There’s a glut of superheroes on the small and big screens right now, but they are the Superheroes we deserve, not the ones we need.
Don’t get me wrong, I love comic book superheroes – I grew up on a diet of reading about the exploits of Superman, Batman, Spiderman and Wonder Woman (my favourites in that order) with others like The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Captain American, Aquaman, etc occasionally thrown in.
Aside from the campy 1960s Batman TV show, The Hulk series and the Christopher Reeve movies, the only place you could really get your superhero fix was in the comics from the newsagents.
Now of course, there is a glut of superhero stuff out there: from comic books and graphic novels, to multiple TV and movies series and a whole heap of written fiction and video shorts both official and fan made, as well as counter-culture creations like Kick Ass and Birdman.
And all of that is without taking into account the countless websites that cover this burgeoning industry, let alone live stuff like comic conventions and cosplays. Frankly there is more than it’s possible to keep up with now.
As a fan I should be delighted of course, and I am, along with all the nerds and geeks that have emerged from their bedrooms to the unfamiliar aura of ‘cool’ as the meek are indeed inheriting the earth – well ‘entertainment media’ anyway.
But in the rush to churn out more and more lucrative superhero content, I wonder if the most critical and pertinent part of what constitutes a ‘superhero’ has actually been lost – I refer of course to the ‘hero’ part. Noble heroism is the basic essence of the superhero, and the ability to spur others to be the best that they can be, is at the core of what these larger-than-life figures are about.
But do the latest interpretations evoke the same philosophies? Or are they more self-centred? Think about it…
X-Men: Days of Future Past was about heroes saving themselves from the destruction that they had wrought upon themselves. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was about – actually I can’t remember what it was about – but it was something to do with high school rivalries, teenage love angst and there were cranes at the end, I seem to recall.
Then you had Captain America: The Winter Soldier which was an enjoyable flick for sure, but was again about superheroes trying to save themselves as their own organisations imploded. Likewise Thor: The Dark World was fun, but it was about mythical intergalactic forces trying to destroy each other.
The Wolverine was about… well the Wolverine, and confirming yet again that he’s not really the hero-type at all, even if he is very cool. Though not quite as cool as Tony Stark in Iron Man 3, but of course that whole movie was just about how cool Robert Downey, Jr. is, which admittedly is true. However it probably veered the closest to being real-world relevant though as it essayed Stark’s frustration at not taking out an evil terrorist, a stark (if you’ll forgive the pun) parallel to today’s threats.
But then the movie shied away from actually tackling terrorism and turned the whole thing into a typical ‘evil professor wanting to take over the world’ scenario. It even morphed supposed maniacal terrorist into a bit of a hapless goon, much to the chagrin of comic book fans outraged by the belittling of a staple archenemy of Iron Man: the Mandarin. Though you can’t help but love Ben Kingsley in the role!
And as for Man of Steel, to me it is so far the most abhorrent and perverted interpretation of the superhero genre ever committed to celluloid, and a complete subversion of the classic Superman character’s unimpeachable moral compass.
In this movie Superman is indirectly responsible for unfathomable destruction in Metropolis (Godzilla couldn’t have done a better job) whilst managing to annihilate the only chance to save and resurrect his own species, and breaking a holy tenet of Kal El’s modus operandi, by killing.
In most of these movies from last year and this, lots of people die; mostly innocent bystanders – who won’t be written back to life in subsequent sequels. They stay dead. There’s no regret over their death, and usually there isn’t even any attempt to save them in the first place. We’ve become numbed to ‘collateral damage’ in the wake of real televised warmongering.
But the way I see it, a superhero’s first and foremost edict is the preservation of life, even at the risk of his or her own. This, for example, is what made the invulnerable Superman ultimately so vulnerable. His weakness wasn’t really kryptonite, it was his belief in good, his code of honour, his honesty and decency, and the fact that human life was sacrosanct to him.
Hence he was an example to us, the young impressionable readers. Sure we would revere and covet his impenetrable skin, his mighty strength, his incomprehensible speed or his X-Ray and heat vision, but through the comics – particularly the Silver and Bronze Age comics – we learnt what a hero really was.
He inspired us to be polite, honest, courteous, helpful, true to your word, resourceful, intelligent, courageous, upstanding, emotionally strong, generous and holding infallible moral ethics. We could never have his powers, but we could still be ‘super’ like him by emulating his good qualities as a person. Superheroes teach us about the importance of striving to do the right thing, even to one’s own detriment, despite the fear of failing, regardless of the price that has to be paid.
They teach us crucially that we must try to better than we are, that the preservation of all life is important, that small things count (why else would Superman stop to rescue a cat from a tree when the world’s going to hell?) and that ultimate we have to hold ourselves to account for our own actions.
All of this, however, is missing from the current crop of Superheroes I fear. Even from the traditional heroes, some of whom have grown much darker and ambiguous in their intent and personality make-up (the Batman today is surely as psychopathic as the criminals he hunts); in comics that seem to be little more than pages and pages of colourful mayhem and destruction; in movies that are too focussed on the protagonists’ personal insecurities than their outward self-imposed responsibilities; and in the glorification of powers and technologies beyond our means.
So the world is suffering from an affliction of instead of trying to achieve heroism, sitting in cinema theatres, scoffing Nachos and supersized Cola, and hoping for a super-saviour to pop out of the big screen and take care of all the strife and trouble, and frankly the mess, in the world today.
This substitution of responsibility and endeavour is clearly evidenced by the many efforts currently underway to be the first to create actual Iron Man-style armour – but this, as we all know, will only serve to create deadlier soldiers for any given army, which hardly seems a solution to our current ills. Similarly what’s to say unethical and dangerous experimentation is not presently being done to genetically create ‘super-soldiers’ like Steve Rogers.
We’re looking to create heroes, not become them. We seem to be waiting for the Avengers or the Justice League to go in and solve the violence and oppression in the world, and rid the planet of the endemic diseases of terrorism, poverty, illiteracy etc. But that won’t happen. These are our problems, we’ve created them. They are real life. They’re not the climax to a Hollywood Blockbuster. Those super-beings are not real.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t believe in them, we absolutely should, and we should call upon them. We should believe in what they stand for, what they strive for and what they were meant to represent – the good that we each of us can find within ourselves.
When we call upon them, we actually call upon ourselves. Once we realise that, and perhaps once movie-makers and story-tellers remember that, it may help to remind everyone that we are responsible for our own destinies, that whether in small ways or large scale collaborative efforts (whatever is within our scope of our achievement), together we can make the world a better place. And we can all be superheroes.