Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Superhero Complex

Superheroes are perhaps one of the most unique, and if I dare say amusing, aspects of our society. Often flawed, they represent an idealized loner who possesses inside themselves the power to change the world for the better. Their characteristics define them well within the range of everyday humans, and yet for them to succeed they must be more than human. Humanity for a superhero is a curse, full of flaws and weaknesses such as egotism and emotions that would restrain them from fulfilling their true purpose.

Don't believe me? Look at our superheroes. They are ideological beings of violence. Not owners of charity, runners of local homeless shelters, or even the proponents of politics. They are physical beings. Ones that through genetic manipulation, alien origin, or monetary prosperity and engineering ingenuity they rid the world of crime through old school intimidation. They exist as an army of one deterrent from crime. Why? Because that obviously always solves the core issues.

We like to see our superheroes as separate from ourselves. Enlightened privileged businessmen who use their influence and power to build themselves up as our greatest staples of society. The everyday man whose genetic accident (or encounter with an obscure alien object) grants them the physical capabilities to ‘defend’ the people. And of course, the alien superhero whose human qualities allow them to fit in perfectly while their physical prowess and superpowers give them the strength to see the job done.

Even though they exist solely on paper and pixel, we admire them for representing everything we should aspire to be: beyond human… Our efforts at showing real people as superheroes (Kick Ass/Watchmen) often fall back on the same basic principal: to succeed and be of use, you must possess abnormal power or technical functionality. I, for one, find that a bit self-indulgent. Superheroes are fun, appreciable, but far from the confines of reality.

Only in certain cases are our superheroes immortal in any sense of the word, and therefore their efforts are always trapped in the confines of their existence. We can assume, only because it is nice to do so, that through their actions they invariably change the world forever, but that would be a tough sell on the brightest days. No, in the end superheroes are merely admirable beings that benefit from their exceedingly non-average qualities. Then again, that's only because we define them as such.

10 better thoughts:

Simon said...

I've always thought that superheroes were the creation of self-pitying artists who wished, if not they, then someone could embody the ideals of a Superhuman. But yours is better.

Hal said...

Oooh. Good article to chew on.

I think over the last couple decades, we've gone from portraying heroes as someone we want to look like (honorable, just, etc.) to someone who looks like us (flawed, complex, etc.)

snobbyfilmguy said...

I like this article. There are some good thoughts here but I don't agree with this statement: "Our efforts at showing real people as superheroes (Kick Ass/Watchmen) often fall back on the same basic principal: to succeed and be of use, you must possess abnormal power or technical functionality."

Our efforts as showing real people as superheroes is nothing more than fantasy meant to inspire.

snobbyfilmguy said...

Hal: A hero that looks like us is more powerful than a hero that we "should" look like.

Rich said...

No lie, I was considering doing a piece about superheroes in movies for this week. Glad I didn't.

One major problem with superheroes - at least, the popular ones, the ones everyone knows - is the inability for their stories to end. If superheroes are our modern myths, comparable to Ulysses, Samson, Beowulf, Robin Hood, etc., then their stories should have definitive endings. But they don't - at least, not their paper and ink incarnations - and as a result, the same stories are recycled again and again to the point where the characters themselves lose their meaning. I understand the economic reasons why this is, but it's a major reason why they no longer hold the same appeal for me as they did when I was a child.

That said, I'm as eager to see all the forthcoming superhero movies as anyone else. That childhood bond to these characters can't be shaken, nor would I want it to, really.

Univarn said...

@Simon Haha, they very well could be. On the plus side, that does explain why so many of their authors are overweight or scrawny and fragile.

@Hal Thanks for the comment. I do see the more recent obsession with making superheroes more like us, but I believe we still enjoy that distinction of physical or mental superiority that makes them 'better' than us.

@Snobby Interesting, but I disagree as often the thing that defines them is something we can never be. I can never be a genetic mutation or alien with superpowers. Odds are I'll never be a billionaire either. Their morals are what we admire about them, yet with few exceptions (Batman/Superman) it is the least covered topic with respect to them.

@Rich Very good point, though I think this is a problem we experience more and more as a Television society. Shows are expected to go on for indeterminable amounts of time and are never given the opportunity to just tell a story. I really believe TV shows (and comic/superhero stories) would last longer and be more appreciated if they were to have more defined plot structure... granted some efforts at this (Fringe/Lost/Heroes) have yet to really take it to the next level.

Rich said...

Network shows, perhaps, but cable shows have finite runs and people seem okay with that. Try telling your average comics fanboy that maybe it's time for the X-Men to get off the stage, though, and see what happens.

Tom said...

In the group photo you posted, who's the hot blonde to the right of Green Latern? She could save me any day.

Rich said...

That would be Black Canary.

edgarchaput said...

Batman for the win.

I think there is something very interesting about superheroes, how despite their physical and intellectual characteristics which both surpass anything mortal humans are capable of, we nonetheless find something inspiring about them. It might precisely because their creators have made them all like us humans in terms of wants and desires.

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