I’ve been an avid Comic book reader since I was a kid in Lisbon, Portugal. Back then, I could only read what was available either from friends or whenever my parents could buy me one (along with Matchbox Cars, Lego Sets and toy soldiers). The main ones available to me back then were Spiderman, Superman, Batman, Tarzan, The Phantom and Asterix. I loved these little portals to fantasy. They were mental and emotional portals to possibility. Possibilities of grandeur and that no matter how bad the world seemed; no matter how dangerous and vast and lonely; there were men, Super Men with Supernatural abilities; either earned, given or innate, that could and would make everything alright.
Back then, as with many of my friends, we would pretend to be these Heroes. Whether that meant drawing an S on a blue sweater complete with red socks, underwear on the outside of the blue track pants and a red towel for a cape; to just wearing underwear and being Tarzan; or climbing everything possible like Spiderman.
Spiderman ended up being my enduring favourite through my childhood. I identified with Peter Parker. He was nerdy, bullied and lived alone with his aunt. I was awkward, bullied and lived mostly with my grandmother. Besides, he was a teenage superhero with awesome skills earned from being bitten by a radioactive spider. This means it could happen to me too right? Oh, the hope of innocent youth.
Today, I’m a middle-aged man relishing in the golden age of cinematic Superhero resurgence. I am a Superhero fan, I admit, collecting high-quality figurine replicas of the film versions. And I’m not alone. I am constantly pleasantly surprised at the number of middle-aged men also going to experience the magic of their childhood heroes on the big screen. I’m also lucky enough to have a friend who is as passionate about the movie-going experience as me.
But this brings me to the point of this post: why are Superheroes still so attractive to mature men? Is it nostalgia? Pure entertainment? Well, yes. But it’s also more than that. I think the reason is a visible personification of our inner values, ideals and fears. This really hit home when I had a brief debate over Superman vs. Batman after watching the latest trailer for the upcoming movie in 2016.
Apart from the absolute adrenalin surge of seeing the best interpretations of these two giants on screen together for the first time, the question arose: Team Superman or Team Batman? First, let me sidetrack for a second and explain the context. In 2013 when Man of Steel screened, I hired a private screening of the movie at my local cinema, and everyone attending had to wear a Superman logo top. Next year, the same thing will happen, but attendees will choose either Team Superman or Batman and wear their respective insignia.
So in discussing this with my friend, he chose Superman because he’s all-powerful and could literally tear Batman apart. I love Superman, but I admire Batman because he’s a human with no powers; just incredible, hard-earned skill, intellect and will. I pointed out that admiring Superman’s omnipotence would be like admiring our ability to squash an ant. It doesn’t really seem that’s the reason we love Superman. I think we love Superman for many other reasons.
Firstly, his powers are awesome. Who wouldn’t want the ability to fly; to have X-ray vision; super-strength, speed, hearing and the inability to be hurt by anything either than a foreign alien rock: Kryptonite. Moreover, Superman is the summit of ethics. Despite extraordinary power which would allow him to rule the world or just take whatever he wants, he instead dedicates his life to protecting the weak, defending the Earth from internal or extraterrestrial threats and being the moral compass; the beacon of light for the rest of the Super-powered heroes. He’s the man we wish we could be but can’t. He’s the man we secretly wish existed, but doesn’t. He’s the one that could save us from the evil and chaos in this world. He is day; the light; the positive; the Sun; in essence, a God.
Batman, however, is the flipside of the coin. He’s just a man haunted and traumatised by the brutal murder of his parents in front of him as a child. Even though most of us have never experienced such loss, most of us have felt alone, scared, impotent in the maddening chaos this existence overwhelms us with. Our weakness and mortality are there continuously pricking us like a splinter that can’t be removed at every opportunity. Wars, disease, violent crime, corruption, domestic, corporate international, racial, religious, and nonsensical violence infiltrates and assaults our awareness continuously in the modern-age of 24hr media. The Batman is the answer to those fears on two levels.
The Batman, or Bruce Wayne as a more apt example, is both that man we root for to defeat all those that scare and threaten us; and the man we want to be if and when the time came to take a stand. To have the courage, the resolve, the skill, the absoluteness to stop those that threaten to hurt us, those we love and those that need us. Batman embodies our suppressed human nature. Our fears, our rage, our need for justice. He is the height of raw will and relentless tenacity. He’s an intellectual, strategic, investigative and combative genius. Using his wits and tactics to overcome any opponent. His tools are just that, tools. His primary weapon is his mind. He never walks into a situation unprepared. Never engages an opponent until he’s worked out his weakness. He’s the man we wish we could be but can’t or won’t. He is night; the dark; the negative; the Earth; in essence, man.
In ancient Greece, they were the Greek Gods, each having specific powers and psychological traits. In the later Abrahamic religions, angels and demons took their place. Today for many children all around the world, Superheroes are our modern day ideological archetypes.
Did you admire Wonder Woman’s warrior spirit or want to hold her lasso of truth? Flash’s speed that can even travel through time? Captain America’s military and combative prowess, leadership and unswerving moral centre? The Hulk’s repressed and uncontrollable rage? Dr Strange’s mastery of magic develop from overcoming a blinding, arrogant belief in only physical experience? Green Lantern’s ring’s power to manifest anything imagined and held together by pure will? Iron Man’s ingenuity and engineering genius to develop highly advanced armour? The Fantastic Four’s familial bond and manifestations of earth, air, water and fire? The X-Men as representatives of anyone that’s different and outcast? The Punisher as the embodiment of revenge and wrath? Daredevil as the blind acrobatic warrior with sonar hearing serving justice to the unjust?
Whoever you follow, whatever powers you wish you had, there’s a hero for you. He or she’s always there overcoming our inner struggles and questions in parallel worlds full of magic, fantasy and hope. They’re there, fighting in adventures dreamed up by talented storytellers and cartoonists depicting and debating philosophical and psychological quandaries in great comic book art.
Sometimes seemingly insurmountable problems that plague our world, whose resolution appears to be elusive, can be answered quite adequately like this: What Would Superman Do? Of course, we can’t fly and do the things he can physically. But we’re certain he would do the right thing without question. And we always know what the right thing is; as do those in power. It’s just a matter of having the love and respect for our home planet, our fellow human beings and other species.
Of course, we’re not multi-billionaires able to dedicate every fibre of our being and resources to crime-fighting like Bruce Wayne’s Batman. But we can train our bodies to their natural talents; we can study, learn and evolve in our knowledge and skills to more than just our daily habits and job requirements. But most of all, we can endure and overcome. No matter the opponent, no matter the obstacle, no matter the outcome, we persevere and we fight. Not because we’re fearless, but because we’re alive; we’re men and women with faults, weaknesses and fears just like everybody else. The only question is: “What would Batman Do?”