Since every other movie for the foreseeable future is going to feature a super-hero, it would behoove you all to learn more about the nuts and bolts of them. Ant-Man is getting a movie (and you’ll probably all go see it). Aquaman is getting a movie, for chrissakes. Don’t even get me started on Batman vs. Superman : Train-wreck At Dawn or the goddamn Suicide Squad. You’re going to be served up super-heroes whether you like them or not. Luckily, I’m here to help you with that.
I’ve spent most of my life looking at super-heroes, dissecting them like a watch-maker, figuring out what makes them tick. (Plus four years of Batmanology school and three years of Modern Tap.) I can tell you everything you’ll ever need to know about super-heroes. So can Joseph Campbell but I do it with more jokes than he does.
The first thing about any super-hero (even Aquaman, who sucks) is that they are always born in tragedy. Krypton explodes. The mugger panics. There are innumerable accidents and explosions that people somehow inexplicably survive. Taken together as a whole, it looks like a cheap formula and it is a cheap formula. But it’s a formula that works.
Take Superman, for example. He is alone in the universe. All of the art of Krypton, all of its culture, all the music, poetry, history that were sent along with him as baby Kal El – he is the only person in the universe who can appreciate them. But it’s a world he never knew, except as through old photographs. He can never go home again, to the extent that pieces of his home are actually poisonous to him. Only by being sent away from his birth-place did he ever have a chance to live. He’s the last of his kind. (Leaving aside his cousin, his dog, her cat and 100 000 citizens of Kandor who are less than an inch tall, living in a bottle on his shelf.) He is unimaginably powerful yet he humbles himself to walk among us, his adopted people, whom he loves because we mean he’s not alone in the universe. He has a purpose.
Batman’s even worse. You all know what happened to his parents, right? So he made a vow, on the spot, at eight years old, to make sure that what happened to him never happened to anyone else ever again. So he trained himself from that day on, from eight years old, to punish evil with his own two hands and to protect the innocent. He perfected himself, learning to fight against anything and everything under the sun, to master pain and his emotions and himself, to be the ultimate expert in everything. I have never subscribed to the theory that Batman is insane or a fascist – he isn’t. He’s driven and dedicated to protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty and ensuring that what happened to him never happens to anyone else, ever again. That’s why Robin is so important to Batman; Batman failed and the Grayson’s were killed but he gave their son a chance to avenge their murders and see justice be done, to punish the guilty and protect the innocent.
Peter Parker was bitten by a spider and changed somehow. That’s how he got his powers but that’s not his origin. He was a nerd, a nebbish, a nobody, until that spider bit him but he was a good kid. He tried to parlay his new-found powers into a bit of cash but he got ripped off. The guy who ripped him off got ripped off and Peter, believer in karma, didn’t lift a finger to stop it. Well, karma’s a funny thing and it turns out that the robber ends up killing Peter’s uncle. And when Peter finds that out, it crushes him. He could have stopped him if he wasn’t so selfish, so stupid. So he promises to himself that he’ll never ignore somebody in trouble ever again, no matter what. And even though he’s broke or heart-broken or facing impossible odds, terrified out of his wits, he never gives up because he CAN`T. He just can’t. He gives himself a pep talk (“Okay, Spidey. You can do this.”) and gets back in the game.
Daredevil has Catholic guilt. Bruce Banner was abused as a child. Captain America grew up poor and fatherless. You shouldn’t overdo it, though. They tried to graft Batman’s origin onto the Flash and it didn’t really take, because he’s a more light-hearted character than Batman. Plus, it was entirely unnecessary and contrary to what made the Flash work as a character. And the Flash’s origin was just fine as it is.
Wonder Woman is unique in not having a tragic back-story – the Gods commanded her creation and blessed her with powers so that she could help people. That’s it. Of course, they tried to graft tragedy onto her too, in modern times. Again, it didn’t really take because it runs counter to what Wonder Woman represents – an unalloyed force for good and positivity. But I digress.
The other essential commonality of every single super-hero is the obvious fact that the cops are no good. At all. If they were, you wouldn’t need a super-hero, would you? Just let the cops handle it. But the cops are out-matched by aliens or robots or giant murder-machines or Mole Men or monsters or dangerous freaks with lasers shooting out of their head. Even if they mean well, there’s not much they can do. This looks like a job for [insert super-hero here]!
The other alternative is that the cops are REALLY no good; they’re crooked and corrupt, they’re on the take, they’re as big a menace as the dude with the lasers shooting out of his head. Worse, even. The cops are around all the time. They make the world worse just by existing and a protector is needed because we all know the cops won’t do it. Won’t, not can’t. They prefer to use their tanks and machine-guns on unarmed protestors, not a guy with a freeze ray or a killer clown or with lasers shooting out of his head. All the cops in Gotham City (and several other fictional cities) are s.o.b.s (except maybe Gordon and Chief O’Hara.) So the System is inherently corrupt or useless, whichever way you slice it. Which is a pretty subversive, not to mention pervasive, persuasive message to sell to people watching explosions for two hours, when you think about it. Or to little kids, reading a comic book.