. Yet on the other hand are the unpowered heroes, the Batmans who are never granted some special power by fate. Even while sharing pages with demi-gods, these individuals retain their essence. The plausibility of a god standing on equal ground with a guy dressed up as a bat derives from the fact that Superman's power was never based on his strength or heat vision, anymore than Batman's was based on his pointy cowl. The two heroes have the exact same power underneath the capes regardless of the sound and fury of their respective characterizations: they can change the world.

It's at face value a sort of democratizing genre, this notion that one man can make a difference. But that's only the surface. There is also a natural aristocracy to the world of superheroes. Some people are born to change the world, while most of us are not. The mechanisms to change the world are provided by the story, be it a spider bite, a Kryptonian birth, or the mere billions left in a trust account. The text says that one man can change the world, but the subtext says that only a few men have been given the ability to do so. It's an external gift that has nothing to do with the nature of the man himself. There is no personal agency, just a world full of chattel and fodder guarded or slaughtered by the gifted few.

The superhero is also an excuse. Note that superheros always have a nemesis, always have equally super powered enemies. The end result is a neutralization. We know that Superman cannot fix our real problems. He can't fix poverty, abuse, war. So we invent ever more powerful foes, not because it increases drama in any real way, but simply because a character needs an opposition for story reasons. We need an explanation why he cannot create real change, because accepting that a single man cannot fix the real problems is too bleak a conclusion for our fictions.

I think this is where Christopher Nolan is going with his final Batman film, a place that Frank Miller reached into with his The Dark Knight Returns, in which heroes are little more than errand boys and tools, and Batman reaches the realization that change doesn't come from the fist, but from leading. For the genre to move forward, the hero has to become an example rather than an excuse.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.




Are you following Pajiba on Facebook or Twitter? Because every time you do an angel does the Paul Rudd dance

Around the Web


Refuting Tolkien | Ugh, Enough With The Think Pieces...Which "Community" Actor Would You Rather Invite Into Your Pillow Fort?





Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • Pat C.

    Some of those points were made in Philip Wylie's novel GLADIATOR, published in 1930. Hugo Danner's powers were essentially identical with Superman's when he was first published in 1938. Some of the incident's of Hugo's life were parallelled in early Superman stories, as well. (Since he wasn't being illustrated and competing for space on newsstands, he didn't need to have a colorful costume.) And it was all futile.

    A lot of hallmarks of the superhero genre are not inherent to their character's personalities and capabilities, but to the business needs of the trademark owners. That's why Gotham City is never going to be cleaned up; why the Joker is always going to get loose and kill more people (in the comics - although if there are enough Batman movies made we'll eventually again have a Joker film villain).

  • Dominic

    well to the " trademark owner's " point . It IS entertainment . Not gonna buy a book if it's just about a hero who DOESN"T beat his wife , supports his kids , and make sure people don't jaywalk . However , the point of the genre is good vs evil ( sometimes lately grey-area-good vs grey-area-evil ) and why those personalities and capabilities of the protagonists shape their behaviors . For example , Wolveine wouldn't be as popular as the character is if he didn't have his " beast " and enjoy/want a good scrap . As he got more popular , the writers humanized his charcter somewhat( " am I human or am I animal " is the base ethos ) , but if he pops his claws , he's gonna GUT somebody ! that is his inherent personality , AND it feeds those " business interests " . luckily he's not locked into one city , as Batman or Spiderman is ( Superman to a limited extent ) or yes his city would have to stay dark too . tho Spidey's hallmarks ARE inherent ; nerdy teenager gets powers , but learn to dedicate them for good after he doesn't stop his uncle's killer . A good scripter shows the light side to their characters and their environments , as well as the dark side

  • Fredo

    The superhero is just the latest iteration of myth. Compare the tale of Superman's birth to that of Achilles. Or The Hulk to Heracles -- beings of immense strength who suffer from fits of blinding rage.

    The more intriguing question is why is it that we (humans) have the intense desire to believe in powers greater than our own. Because it's something we have yet to lose.

  • Dominic

    Easy we all want to be better than we are . Don't you have a lust/wish to be able to fly ; like a bird , a plane ? Also we want to be looked up to , to be admired . so it's just an ego thing . just because we can't lose a thing we never had , doesn't mean we don't dream we had it , to use OR lose ....

  • Green Lantern

    Naturally I feel uniquely qualified to respond here, but I think that SLW is essentially correct. At its core, the idea of the superhero is to serve as an example, as a leader, not a force in-an-of itself (or himself, or herself). That's why colorful costumes and names have always been the order of the day, be it Justice League, Avengers, or T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent.

