As an awkward, neurotic, bespectacled smartypants, I am stereotypically predisposed to be a fan of superheroes. And so I am, but only fairly recently.
When I was a kid, I liked the cartoons and toys associated with characters like Spider-Man and Superman, but no more than I liked any other inescapable franchise at the time. My prime action figure playing years were much more focused on Transformers, He-Man, Ghostbusters, and, just as I was becoming a little too old for such things, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Once I had grown out of toys, the Star Trek universe became my obsession. Superheroes didn’t capture my imagination the way they have for so many other kids who later go on to become true fans and indulge in superhero geekdom.
I think part of the reason is their roots in comic books, and when I say “comic books,” I mean the byzantine lattice of comic book culture and lore; the dizzying array of characters, story threads, reboots, crossovers, and timelines. Whenever I would dip my toes into a given title, I would inevitably run into that asterisk in some panel, in which a major piece of information would be hinted at in a character’s passing comment, only to be directed to a footnote telling me, “ SEE [COMPLETELY DIFFERENT SERIES] #657!” Well, I haven’t seen whats-its-whatever issue 657, so I guess I’m just going to be lost.
But that’s another story.* (*SEE BLOG POST 6–23–2014!)
Despite my compulsion for completionism, I’m now mostly at peace with that aspect of superhero comics ( mostly). My latter-day enthusiasm for superheroes, along with some help from digital comic book all-you-can-eat subscription services, have made it so that I can now dive into comics with a much reduced sense of cultural intimidation.
I think the other reason I didn’t take to superheroes earlier was that they often seemed to me to be sort of dopey. This is no doubt in large part because my first frames of reference were shows like Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and Super Friends, which were really, really dopey. As I grew up, the idea that folks with superpowers would dress up in colorful, tight-fitting costumes, beat up bank robbers, and fight evil clowns and superintelligent gorillas just seemed kind of silly. Superheroes seemed like a form of escapism that was dated and irrelevant. Star Trek, by contrast, was all about the future and what we might be capable of in the coming centuries (and was also sometimes dopey, but different-dopey). Superheroes were essentially cops with absurd outfits who could fly or punch really hard.
Now I’m in my 40s, and I absolutely love superheroes. What happened?
I suppose like a lot of people, I got bitten by the radioactive superhero bug in large part due to the Marvel Cinematic Universe films of the past decade-plus, as well as the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight films. Previously, a lot of superhero shows and films I’d seen could sort of be summed up with a pretty basic template: Regular person becomes endowed with powers, an evil force threatens the status quo, hero fights this evil by using their superpowers.
The Marvel and Dark Knight movies, however, gave me more to chew on. Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, and Steve Rogers were never just fighting an evil nemesis. They were also struggling with themselves and with a society that either created them, marginalized them, created their enemies, or any combination thereof.
Steve Rogers didn’t get his powers by accident of birth or extraordinary circumstances, and he wasn’t worthy of becoming Captain America because he was the best soldier. He was a superhero because he was a good man, the guy who was most willing to give every ounce of himself for something he believed was right. Tony Stark was forced to contend with his destructive legacy as a plundering industrialist, as well as his mammoth ego. Bruce Wayne was consumed by his own darkness, and struggled to harness his inner demons so that he could stop outer demons from bringing darkness to others.
And these were just the first handful of those movies. Mostly, they kept getting better.
These stories had a different kind of template, something like this: Protagonist witnesses unacceptable injustices or perceives a grave threat. They discover the possibility of having extraordinary powers, but must then become worthy of those powers through some struggle with themselves or other malign force, and then give everything of themselves-including, if necessary, their lives-in order to right that injustice or defeat that threat. And often victory raises new questions and perhaps creates new problems.
