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What Makes Superheroes So Super?

Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice." (Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Comics)
Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice." (Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Comics)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Much to the chagrin of many a traditional movie fan, the superhero genre has crash-landed on earth, flexed its formidable muscles and taken up permanent residence in the multiplex box office.

Just take a gander at the genre's domination of market share. On the top 10 list of all-time box office grossers, movies starring Batman or the Avengers occupy four slots. In February, the comic book-based "Deadpool" set records for the biggest opening day for an R-rated movie and is now the third biggest all-time moneymaker in that category.

In coming months, prepare yourself for yet more concealed identities, science experiments gone wrong and airborne rock ‘em, sock ‘em action. "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” opens on March 25, with "Captain America: Civil War" and "X-Men: Apocalypse" to follow in May. Some 30 superhero movies are slated for release between now and 2020. Which is to say nothing of all the superhero-themed TV series — such as "Jessica Jones," "Arrow," "Legends of Tomorrow," "Daredevil," "Supergirl" and "The Flash" — being binge-watched as we speak.

So why have superhero yarns become among the most reliable of money-makers? The way I see it, the superhero genre speaks to many of our culture's pent-up voices and internal desires.

The success of "Deadpool" is yet more argument for the ubiquity of superhero-based films. Here, Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) and Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) are seen. (Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox)
The success of "Deadpool" is yet more argument for the ubiquity of superhero-based films. Here, Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) and Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) are seen. (Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox)

First, we don't feel so heroic in our everyday lives. It's not that we don't want to be powerful, have a stake in shaping the fate of the planet, save the day. But the real world is more complicated than punching and flying your way to the top. Can we, as individuals, face down ISIS, the Zika virus or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? No.

Superheroes get to operate in a binary universe of good and evil, and offer black and white solutions to vexing and complicated problems. Superman, for example, has an admirable if extreme moral code. He refuses to kill foes, adheres to a Hippocratic-like oath and seeks truth and justice. Who doesn’t want someone around to uphold that list of standards? Lord knows, I can barely manage my bank account. They prevail where we can’t. They are saviors. There's comfort in that. As church-going has declined, superheroes have become our deities, our modern gods.

The superhero also models a kind of safe role-play. That is, by wearing costumes and hiding behind masks, they express the better half of their true, hidden selves. Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, Peter Parker become Spider-Man, Oliver Queen becomes Green Arrow, and so on. We see how superheroes are transformed by their secret identities. They are our psychic liberators.

That said, the superhero can be tormented by that dual identity. There’s tension between the mild-mannered alter ego and the flying, smashing do-gooder. Upstanding millionaire Bruce Wayne can’t take the law into his own hands, but as Batman, he can be that reckless vigilante. Sometimes they crave being merely moral — and normal, too. They’re trapped, unable to tell loved ones their most intimate secrets. Clark Kent has to put on a hapless and bumbling act; then, as Superman, he wants to fall for Lois Lane, but to protect her, and his identity, he can’t. That’s often how we often feel in our daily lives, powerless or pretending, having to hide parts of our true selves. Superheroes help dramatize that struggle.

But there are other twists to the appeal. Take Superman. There’s more to the indelibility of this protagonist than his strong, all-powerful, take-charge demeanor. The Man of Steel offers unlikely contact points for diverse fan identification. White and male like most superheroes, he’s also — surprise, surprise — an immigrant and an alien, from a place even more foreign than Syria or Mexico: Krypton. He’s looking to make a better life in America and help others. In more recent years, Superman has also become a Sen. Bernie Sanders-like hero of the people, doing battle against corporate magnates, one-percenters and other members of the Legion of Doom. How long before he takes on Trump, I wonder?

Or take the world of the X-Men. Led by Professor Charles Xavier, this mutant superhero group fights for mutant rights and peaceful co-existence between humans and mutants in an intolerant, mutant-phobic world. Kinda like today? Switch “mutant” with “Muslim” and you catch my drift. (Xavier's arch nemeses Magneto and Apocalypse meanwhile advance a sort of reverse racism and supremacy movement. Their species is more genetically advanced, they say, so they should rule over the human race.)

