I’ve had trouble writing this blog. Maybe it’s because of the lead up to the super bowl, maybe it’s because I’ve been drinking every weekend, maybe it’s because Angry Birds has taken over a large portion of my life. In fact I’m sure that all of those reasons plus more are contributors to why it has taken me so long to write this blog. But I think that the primary reason is that as I was “researching” this subject, in order to make sure that I wasn’t talking out of my ass any more than usual, I discovered that superheroes are a damn complicated subject.
That’s right, this blog is about superheroes. It was originally going to be focused on their flaws, and how over the past decade or so we have gone through a fairly dramatic shift in nature. I was going to use examples of our earliest heroes such as Achilles or Gilgamesh, and point out that their flaws were primarily physical. And that our more contemporary heroes were starting to gravitate toward flaws more centered on human nature and introspection than the physical world. But then I of course realized that Gilgamesh didn’t have a physical flaw, and that one of the single oldest heroes of written literature (I’m still talking about Gilgamesh for those of you who don’t know his story) had possibly the most profound of introspective, human flaws, the fear of death.
I looked in to it more, and while my original ideas weren’t TOTALLY off, they weren’t totally on either. How could I write a blog about one of my own opinions that I had just proven wrong? I thought perhaps I could just slim it down and focus only on comic books. That worked, to a degree.
I was going to point out that the greatest heroes in the Golden Age of comic books all had primarily physical flaws, and it’s true, they did. Superman’s weakness was Kryptonite, purely physical. Batman’s was that he was a regular dude in a costume fighting enemies that weren’t always “regular dudes”. Hell, Green Lantern’s original weakness was the color yellow. But then I realized that I was only focusing on DC Comics characters. So I looked up some Marvel characters, and while a bunch of them had physical flaws, many of them also had deep, human, emotional flaws right from the beginning. So out the window went that plan.
So, after everything in this rather geeky journey, I reworked my theories. And I decided to focus on heroes in general and our interpretation of them rather than simply their flaws. This final stroke of genius actually hit me just a few minutes ago while I was watching a show called Misfits on Hulu. (If you haven’t watched it, do so; it’s fantastic.) I realized that it isn’t just the flaws that have changed; it’s the heroes in general.
Let’s just admit right now that for decades, Superman has been the ideal hero. Whether you’re a fan of DC, Marvel, that crappy show Heroes, or any other venue or source for heroism, Superman is the ideal. He’s perfect in every way, unerring morals, physically unstoppable, a perfect leader, etc. So if he’s our perfect hero, then why have we been seeing less and less of him in the past decade? Why have Batman, The Hulk, Spiderman, Ironman, Green Lantern, and so many others, received so much more attention than Superman?
The Dark Knight trilogy has taken off like no other superhero movie ever has, The Spiderman trilogy was mostly a success and now they’re starting a new Spiderman series, Iron Man 3 is already slated for production after the success of 1 and 2, The Hulk even has multiple movies out. Green Lantern has rumblings of a sequel despite its poor writing, and the same goes for Thor. So why were there never even rumblings of a sequel to Superman Returns? True, they are making another Superman movie, due to be released in 2013, but it’s not a sequel, it’s a restart. Admittedly The Hulk movies were officially called a restart as well, but there was only five years. When all’s said and done it will have taken seven years before a movie studio decided that releasing another Superman movie was a good idea. If he’s our go to hero, then why has he been fading from popular culture?
Not only in movies but in all formats, we’ve been seeing less and less of Superman. The beginning of the reasoning is that it seems that we as a consumer nation have been gravitating toward the heroes with issues. We have begun to enjoy following the deeper and darker stories of heroes with painful human flaws. Bruce Banner and his growing seclusion from the human race as well as his constant struggle with his own demons from his past has become infinitely more compelling than Superman’s weakness to kryptonite. I won’t deny that Superman has some humanity, but he’s only ever had one real ethical dilemma, “How should I use my massive power, for good or for evil?” That question is old and has been asked simply too many times, and we all know the answer.
I feel like as a society, we are pulling away from the classic ideal of a hero. We don’t want the boy scout personality anymore, we don’t want the clear cut good vs. evil, right vs. wrong storyline anymore. We crave moral ambiguity and we want our heroes to essentially be emotional cripples. Hell, one more example; since I brought up the show, Misfits, let’s look at why its storylines are gaining in popularity while Superman’s are plummeting. Like I said, Superman’s only moral conundrum is that one tired old question, should I be good or evil? Spoiler alert! He’s going to choose to be good. After he gets past that painful dilemma, he’ll save the day. And he’ll save it with his physical abilities. He’ll pick up the island and throw it into space, he’ll catch the plane before it crashes, whatever the case may be, the climax of the story revolves around a question of his physicality, and another spoiler alert! He’ll succeed.
Meanwhile Misfits is overflowing with questions of moral ambiguity. Instead of powers being given to the perfect moral person, the powers are bestowed upon a group of kids perpetually doing community service for petty crimes. They’ve killed dozens of people, they’ve stolen probably millions of dollars, they’ve exploited their powers to make money and get sex, so on and so forth. But at the end of it all, they always end up saving the day. The most interesting part is that 90% of the time it isn’t their powers that save the day, it’s their humanity. Whether we’re talking about Simon sacrificing himself so that he and Alisha can be together, or Curtis realizing the deeper differences between men and women, either way it ultimately isn’t their ability that saves the day.
And perhaps this has to do with the fact that their abilities are centered around their humanity. Instead of having laser eyes, or super strength, or the ability to fly faster than sound, they have abilities that are spawned from their own human flaws. Kelly can read minds, but only when she’s feeling judged and insecure; Curtis, the most masculine of the characters gains the ability to switch seamlessly between genders even though he doesn’t understand women at all. Alisha, who starts the series as a slut, suddenly can’t touch anyone’s bare skin without sending them in to a sexual frenzy, thus preventing her from ever feeling true intimacy. Hell Rudy’s ability is nothing more than a physical manifestation of his split personality.
So now, after this too long blog, I’ve finally reached the point where I can definitively answer the question I’ve asked, that being, why are our classic ideals of heroism fading, and why are these morally ambiguous heroes coming to the forefront of our society?
My answer is, that I have no fucking idea why. Honestly. This entire post, with all these examples, and all these questions, has been so that I could reach the answer of, I don’t know. Perhaps our society is becoming more introspective. Perhaps it’s because of the phenomenon described in Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat”, basically being that when you can log on to a computer and see a satellite picture of Russia, or set up a group video chat with friends from Japan and Brazil at the same time, we lose the desire to explore our surroundings; and when there’s nothing more around us to explore, we resort to exploring ourselves. Perhaps the physical world doesn’t hold as much wonder as it used to, and so we as a collective have resorted to exploring our subconscious and studying our inner demons.
Who knows, maybe it’s just that Superman’s marketing team sucks. Whatever the case may be, it is clear, at least to me, that the world of our heroes is changing, and it’s changing because of us. Personally I think it’s changing for the better, but maybe you disagree.
Thank god this post is over, it’s way too long. Also, I really don’t feel like editing this, so if there are grammatical or spelling errors, get over it.