  • Dominic

    "but there are hardly any works featuring superheroes outside
    those glossy pages, except for animated films and the recent rash of
    superhero feature films, although those are generally based on creations
    from the pages of comic books anyway. " Sorry SLW wrong week for that assumption . Check out " http://www.washingtoncitypaper... A theater review from our local indie paper , in which the journalist notes the playwright making some of your points , and agrees . A project started 4 yrs ago because Whedon's 2nd Batman movie made 500 mil. and the creator/producer wonders how and why ?

  • ,

    The superhero movie is only as good as the villain. Superheros are inherently boring because in the end they can't lose.

  • They patrol, capture criminals, keep the streets safe. They are the paragon of what a police force could be. They are, in a word, pointless.

    But that IS the point. A superhero will save/protect you when all others have failed. A bullied/unhappy child will retreat into the world of comics where all bad guys are eventually vanquished by a benevolent hero (no matter how flawed that hero may be). That notion gives comfort to the child who's parents can't protect him/her from the torment of school/childhood.

    And we are all that bullied/unhappy child in some way...

  • Blake Shrapnel

    Also, MovieBob over at the Escapist made the interesting point that superheroes gained mass popularity during the Great Deprssion and WWII, two periods marked my mass paternal absenteeis He suggests that the audience made the superhero into a kind of surrogate father.

  • thus spoke zarathustra

  • Vi

    I find it interesting that you make a post about the inability of one man to change the world and in another post you talk about Turing. The thing is: Turing changed the world, didn't he? It's a long term change, but more than any superhero, the ripple he started with the Turing machine created new technologies, new industries, and eventually it gave people the ability to alert the world to tyranny where they would have been silenced before, it gave them the ability to organize swiftly to take down a regime. Just because his influence did not appear overnight, doesn't mean he didn't change the face of the world.

  • Yes, but the superheroes are seen to make short term change, not the long term change you are referencing with Turing.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    I think maybe there is a distinction to be made between someone who creates technologies that change the world and someone who goes about attempting to change the world in a definable way as a product of individual will.

  • Jannymac

    The more we kill god, the more we create super heroes?

  • I had a similar thought when he mentioned how popular the horror genre had become. People are rejecting traditional religion, yet embracing the idea of witches, werewolves, and vampires? I mean, some people really BELIEVE in that stuff.

    (FWIW - I'm an atheist)

  • Dominic

    because , Janny and Nick , we have to believe in SOMETHING . Either in a being far evolved over us , as we are far over the amoeba ; or a super , meta-version of us . That being said , I don't believe , for example , that True Blood is real - i just enjoy the acting and hot women . even the atheist believes in something - merely humanity/himself/herself rather than God

  • jiffeylube

    Damn. Are you trying to take down Dustin for the most posts in one day?

  • The sad truth is that if a radioactive arachnoid created Spiderman in
    our world, he would be nothing but a curiosity. The world itself would
    not shift one iota on the basis of a single exceptional man. The
    individual strength of men has been dwarfed by the gears of the machine
    age, whether that man has the strength of one individual or a thousand.

    Do you really believe this to be true? If a single human, not augmented by any suits or machinery, lifted a car over his/her head and threw it like a ball, or shot webs out of his/her arms, or crawled on walls and ceilings (again, without aid), do you really think the world's reaction would be "ho-hum"? I mean, people show more interest than that in the current batch of "real life superheroes", and all they do is walk around and mace people.

    I'm sorry, but I think it's utterly untrue to think that the world would be so unmoved by a human displaying superhuman powers. A man who is invulnerable to harm, or a woman who can move objects with her mind, is MUCH more interesting than a machine made of gears and pistons.

    The lure of these abilities, of flight and invisibility, of telekinesis
    and obscene strength are such common and trite dreams. They are the
    powers of the gods prior to this modern age, when such powers moved from
    the realm of fiction to the realm of engineering.

    Again, your point relies on the idea that engineering is making these things possible, but ignores the true impact of the emergence of a human with those abilities unaided. And over and over you reference the idea of a "single man" changing the world. Were this to actually occur, don't you think the paradigm shift would, at the very least, alter how we approach genetics? Why is this one person gifted with these godlike abilities when the rest of us aren't, and how can we make it accessible to all? I believe profit centers would spring up around the idea of creating powers for all. And this could be out just one single human displaying these abilities.

    I believe it would alter the collective human consciousness fundamentally. If nothing else, it would make us wonder who else was out there like this, and what might they, with their godlike abilities, be able to do to improve the world?

blog comments powered by Disqus





Follow Us





Viral Hits
Celebrity Facts

The Best TV & Movie Quotes

The Walking Dead

How I Met Your Mother

True Detective

Parks and Recreation

Cosmos

Hannibal

30 Practical Tips About the Horrors of Raising Children

25 Practical Tips About the Horrors of Raising Twins