With all of the fuss leading up to movies like The Avengers and Dark Knight Rises, it’s no wonder that superheroes have once again taken hold of the hearts and imaginations of our country. Don’t get me wrong – I love superheroes as much (or more) than anyone; but what is it about brightly colored spandex on altruistic gym rats that consistently manages to leave us with such a whole-hearted sense of longing?
It’s a fascination many of us haven’t even bothered to consider. After all, when most of us grew up, the question was “Batman or Superman?” – not “Superheroes or Regular People?” And that distinction is a great place to start a discussion of the place of “super-power” in our world, where it comes from, and how we interact with it.
In different variations, superheroes have been around since the beginning of stories. Warriors like “Swift-Footed” Achilles and villains like the mighty Cyclops dominated the Ancient Greek landscape, and are among the earliest “main stream” examples of super heroes. The trend is consistent throughout time though – from Beowulf and Grendel, to the Viking tales of Odin and Thor, and into modern day.
There are notable heroes who were not “super” as well: Sherlock Holmes is a prime example. In the modern canon, Batman is the most famous of the power-less heroes. Each hero, of course, highlights different aspects of what I like to think are the “heights of humanity.” Holmes’s intelligence and problem solving ability make him the man for London’s toughest crimes. Batman, on the other hand, stops evil-doers with his own brand of vigilante justice.
Moving beyond the natural, Gods (Zeus, Odin), mutants (Spider-Man, Wolverine) and aliens (Superman, Green Lantern) all seem to captivate us in the same way. They are (by all measures) extraordinary, and thus, are capable of accomplishing things most people cannot. However, it’s interesting to consider that superheroes are, most prominently, pit against equally powerful adversaries. We’re left with the question: What’s the point?
It would seem likely that if a person was indeed all-powerful, their power would be used for the betterment of society. Yet, we see examples over and over again (through epic) that “society building” is not done by Gods. It is not done by Superman. It is done by people. In Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas – the founder of Rome – is not even a demi-god. In The Odyssey, Odysseus – King of Ithaca – overcomes and rules without any supernatural ability (though he faces supernatural opposition in his quest). Similar accounts in early stories are common. Gods and other extraordinarily powerful creatures may inhabit, shape, and influence the world, but they are curiously never the ones founding cities or winning wars.
I don’t mean to imply that Gods are galactic spectators either. I just mean to say that the most powerful creatures tend not to be the ones granted the greatest societal prestige in early stories. Yet, those stories have evolved. Though they are similar in ability, Greek Gods are (at best) distant ancestors of today’s heroes: the earliest incarnations of modern marvels like Superman and Iron Man.
There is a long list of “requirements” for super-heroes. Qualities like a moral code, secret identity and “Achilles heel” are major topics addressed by Wikipedia, for instance. These traits belong at the forefront of our mind, because they are what define heroes for us. For example, we know Batman will not kill, and that a hero’s identity is a precious gem to be guarded, for in the wrong hands, it can lead to destruction. What gets overlooked, however, is the story itself.
We know that superhero all stories have evolved over time. Whether you want to “buy in” to Hades, Poseidon and Zeus as the predecessors to the Fantastic Four or not, it is true that at some point, all superheroes were born in stories. And we know that stories have evolved in a specific manner.
First, tales were oral. There were dedicated story-tellers, and they used heroes to recount episodes of extraordinary will, destiny, freedom, and pride. In other words, heroes began (quite literally) through word of mouth. Beyond that, their tales dealt so firmly with humanity that even when faced with a treacherous Siren song, a simple wax-plugging of your ears would render you victorious where others had failed.
The appeal is obvious: it’s something any of us could do. We could be that hero. Try to imagine that sort of mentality, and couple it with the freedom of not having an image to distort your dream. Hearing a tale of Achilles wasn’t accompanied by a painting. The tale lived in the audience’s imagination, and was given life by their own hope.
Fast forward to the written word, and still, the same holds true. Except that paper provided a “permanence” to a story that words alone couldn’t maintain. To be able to read of a hero’s plight over-and-over-and-over, to give it to another and have them experience the story exactly as you had, and to imagine someone (or something) greater was integral in the experience.
And finally, there is our modern superhero text: the comic book. For the first time, heroes were given faces. And with those faces came extraordinary powers, which (sort of) put the whole “it could be me” thing out of reach. Or did it? After all, there were secret identities and costumes, so if it isn’t me, it could be you. And then there’s the fact that many heroes were “average” once – before a metamorphosis of spirit or of ability.
With regard to environment, we are again encouraged to superimpose ourselves into the lives of our heroes. That’s because in many comic-realities, the world at play is our very own. There are recognizable countries, Presidents and histories. And in some instances (think: Captain America) the hero was even so much as a product of historical circumstance. What’s important to remember now – in the comic book era – is that heroes were fundamentally fighting for humanity, yet they almost never sought to rule over humans despite the wide-held belief that rulers should be the most powerful members of society.
And the truth is, their help was welcomed, embraced, and celebrated. After all, we could all use a hero. We’ve all wished one might come and solve our problems – fix our printers, cure cancer, or lift our car past scores of less fortunate onlookers in grid-locked traffic.
Our embrace has directly led to the current state of super-heroes. They made their jump to the silver screen because of the same desires that kept them alive throughout the evolution of the story. We want them to be real. Movies, especially in 2012, have enabled heroes to not only occupy our world, but to do so realistically. Ambitious cinematic projects like The Avengers are the result of years of careful planning, and showcase not only heroes that are plausible, but whom we identify and believe in. For all intents and purposes, they are real.
Though we – people, audiences, humans – may thirst for super powers, for the extraordinary, it is imperative that we also heed their lessons. If we all possessed an arbitrary power (let’s say flight), we would still have the same problems. Life wouldn’t improve, and we’d be praying to the stars for something else. The same is true of magic in general, and of power. Nothing will ever be enough.
That’s why the “rules” of super heroes have remained a constant over such a long period of time. It’s a driving force and belief that people are free to govern themselves (though help is always appreciated when monsters are abound). Heroes can’t solve problems or build bridges. What they can do is defend us, much in the same way we are expected to defend ourselves.
“Good guys” triumph because the alternative is oppression. It may be an overly democratic judgment, but to say that today’s heroes are simply the personification of societal values is a valid argument in my eyes. The final task, however, is for us to realize that super heroes are not an answer or a solution. They are simply a representation of our potential, and a reminder that anything is possible. And though they fight the battles that none of us want to fight, they are bound by our expectations. Our codes of responsibility, honor, free will and justice inspire “super-culture,” and thus, if you ever really need a hero, you can find one. They exist within all of us.
Follow Mike Vidafar on Twitter @mikevidafar