A couple of days ago I had an interesting conversation with a work mate on ‘heroes’ and their types as they have evolved in popular literature over the years. From the super Gods to the reluctant humans.
There are many types of heroes in this modern day and age. Of course the journey to get to these many took time and it evolved as the world evolved. It started as a simple notion: the person who saves us from all evil and harm and who is flawless. Nary a scratch on the moral character and loved by all. It was black and white. Good vs evil. Simple. But when the world of heroes came to life in fictional terms, we, the readers didn’t demand much more. A lot to do with the fact that life and society in general was simpler back then. The advent of many things has changed that over the course of time. People were satisfied at the beggining with heroic Gods or Super Gods battling with evil entities. Motives didn’t need a lot of detailed definition. The villain simply wanted to take over the world (the in depth motivation of that wasn’t questioned nor needed). The hero didn’t need any reason other then being the utmost symbol of justice and nobility and the fact that he could to save the world. It didn’t matter in the beggining of this hero / super hero culture if the character in question was alien, or a Greek God. Superman for example; the alien from another planet who adopted earth as his home. Man of steel. Or captain america. Not invincible but my lord, was he noble. The problem I have with these kinds of heroes is that they are too perfect. I mean for example the only damn weakness super man has is kryptonite (all things considered fashion not being held as a weakness otherwise that silly red underwear over his tights……it should be enough to guarantee a lifetime of embarrassing public crucifiction). And captain america’s character cannot be questioned or rather could not. Batman in one of his ealrier tv serials was a 6-7 year child old friendly joke. The series being batman and robin where the fighting was done with a lot of ka blam and both batman and robin were like characters right of out of some nut head town called pleasantsville with a stupid dopey smile on everyone’s face. The imagination of these ‘flawless’ Barbie doll heroes was not a difficult task and in most cases a very limited exercise. They were nothing more then symbols. You were either a hero or a villain. That’s it. The world lived by those two definitions and hence by black and white. Such heroes are actually defined as paragons. Although in more common terms
But then it got old. It got tiring this concept of absolutely perfect soldiers of justice. Humans changed in their outlook in general. They wanted to use their imaginations more perhaps when it came to crime fighters or saviours. They wanted more human elements in this. Perhaps they wanted to relate with them just a wee bit more. Like they were good and pure at heart but their life wasn’t in perfect order as in reality no one’s is. And thus dawned the age of Super Heroes. They weren’t perfect invincible symbols. They were closer to being human then paragons. Their life served as a struggle of choice between their life and their alter egos. It was a cruel balancing act barring a few. Villains changed as well. Their motives evolved from being simple ‘oh I am strong, I want power and want the world’. Their was a story to who the were and why they were. Just as was the case with the heroes. Spider man to this day is one of the most popular marvel characters and captures the imagination of his fans wonderfully. He has for quite some time been the face of marvel. Why? Maybe the most simplest answer is that at the end of the day spider man was just a kid who worked as a photographer to make ends meet and go to college and then also play the part of the hero. Life for him wasn’t all hunky dory and simple. It was a constant struggle for survival. The fans saw his pain and agony. They saw vulnerability as a human. They related to him. At the other end the villains were also somewhat relatable. They weren’t just people who popped out of the woodwork demanding world power. Take Magneto for instance. A mutant with a Jewish background. Persecuted for both those since the beggining – his were not intentions of taking of the over the world just like that. I mean one could say ‘I can see where he is coming from’. Rejected by the world at large for not understanding what mutants were his was a hatred for humans. But their was a backdrop to it. It wasn’t quite simple. He wasn’t born evil. And in this the comics did adopt the mantra which at least I believe is true for real life as well. No one is born evil. No one can be inherently evil. It is all that happens around them as they grow that defines them. Magneto and his utter hate and distrust for humans is proof of that. Now coming back to the struggle of the super heroes, in most cases they would also run into trouble with the law themselves while ‘taking the law in their own hands’ and breaking or bending it themselves as well. Especially when some of these comics had corruption as a theme as well. But despite their run ins with the law, they remained the good and pure hearted heroes they were.
A little more was required perhaps as no one is perfect right? So therefore the concept of anti heroes evolved. They weren’t the orthodox heroes loved by all. They did not really care much for the law. They went by their own code and served justice as they saw fit themselves. Some saw it the same as legal system in place. Some differently. Punisher for example. An anti hero. Get the bad guys and serve the punishment yourself, that was his midis operandi. They were brutal and rough around the edges. I’m not sure but hulk could perhaps be part of this category as well. But I might be wrong.
So super heroes and anti heroes made our heroes more human. Not perfect but human. The struggle against society was there. The struggle to balance their own life was their. The sacrifices and emotional vulnerability was their. But their was still one aspect missing. One which was ever so evident in the world of men as the world grew, as it advanced and became more complex. As it became more competitive and demanding. As it became more obvious that with light their will always be the dark. That not everybody simply gets some power and understands immediately that with great power comes great responsibility. Their are some who struggle not with their ability but with their inner self. Some who must undertake a journey to become who they are. Some who must win the struggle between the poison of power and mantle of morality. Nolan’s depiction of Batman in his two movies batman begins and the far knight is such a brilliant exams of this. He h managed to do what no other previous Batman movie did. He has added those shades of grey. He has shown the hard and long path that Bruce Wayne had to undertake to come to terms with being a hero. One which he still struggles with and one which will continue for some time to come. At constant battle with his inner self, the dark knight is extremely well brought out this way. And the villain – the psychotic unexplainable joker. In the words of Alfred ‘because there are some men you cannot explain. Because they just want to see the world burn’. They want constant chaos. They don’t want to rule the world. They want to bring it to ruin. And they don’t just seep out of the woodwork, they bring with them a disturbing background. And in this way the modern day heroes became more human. They had emotional constraints just as much as the next guy. The very human trait of a weakness against the poison of power, which they must overcome. They have fears which they must struggle against, fight against. They are not invincible but vulnerable. Emotionally, physically and morally. What entertains the readers most today, in the age of social networks i.e. the 2000s, is the story leading up to ours truly becoming the hero. How he earned being what he has become. And so is the case for the villains.
Readers want the emotional complexity to make it more intellectually stimulating. To make our imaginations more active. To make our perspectives more holistic. To make these fictional characters seem more closer to life then they did before. So that a tiny part of our brain would have our here’s believe in some conspiracy theory and outlandish idea that somehow this might just be possible. Ordinary people with extraordinary powers.
The fictional comic heroes and villains have always fascinated me and I admit, they have a tiny part of my brain thinking maybe it’s possible. And don’t deny it, you all want to be flying in the clouds and swinging in webs as well. Acknowledge the geek in you!