In a previous post, I excerpted an author who suggested a reason for the rise of pulp superheroes in the era of the depression. Grant Morrison, in his recent non-fiction work Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun god from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human, provides a similar narrative for the more recent rise in popularity of larger than life heroes:
Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Green Lantern, Iron Man. Why have superheroes become so popular? Why now?
On one level, it’s simple: Someone, somewhere figured out that, like chimpanzees, superheroes make everything more entertaining. Boring tea party? Add a few chimps and it’s unforgettable comedy mayhem. Conventional murder mystery? Add superheroes and a startling and provocative new genre springs to live. Urban crime thriller? Seen it all before… until Batman gets involved. Superheroes can spice up any dish.
But there’s even more going on beneath the surface of our appetite for the antics of outlandishly dressed characters who will never let us down. Look away from the page or the screen and you’d be forgiven for thinking they’ve arrived into mass consciousness, as they tend to arrive everywhere else, in response to a desperate SOS from a world in crisis.
We’ve come to accept that most of our politicians will be exposed, in the end, as sex-mad liars or imbeciles, just as we’ve come to expect gorgeous supermodels to be bulimic, neurotic wretches. We’ve seen through the illusions that once sustained our fantasies and know from bitter experience that beloved comedians will stand unmasked, sooner o later, as alcoholic perverts or suicidal depressives. We tell our children they’re trapped like rats on a doomed, bankrupt, gangster-haunted planet with dwindling resources, with nothing to look forward to but rising sea levels and imminent mass extinctions, then raise a disapproving eyebrow when, in response, they dress in black, cut themselves with razors, starve themselves, gorge themselves, or kill one another.
Traumatized by war footage and disaster clips, spied upon by ubiquitous surveillance cams, threatened by exotic villains who plot from their caverns and subterranean lairs, preyed upon by dark and monumental Gods of Fear, we are being sucked inexorably into Comic Book Reality, with only moments to save the world, as usual. Towering, cadaverous Death-Angels, like the ones on the covers of Dad’s antinuke rags, seem to overshadow the gleaming spires of our collective imagination.
Could it be that a culture starved of optimistic images of its own future has turned to the primary source in search of utopian role models? Could the superhero in his cape and skintight suit be the best current representation of something we all might become, if we allow ourselves to feel worthy of a tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human psyche? [xvi-xvii]
I disagree profoundly with Morrison on the source of hope, but it’s hard not to see the rise in popularity for superheroes as linked to a need for it. And perhaps, too, one could see the cause of this popularity rooted even more deeply in human nature. Perhaps it is not just our current political climate, but that as an expression of our more fundamental human condition: when we are at our most honest, we human beings admit we are broken and weak, and we are looking for a saviour.