Seen this way, superhero stories provide a metaphor for looking at difference, just as fantasy stories that bring together imaginary races — elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs — are surrogate narratives for our own forms of tolerance and intolerance. In “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the diversity of the group is celebrated. Each member of the multi-racial, multi-species team has its role. There’s the half-human, half-alien Peter Quill/Star-Lord; the green-skinned female alien Gamora; the superhuman, blue-skinned and red-tattooed Drax the Destroyer; Groot, an extraterrestrial tree monster; and the genetically engineered half-raccoon, half-man Rocket. They all work together. The superhero guise gives a cover to the unusual and freakish — a way to temporarily transcend race, skin color and origin, and be their best. In light of the recent controversies surrounding Hollywood and race, comic book narratives offer another take on diversity.

Chris Evans as Captain America in "Captain America: Civil War," one of 30 superhero-themed films expected by 2020. (Courtesy Walt Disney Studios)
Chris Evans as Captain America in "Captain America: Civil War," one of 30 superhero-themed films expected by 2020. (Courtesy Walt Disney Studios)

Which isn’t to say a race or gender problem in the world of Marvel and DC doesn’t exist. Most superheroes are white and male. Sure, the most recent (and much derided) “Fantastic Four” reboot cast African-American Michael B. Jordan as The Human Torch, and Halle Berry had a supporting role in the X-Men film franchise. But Storm getting her own movie? The Falcon? Luke Cage? The most worthy non-Caucasian comic book protagonists are still waiting in the wings.

Race in “Guardians” presents a more complicated case. Gamora is portrayed by Zoe Saldana, an actress of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent, and Drax is played by Filipino-American actor Dave Bautista. In the film, Saldana is painted completely green, and Bautista is painted red and blue, erasing their original skin tones. Is this evidence of a post-racial society? Or, proof of a more insidious idea — that we reject the brown-skinned superhero, but feel perfectly comfortable when they’re colored more alien and fantastical hues of the rainbow?

As for women, Scarlett Johansson landed a minor role as Black Widow in “Iron Man 2” and “The Avengers,” and Jennifer Lawrence had a bit part as Mystique in the X-Men movies. But overall, women have also been shafted. Box office clunkers “Supergirl,” “Catwoman” and “Elektra” seem to have scared Hollywood from giving females more of their own superhero vehicles.

Thankfully, all this may be changing.

A 2014 poll suggested that the audience for tentpole blockbuster movies isn’t as lily-white and XY chromosome-prone as you’d expect. Of all demographic groups, Hispanic women over the age of 25 are the most frequent moviegoers, and the survey showed they buy tickets for all sorts of stuff, including superhero movies. The audience that saw “Guardians of the Galaxy” on its opening weekend was 44 percent female --- higher than that for any previous Marvel movie.

An upcoming film featuring Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot and seen here with Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck), offers hope that the superhero genre will continue featuring more female characters. (Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures & DC Comics)
An upcoming film featuring Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot and seen here with Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck), offers hope that the superhero genre will continue featuring more female characters. (Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures & DC Comics)

A Wonder Woman feature is coming in 2017, starring Gal Gadot. (The character also makes an appearance in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and the forthcoming “Justice League” two-parter). And a “Black Panther” movie is coming in 2018.

Demographics to the rescue!

I know I’ll never be a superhero. But just because you have superpowers doesn't mean you’re super all the time. Luckily, superheroes own their flaws, weaknesses, and character defects. Superman has his kryptonite. Jessica Jones drinks too much and has a penchant for one-night stands. Heck, even Batman has an anger problem. These imperfections and often-ordinary origin stories make it seem that I, too, could be them. Maybe I crash-landed on earth, or was bitten by a radioactive spider. Perhaps I could save the day, someday.

Knowing I'm just as messed up as a superhero can be makes it all the easier to project my fantasy of being larger than life onto the inhabitant of some skin-tight unitard. And I do mean “fantasy". I’m a middle-aged guy, and trust me, no one wants to see my body stuffed into any unitard ... no matter how super it looks.


Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, critic, essayist, author of "Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks" and a frequent contributor to WBUR’s The ARTery and Cognoscenti. He writes about pop/geek culture, the arts, travel, and the media for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Salon, and Wired, among other publications. Follow his adventures at ethangilsdorf.com or on Twitter at @ethanfreak.

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