Superheroes

What does the future hold for Man?  What will Man, one day, become?  Such questions have busied the fertile brains of science fiction writers, filmmakers and artists, ever since Darwin.

German thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche, had floated the notion of the Übermensch (‘super-man’, ‘over-man’, or ‘super-human’) in his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  Nietzsche’s idea of the übermensch was of a being seeking to move ‘over’ its state of being to a greater ‘stature’.

No other symbol in science fiction has evolved as dramatically as the ‘super-man’.  From the most infantile form of human wish-fulfilment to more sophisticated anti-hero, the superhero has become an ingenious metaphor of our aspirations and fears for future science.

Twenty-first century cinema is replete with this ‘over-man’.  The genre of superhero fiction began in 1938 when pulp fiction writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster unveiled Superman.  Since then, superheroes have broken into radio, television, and books, and seem to define many aspects of the CGI-dominated modern movie.

Unlike heroes of their past, such as Tarzan or Zorro, the modern superhero was a different breed.  Sometimes they were highly skilled with easy access to superscientific gadgetry, such as Batman, dreamt up in 1939, and with his own comic from 1940.  Other superheroes possessed inhuman powers, derived from some chance interaction with a scientific world.

Superman, of course, was an alien.  His power is sourced from the mere fact that he was born on the alien planet of Krypton. A bite from an irradiated arachnid spawns changes in Peter Parker’s body, giving Spiderman his superpowers.  And The Fantastic Four, the first superhero team created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby for Marvel Comics in 1961, gained their superpowers after exposure to cosmic rays during a space mission.  Of the four, Mr Fantastic is a science boffin, capable of stretching his shapeshifting body; the Invisible Woman can make herself invisible, naturally, and project powerful force fields; the Human Torch can throw flames, and fly; and the monster-like Thing possesses superhuman stamina and strength.

In the same way that Darwin led science fiction to the alien, theories of evolution have given writers an imaginative framework for stories of superhumans.  But there is a difference, of course, between Darwin-induced narratives of ‘fitter’ humans, and Lamarckian-inspired superheroes whose creative evolution is often instantaneous, and whose new-found powers may well be passed on to their offspring.  If they ever had sex.

Creators of supermen had originally been surprisingly shy to make their heroes outright villains.  Critical of the contemporary human condition, it seems many writers have opted for ‘progress’, crediting themselves with a proto-superhuman perspective.  It is very tempting to love the notion of the superhero if we believe we may become superhuman ourselves.

Sadly, all this virtuous ‘progress’ made some superheroes rather dull.  Superman was prissy and sexless.  Captain America was unable to become intoxicated by alcohol.  So Jack Kirby became the presiding genius of a new anti-hero format for superheroes in the 1960s.  They had sex.  They had neuroses.  They behaved badly.  Sometimes, they even chose to become supervillains instead.

So developed the more sophisticated superhero of the graphic novel.  In landmark publications such as Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986-7), a new creative force was born.  These novels confront the question of what human society might be like if science or pure chance gifted us superhero status.  How complex, corrupting and weary it all may prove.

Still, superheroism would still be worth a go, don’t you think?

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