Ever since Superman touched down in that fictional Kansas field back in 1938, our comic book superheroes have tended to be stoic, self-confident and somewhat simple men. They bravely fight for “truth, justice and the American way,” and with their chiseled features and bulging chests, we just know our caped crusaders will always save the day.
What a difference seven decades makes. The world has changed beyond recognition since Superman’s pre-World War II debut, and today’s comic book heroes reflect that. They still wear crazy costumes and wield superhuman powers, but, unlike their ancestors, contemporary superheroes are flawed and conflicted. They suffer the same frailties as do their millions of fans. Who needs Kryptonite when you’re wracked with crippling self-doubt?
As comic book pioneer Stan Lee once observed, “If you can have a good guy who’s got hang-ups and flaws and failings, he’s more interesting because he not only has to defeat the villain, but he has to defeat and conquer his own flaws and inabilities.”
This summer’s crop of comic book-inspired movies all feature multi-faceted heroes who have a lot to teach us about human frailty and how to handle it. With so many of us mere mortals struggling to deal with war, a faltering economy, food shortages, terrorism and environmental disasters, audiences today are poised to embrace these heroes.
We can identify with these postmodern characters; their pain is our pain, and when they achieve redemption, we do too.
“Iron Man” stars Robert Downey Jr., a notoriously troubled mortal in his own right. Iron Man is the heroic alter ego of Tony Stark, a cocky, hard drinking, womanizing billionaire weapons manufacturer. When the U.S. military convoy he’s traveling with in Afghanistan is ambushed, Stark is waterboarded, hooded and held captive in a cave by insurgents. Eventually, Tony outwits his captors by constructing a crude suit that turns him into Iron Man.
Yet for all his billions, not to mention his late blooming superpowers, Tony Stark/Iron Man is “facing the same types of problems we are,” notes director Jon Favreau.
Think about it: don’t many of us, even the most successful, secretly fear we’re always on the verge of failure, or that others will find out we’re not the perfectly polished professionals we “play” in the game of life?
But if Iron Man thinks he’s got it rough, it may be because he hasn’t met The Incredible Hulk, who returns to the big screen in the sequel to Ang Lee’s 2003 movie. Most people know the story: after a gamma-radiation accident, Dr. Bruce Banner (played now by Edward Norton) is involuntarily transformed into a spinach-colored powerhouse whenever he gets angry. The poor Hulk is feared, mistreated and misunderstood, an outcast forced to wander the world in an elusive search for sanctuary.
Batman is back, too – this time in “The Dark Knight,” starring Christian Bale, reprising his acclaimed portrayal in 2005’s “Batman Begins.” Again, the legend is familiar to generations: billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, traumatized by the murder of his philanthropic parents, adopts the vigilante alter ego of Batman to battle crime in Gotham City.
In “The Dark Knight,” Batman squares off against his infamous nemesis the Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger, whose untimely death can’t help but cast a further pall over an already pitch-black tale.
The mood lightens considerably in “Hancock,” in which the irresistible and ever popular Will Smith portrays a disheveled, alcoholic superhero with a public relations problem – his habit of destroying everything in his wake whenever he comes to the rescue.
Another reluctant hero debuts in Adam Sandler’s “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.” While not exactly “super” as such, Zohan is an ex-Mossad commando – which let’s face it, is pretty much the next best thing. In a clever twist on the common man-turned-superhero comic book archetype, poor Zohan wants nothing more than to hang up his Uzi and pursue his real dream: becoming a hairdresser in New York City!
Talk about superheroes with super issues. Yet as we watch them battle their inner demons along with all those external villains, we find ourselves being inspired as well as entertained. The reluctant superhero speaks to that urge we all have to be something greater, to selflessly serve others and make the world a better place.