SUPERHEROES & US
The surprising and deep meaning in caped crusaders and supermen
In 2100 B.C one of the first conceptual ideas of a superhero made its appearance in culture. The epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest surviving example of literature and the second oldest religious text tells the story of the wild man Enikdu, created by the Gods to stop Gilgamesh from oppressing the people of Urulk. Endowed with super strength, Enikdu fights Giglamesh and develops the archetype of the superhero. Throughout the millennial mythologies, we see this idea of power again and again in the form of a higher being who works for the benefit of people, a being who uses power to fight oppression, and who becomes the champion of those who are looking for hope in a world that is decaying. Moreover, the superhero mythology symbolizes a choice to use suffering to help people rather than to get back at a cruel world, which getting back and retaliating is the hallmark of a supervillain.
Why, then, is this important for us today? And how do we explain the cultural media force that is the D.C and Marvel Superheroes, first introduced to us by the great jack Kirby and Stan Lee in the early 20th century? The means to do that is in this principle of art explained by American poet Eli Siegel: All beauty is a making one of opposites; and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves[i]. There is beauty in these heroes and stories—wide freedom of imagination and, at its best, truthful stories of human feelings and aspirations. And it is clear that these heroes have fantastic power, and if they are to be called heroes then they use this power for kindness, in behalf of the world at large. Power and kindness, often apart, are inextricably one whenever we see this idea of the Superhero.
Since as far back as ancient documents can attest to, the world’s cultures, primitive and otherwise, have had beings who have been able to achieve spectacular feats of power in the service of goodness. There is Thor from the norse religion of the Vikings, the super powered being who wields the mighty hammer Mjolner, battling the forces of the giants that would usher in Raganork, bring down Asgard, and the earth like Midgard. That Thor is a major figure in the blockbuster Avengers movies, attests to the strength of the superhero ideas to withstand the test of time.[ii]
Then there is the Batman, the much loved crime fighter in a cowl, who is a symbol of the pinnacle of what a human being can achieve through training and study, and who uses his formidable financial resources to build up a crime fighting empire that aims to combat the rising forces of corruption and evil in a decaying Gotham city.[iii] Batman, more so than other superheroes, blurs the line between good and evil as he aims to instill fear in the hearts of criminals, begging the question also asked by Nietzsche: Is Good and Evil in an eternal struggle, pushing and pulling, fighting and completing one another?[iv] Ultimately, Batman believes that all things, short of murder, are justified in his quest to rid Gotham of criminals and to help its citizens break free from the yoke of oppression. He is the Dark Knight, using the trauma of seeing his parents murdered in cold blood to wage a war against all who would harm the downtrodden, the weak, and those unable to fight for themselves.
And it is this trauma, surprisingly, that unifies and differentiates the superhero from the supervillain, both of whom experience considerable, personal pain early on in life, and who make a pivotal choice to either use this pain to sympathize with other people or use it to hate and destroy the world, which is contempt, the addition to self through the lessening of the outside world. [v]We all are confronted with this life choice when faced with personal loss—Do I use what has happened to me to be a better human being, more sympathetic to the plight of others or do I use my tragedy to become selfish, colder, entrenched in the belief that you have to get yours in a cruel world? This choice, and the path that follows, is an essential difference between a superhero and supervillain.
Consider Peter Parker, aka Spiderman, whose uncle is murdered by the same criminal he let loose earlier in the day, arrogantly exclaiming to the cop in pursuit that it wasn’t his business to help stop the thief. Realizing his monumental mistake, Spiderman then vows over the body of his beloved uncle Ben to use his power for good. Often in the idea of superheroes there is a loss of parents--Superman and Batman are two of the most iconic. Similarly, supervillains such as Dr. Freeze in the Batman mythology or Green Goblin in the Spiderman universe also suffer loss but take a different path as they vow revenge on a world that has taken from them what they hold dear, a carnival mirror image of their heroic counterpart.
Superheroes, then, are a reflection of the necessary struggle in everyday life between choosing to become a better human being in the face of adversity or becoming more cruel, less kind, as time goes on. The immense popularity of superheroes as cultural force, which grows with every new film that comes out, indicates that we like watching this deep, philosophical fight take place across our screens. It is a necessary fight and a needed struggle, one that has spanned the millennia and will be with us as we brave the vast, unchartered territories of space and our own imaginations.
Avi Gvili has been an educator for 24 years in English and Computer Science. The award winning author of four books, he was named Staten Island's Best Writer in 2014 and again in 2015. In 2019 and in 2020 he was chosen as one of Staten Island's power 100 for his political activism and publishing work. Avi is the President/CEO of Boulevard Books, a writer centered publisher dedicated to empowering authors with 100% royalty and complete creative control. Contact him at www.BoulevardBooks.org