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.