Our love for superhero fiction can be attributed to seemingly polar reasons: admiration of good and fascination for evil. Or is it that one can't exist without the other?
An onslaught of superhero movies will hit us in the coming months. There is going to be the Man of Steel from DC Entertainment, Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 3 and The Wolverine from Marvel Comics and Kick-Ass 2 from Marv Films.
The hype for Man of Steel, featuring Clark Kent aka Superman, will soon peak as the movie release is set for June. It helps that this year is the 75th anniversary of the debut of Superman in Action Comics. Cleveland in Ohio even celebrated April 18 as Superman Day, as the creators of the Man of Steel grew up in the city. Click here for a lovely graphic on Superman's landmark years.
What, then, draws us to superheroes and vigilantes? Superheroes can fly over the cityscape in hot pursuit of a villain, scale skyscrapers to rescue children or morph to fight street gangs. And, although the formula rarely changes, we remain fascinated by them.
One reason for our love for these masked and caped crusaders could be the dual identity possibility that they offer. Literary critic Mila Bongco says a superhero is “usually endowed with a dual identity, being simultaneously a super-power while also being ‘one of us’.” She says that heroes are tough and honourable, with the law often needing their help. This description reminds me of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five or the Five Find-Outers who are normal, school-going kids until when they step into their roles of crime-solvers who have to help the local police force. Although they do not have magical superpowers, they use their intelligence and courage to solve problems. This formula seems to be a very successful one for producing series fiction.
The superhero comics use a similar formula, spiced with the element of superpowers, which, to borrow Coleridge’s phrase offers us the opportunity for “willing suspension of disbelief”. Spider-Man can stop a train from falling over a bridge or Superman can lift a car with one hand because the text endows them with superpowers that are beyond the reach of normal human beings.
Virtue and vice
Another reason for our respectful reverence toward superheroes is their moral code. In spite of having astonishing powers, superheroes adhere to a strict moral code, which often leads them to risk their own safety for the welfare of others. They step in where established law enforcement agencies fail and contribute their skills, often in exchange for nothing. The story appeals to our virtuous selves.
Joseph Campbell in The Power of the Myth points to some of the characteristics that make up a mythical hero archetype: the hero must pay a price to attain a goal; the hero generally makes a journey, often with obstacles, to reach the goal and the hero makes a sacrifice for what he seeks to achieve. The hero is the central character who steps in when the world's balance is threatened.
Which leads us to a very interesting point: For a character to be a superhero, there must be evil. The focus of the story is always on the action and the challenges that the villain poses for the hero. As Bongco says, it is the crime and the villains that keep the superhero in action.
In The Incredibles (2004), an animated film that both parodies and eulogises the superhero genre, Mr. Incredible tells us "No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved, you know?" The answer to this question is that the superheroes need the world to be in danger to justify their own existence. And if we love superhero stories, it is also because we are drawn to wickedness and are bewitched by the dance between good and evil.
(Kannal Achuthan often ponders on philosophical conundra, and writes down some of it. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org)