Chad Kroeger and Josey Scott (Nickelback and Saliva respectively) once wrote a song called ‘Hero’; for arguably the most ubiquitous face (or lack thereof) of a century of media. Spiderman.
The song has a line that goes – ‘And they say that a hero can save us’.
While the song almost certainly aims the line at the classical (red-headed) damsel in distress being saved by her knight, it strikes home eerily close to the very nature of the ‘superhero’ and the why of their relentless existence across decades.
Superman was created in the 1930s. Batman not much further behind. Julius Scwartz recreated and redefined the prototypical superhero in the ’50s, and was followed by the fountain of creativity that was Stan Lee of Marvel. churning out characters and stories from Spiderman and the X-Men all the way to relatively lesser-known (i.e. – less movie-making friendly) characters like Doctor Strange.
Stan Lee is even credited with making superheroes ‘human’ and flawed, a characterization tactic that has no greater proof of its popularity than that of the beloved web-crawler. I’ll get to why I am not a fan of this in a moment.
Many of the characters that are now regaining popularity courtesy the big screen, have been around for several decades. They are not new,just-created characters for this generation. A little redefinition here, a bit of modernization there, but the ‘who’ and ‘what they do’ has hardly changed in a quarter century.
I’ve always had a certain level of curiosity about the undeniable, but rarely recognized timelessness of most superhero characters. Ive always felt that there is more to it than just a well-developed character and good stories to the veritably self-sustaining longevity of a superhero. While I would be remiss to claim that a simple argument could square away such a question, touching as it does on so many cultural, psychological and human facets; I think the crux is fairly evident.
Simply put, people love superheroes as they represent aspirational archetypes.
People need ideals to aspire to. People need to believe in becoming something more, something greater than what they are now. While society would like to write off such thoughts as delusions of granduer, megalomania, castle-in-the-sky and what have you in order to focus on the prosaicness of commutting to work and paying the rent, the very cliched nature of the question ‘Who is your idol?’ or ‘who do you look up to?’ points to the ubiquity of such thinking in humanity.
Superman represents the “truth, justice, honor’ archetype. The Utopic ideal of a man who never does no wrong, with a boy-scout rigid code of ethics and yet lays claim to defeat over the universe’s most powerful villains. (sorry green goblin, but you are nothing compared to titans like brainiac or mongul; forget cosmic powers like Mageddon and Imperiex).
Batman represents the ‘no-holds-barred-crusader-for justice’ as well as the ‘achievement of the pinnacle of human capability’ archetypes. The ultimate representation of a man who ‘balancing the light and dark sides of the Force’ as it were, on the road to achieving a remarkably selfless goal.
The above descriptions are of course, vastly simplified. There is vastly more to both Superman and Batman (and every other superhero) than a three-line blurb. But the essential truth still holds, that superheroes from Superman to Spiderman to the Punisher represent some aspect of that great collective racial dream of what we want to aspire to be.
I’ll now come to the point I mentioned earlier, about superhero characters being more ‘human’ and more ‘accessible’ to the psyche of the reader, promoting greater identification acceptance. This is something, with all due respect to Stan Lee, something I seriously disagree with. Such a characterization essentially takes the ‘aspirational archetype’ and dilutes the ‘archetype’ in order to ease the scale of ‘aspiration’. These are supermen and superwomen. They need to be more than human. I can’t respect a superhero who can’t hold down his job. As much pressure as it may put on any suspension of disbelief, there’s something incredibly more inspiring about a superhero who also wins a Pulitzer. The further removed the archetype from baseline humanity, the higher the level of aspiration required to identify with that archetype. My $.02.
But what about the gradual disinterest and movement away from superheroes as people age? Why do most people seem to forget their heroes with age, flying in the face of the evident timelessness of these characters? Does that not point to some flaw in our superheroes? Something that makes them unattractive to the adult mind?
The issue here is people. People forget to dream, forget how to dream in the wake of rent payments and mortgages, commutes and beer with the guys. The utterly ‘normal’ nature of everyday life facilitates the break down of that aptly-named ‘childlike wonder’.
Yet, and yet, there are people who can still dream. And so long as even one soul keeps on dreaming, the Supermen will join stay Endless.