Following the recent release of Man of Steel, visit an era in which superheroes wear blue, red, green, yellow and black, but display only one shade — grey.
Two little boys were hiding behind a barrel, watching their fruit-seller dad being pounded to pulp by the street thugs. He hadn't paid the mafia its cut, parts of which would go to the boss, the local politician, government officials, law enforcement officers, judges and everyone else who was on the take. With tear-laden eyes and fear-stricken hearts, the young duo shrank back into their hiding place, waiting for the goons to disappear with their father’s earnings. Tonight, there would be no supper. And tomorrow, if their dad didn’t pay up, there would be no shop either.
While this could have been the opening scene of a superhero story, it was reality back in the late 1920s and the early 30s, when the United States had a huge fall from the heady heights of economic progress and went into a tailspin. Prohibition was brought into effect in the 1920s to eliminate the evils of alcohol, like corruption, crime, poverty, violence and a debauched society.
Thus, a massive stock market crash had brought in much grief and the great depression, political decisions had ushered in prohibition — and poverty had introduced crime. The United States found itself shackled, handcuffed and strait-jacketed, all at the same time. And it would take magic of Houdini-esque proportions to come out of it.
Come 1933, a new government would begin infusing life into the economy, but people needed a little spark that would rekindle hope in their hearts, assuring them that all would be well. Their prayers were answered with more than a spark — what ensued was an explosion in a faraway planet named Krypton. And a little space shuttle found its way to earth, lodging itself in a little field in Kansas. Blue and red, the united colours of America, now stood for a saviour, one who could straighten anything from a crooked rail track to a crooked mind, and who fought for the downtrodden and oppressed, ensuring that justice prevailed.
Superman was immediately followed by Batman, Captain Marvel, the Green Lantern and a galaxy of other superheroes. While the superheroes were attired in an eclectic mix of colours, the stories were all black and white. The plots were simple — it was good versus evil, there would be no crossovers and good would always triumph. The superhero’s alter ego would either be a dead ringer for Mr. Bean, a bumbling, inept, clueless friendly idiot, or Sir Percy Blakeney, the dashing playboy from The Scarlet Pimpernel. Crime would never pay. And the good, harmless, innocent people would always be saved in the end.
“Saved in the end” was the operative phrase that lifted a nation’s spirits. Across generations, they took to the tales like repentant smokers to a nicotine patch. However, with each passing decade, memories of fear and suffering faded away, and subsequent generations disinherited the scarred legacy of their ancestors. To them, America was always the land of opportunity, where everyone owned houses, drove in cars and had weekend barbecue parties in their backyards. So, who needed superheroes? Besides, who on earth would believe in men flying around in ridiculous costumes? Superheroes were soon relegated to story-telling sessions for children — adults had no use for them.
But evolution is not always a good thing. And not fixing something when it isn’t broke isn’t such a bad thing either. Unfortunately, our superheroes, who had successfully warded off ageing, fashion trends, technology (don’t point to the batmobile — it made its first appearance in 1939) and makeovers over the decades, met their nemesis when the publishers decided to update the psychographics of the caped crusaders to suit the tastes of modern audiences. So, from giving mankind hope to live through the era of corruption and the great depression, the superheroes, until then beacons of hope for the downtrodden, ended up being reflections of today’s complex, dysfunctional generation.
Batman’s alter ego became a playboy who would enjoy heady nights and suffer terrible hangovers the morning after. Spiderman began to secretly enjoy the dark side to his arachnid powers. Superman had to contend with a complicated romance, his feelings for another man’s wife and worse, a child born out of wedlock. Iron Man’s inner self — Tony Stark — had to battle alcoholism, Captain America went under the influence of meth, Robin got insanely addicted to violence and the Human Torch’s bisexuality has become an ongoing topic for online banter.
Perhaps the changing times necessitated new-age personas — not the kinds that people would look up to, but the kinds that people would identify with. The result? Mighty men, whose hands trembled without their regular fix, superheroes who found themselves in confusing relationships, and protectors and avengers who, when they were not fighting monsters and aliens, were fighting their own inner demons.
Hindu mythology defines the four major yugas (epochs) as satya yuga, where there was only good, treta yuga where both good and bad existed, but were kept away from each other, dwapara yuga where good and bad had to coexist in the same paradigm and kali yuga, the present age, where the bad existed inside every good and the good inside every bad. One will never know if the images of a young Krishna holding the Govardhan hill on his little finger or of Hanuman uprooting Mount Sanjeevani and flying off with it inspired the creators of superheroes halfway across the world, but they sure seem to have taken the concept of kali yuga rather seriously. As a result, the Jekyll-Hyde syndrome has been turned on its head — Jekyll has become a badass with a history of substance abuse and when he’s not busy imbibing this or inhaling that, he turns into his other badass version — Hyde. And that brings back the 1930s all over again. It’s once again time for children to go and hide.