Saturday, June 02, 2007

Why we love superheroes

Fighting for the cause of good, these imaginary characters achieve what we can’t. Dibyajyoti Sarma traces superhero characters who have been our icons for long

In Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol 2, when Bride finally meets Bill, Bill compares her with a superhero. He explains: “...I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favourite superhero, Superman... The mythology is not only great, it’s unique. Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. He was born Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. What Kent wears -- the glasses, the business suit -- that’s the costume.”

Clark, Bruce, Peter, who are these guys and why do we love them? They are superheroes and we love them because they provide us with possibilities, to outgrow the human limitations, something that humanity has been aspiring from the dawn of civilisation. Who are the gods, if not superheroes? Who are the epic heroes, Achilles, Ram, Arjun, Hanuman, if not superheroes? Who is Frankenstein, if not a superhero?

Frankenstein is a curious example of modern superhero. Since science told us to see things rationally, we could no longer look up to mythical figures as superheroes; we needed an alternative. But Marry Shelly’s experiment somehow went into different direction and we had to wait for Lee Falk for the beginning of modern superheroes.
Again, science is to blame. Since traditional story-telling methods were supposed to be about ordinary men, we needed some other platform to tell about super beings. The advent of comics in the 1940s gave us the opportunity. That's how The Phantom came into being. Phantom was not your typical superhero. To begin with he did not have any superpowers. Yet, he set the superpower standards, the tradition of wearing super-tight costumes and wearing masks, two major standards followed by almost all superheroes to come.

Then came Superman in 1934 -- the ultimate superhero. Superman sealed the standard created by Phantom, and since then you can’t have any ways of defining 'superherodom' other than these: He has some extra human power, either acquired, or given or inborn. He has a dual personality, a meek human and an aggressive super self. He has a girlfriend (in case of a superwoman, a boyfriend) who may or may not know his identity. He is a good soul, always ready to help the needy. He is linked to a supervillain, the nemesis, who either knows his real identity or not, and who has almost equal strength to the hero.

The Phantom was exotic Africa. People were looking someone closer home. Hence, Superman came to live in New York, called Metropolis in the comic book world. The Man of Steel soon became the cultural icon for America and the whole world. But he was too mainstream, a reporter at best. People wished for someone more common. In 1960s, it was Spider-Man, an ordinary kid, who gets his superpower through a freak accident. Unlike Superman, who is born ‘super’ Peter Parker could not take his powers for granted. Throughout his career he constantly struggles between his humble self and saviour image.

The tribe of superheroes that followed Spider-Man, such as X-men, Blade, Catwoman, and so on, all of them had to go through this struggle between their real selves and their super powers. Except Batman. He does not have superpowers, he’s just a strong, intelligent man with lots of gizmos, dedicated to fight crime in Gotham city. He is the comic book version of James Bond.

The X-men, Wolverine, Magneto included, were on the other hand, born super. It was their genes that made them so, in the bargain alienating them from the normal folks.
Despite their different powers and problems, what is common among all the superheroes is the eternal struggle between the good and the evil. In almost all the cases, the superhero is pitted against the supervillain, who, to a certain extent, resembles the hero’s personality, only that, he chooses to be evil, where our hero must stand for the cause of good. And in any story you want to tell, good must always win over evil.

The story of Incredible Hulk stands out in this context. Hulk’s superpowers are not for good. He is an ordinary man, unless he’s provoked. Once he’s angry, he turns green, grows in power and wreaks havoc.

Hulk is a lone case. Anywhere else, all the superheroes must put their superpowers to test for humanity’s sake. He’s our saviour and that’s why we love him. We certainly need our icons, even if they are imaginary.

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