I’ve been trying to write an article on superheroes for a while now. When I first started it Spiderman had just come out and Smallville was being shown over here. I made references to the forthcoming Hulk and so on. It didn’t happen. But superheroes don’t seem to have gone away. X men and Spiderman have turned into successful franchises, Superman and Batman have been re-invented, and we’re now delving into the murkier depths of the Marvel stable, with Iron Man about to make an appearance, and a Captain America movie in the offing. And there’s Heroes.
Now I’m a big fan of superheroes, but that’s not what prompted me to write something. It’s more what they seem to stand for. The theme music for Smallville called for ’somebody to save me’. Superman Returns played on the Messianic overtones of everyone’s favourite Kryptonian. So are Superheroes expressing a yearning for god? A desire for some divine power to sweep in and save us? The little boy who asked his mom where Spiderman was when the twin towers were destroyed has been well-documented, and the Heroes series is coyly based on the premise that we live in a world that needs superheroes to save it (and specifically to save it from a disaster in New York). It’s worth mentioning here that seeing superheroes as semi-divine beings is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Marvel adopted various deities into it’s canon (Thor, Hercules) and in a sense this was just acknowledging that these sorts of stories have been with us for a long time, and when they first appeared, people had no difficulty in frankly acknowledging that they were stories about divine intervention. It’s a peculiarly modern phenomenon to employ pseudo-science to make the powers ’super’ rather than ‘divine’.
The thing is that the desire for someone to save us is only part of the appeal of superheroes. Part of it is the desire to be a hero ourselves. Spiderman is the obvious example here – a very ordinary guy, very similar to his readers (a bit of a nerdy teenager), who happens to have super powers. Heroes the series again is based on the premise that these are ordinary people – people like us. The superhero is an example of what we could be – something to aspire to – if we remember the simple lessons, that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. The superhero is in a sense simply a straightfoward hero, whose superpowers simply elevate their struggles to an epic level. We can emulate them on our own more mundane level. And by seeing our own mundane struggles through the lens of their epic story we gain a sense of significance that might otherwise be missing. The question then becomes – what sort of stories are these? And are they really ones that ennoble our existence, that help us to be more than we could be otherwise? Or do they just appeal to our least mature and uplifting impulses – the desire to be bigger and stronger than everyone else so that we can get our own way?