Now that I have finally seen all the superhero movies of 2011, I find myself meditating on the question of what makes a superhero. More particularly, what makes a person with the power to Make A Difference actually put on the metaphorical cape and go out to fight the good fight. Let’s look at the treatment Hollywood has given three superheroes: Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.
Looking at Iron Man, Tony Stark is a multi-billionaire famous for both his achievements and excesses. The personification of the modern military industry, he believes in Peace Through Superior Firepower but isn’t particularly interested in what is done with the weapons he designs until his capture by warlords drives home the fact that his weapons are getting into the hands of people for whom peace holds no attraction. His goal throughout the rest of the first movie is centered around stopping the people using his weapons and regaining control of his company and technology.
Thor starts from a different place. Thor is a prince in a realm governed by super-science, his people so powerful they were mistaken for gods by the humans whose realm they fought to save from the “ice giants.” A warrior and war-leader, Thor is banished from Asgard because his arrogance and lust for battle endangers the peace of the Nine Realms.
Stripped of his power and position, in the end he sacrifices himself to save a community faced with annihilation because his actions brought a war to their streets. He had always been ready to fight for honor and glory, but he earned redemption because of his willingness to die for the innocent.
Last we have Captain America, the guy who wears the American flag. Steve Rogers was a 100 lb. weakling who didn’t back down to anybody, and who threw himself on a dummy grenade to save his comrades. Faced with a wall he couldn’t climb, he’d throw himself at it until it broke or he did. In Roger’s case, the only transformation required was purely physical.
So a scientist, a god, and a super-soldier walk into a bar… And what do they have in common? What makes them superheroes? I thought a lot about this while writing Wearing the Cape; in the Post-Event setting there are lots of superhumans, and a lot of them put on costumes and masks and play the part of superheroes. Some of them actually are. So what is the common denominator? I may be reinventing the wheel here, but for Iron Man, Thor, and Cap, it is the willingness to accept responsibility. Their actions rise from a self-imposed sense of duty; each accepts a purpose for which they are willing to give their lives.
From my perspective, this makes writing superhero stories absurdly easy; they’re human stories, with superpowers added. The most believable thing about the superhero is the hero bit, when we hear stories about people risking their lives for others, serving others every day in large ways and small, displaying incredible courage without thought in a crisis.
And I think this may be the reason why superheroes are becoming so popular today. With 9/11 and the ongoing war on terror, nuclear proliferation, the economic meltdown and all the social and political disruption created, many scientists predicting global-warming/ pandemic/ solar-flare/ asteroidal/ nano-tech doomsday, we feel the need for heroes like never before. In superhero stories we can portray heroes without cynicism or irony, and they are not merely escapist fantasies; superhero stories acknowledge the reality of evil and the potential for good in a way seldom treated with today. They hold up to us what we expect ourselves to be.