The Nolan Dark Knight films, and the Frank Miller graphic novels that inspired them, are a little different, in that they tell a story of a world so terrible that it creates ever-more terrible villains, which then requires a response from heroes that must become ever-more terrible themselves. But the struggle of those heroes is still central to the story and, for me, their appeal. And even the Avengers films acknowledge the arms-race dynamic of increasingly existential dangers requiring ever more extreme reactions from the good guys, which, as Vision says in Captain America: Civil War, “invites challenge” from even more powerful villains, and the ensuing conflict “breeds catastrophe.”
At the core, I suppose, is that courage-that of the hero and perhaps others in the story-must be cultivated and achieved. It isn’t presumed. And that is something that moves me at a very deep level.
Because of course the central problem for a good superhero story is how to offer a superpowered person a genuine challenge. An almost all-powerful being like Kal-El (Superman) isn’t courageous because he saves the passengers on a runaway train about to fall into an abyss. He knows he’ll be fine whether he carries the train to safety or lays down to have his body serve as the track. He needs to have adversaries thrown at him that equal and exceed him in strength (Zod, Doomsday, etc.), and he needs to be faced with enemies that can’t be defeated with brute force: finding purpose, finding belonging among an alien species, grieving the loss of a family and a world he never got the chance to know, using his powers responsibly, balancing freedom and security, and so on.
While I am very much delighted by a good old fashioned Superman vs. Zod smackdown, I’m captivated by the choices Superman will have to make in order to defeat Zod and protect the world he’s adopted without becoming Zod himself.
You can apply this across the board of superhero stories. It works for “street-level” heroes like Bruce Wayne (Batman), Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel), Matt Murdock (Daredevil), or Oliver Queen (Green Arrow), and it works for more “cosmic” heroes like Thor, Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel), or Diana of Themyscira (Wonder Woman). What are they willing to do to defeat evil-doers? Are they willing to do evil themselves? What and who are they willing to sacrifice? Their extraordinary abilities are a given, the status quo of the world of the story. The power of their stories is not only what they choose to do with those powers, but how they arrive at those decisions; what must they give of their own lives, their beliefs, their souls?
Alright, well, this is all very highfalutin and whatnot, but my enthusiasm for superhero stories has another equally important factor: Fantasy escapism.
You don’t need me to tell you how the world is going to hell right now, and that our assumptions about what is good and what is evil have been muddied. Our illusions about who and what we can trust have been shattered. For all the struggles with moral ambiguity in good superhero storytelling, it’s no wonder that I find it incredibly appealing that, at the very least, choices are made and executed on. Whereas in the real world, it feels like all we can do is tread moral waters and examine our failures into infinity, but superheroes eventually make a choice and act on it.
If done well, they do so with awe-inspiring spectacle, suspense, wit, and heart. I have been delighting in the full lineup of CW’s DC “Arrowverse” said superhero series, from the faux-gritty Arrow to the more explicitly-comedic Legends of Tomorrow (working my way up to the big “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover event), and part of their appeal for me is that they are a little, well, dopey. But whereas the superhero cartoons of my childhood were dopey in the sense of being shoddy products, the DC shows embrace their campiness.
They are not satire by any means. They are not mocking the genre, but embracing its quirks. When something outlandish happens (Felicity Smoak’s paralysis is technologically cured in the middle of a couple’s spat with Oliver Queen! Barry Allen altered everyone’s lives when he time-traveled too much! Former supervillain Mick Rory became best friends with George Washington!), the event is acknowledged as outlandish, and then promptly folded into the story and taken as seriously as anything else. And it works.
And I also think part of why these shows work for me is that they operate more or less like comic books. Each scene feels like a page of panels, and any rush-through of complicated plot points feels justified by the succinctness demanded by the format. And like the comic books, they come with complicated backstories and lore that enriches the experience for those who are immersed in it, but doesn’t totally alienate those who are tuning in for the first time. Of course, I am making a point of going through the entire “Arrowverse,” episode by episode, because I’m just like that.
I guess what it all comes down to is this: In a time when things feel so dark, I’m glad I’ve made the choice to spend time with stories in which people with extraordinary powers or abilities make the choice to use those abilities for something other than personal gain. They choose to save the world.