Powers Do Not a Hero Make

Recently Harold O.J. Brown passed away. As part of remembering his life, Christianity Today republished some of his articles, including one on the 1977 Movie Superman. His reaction was puzzling and a tad misinformed:

A superhero, by contrast, is not a real human being, but a fantasy creature—Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, et al. Superheroes, unlike the heroes of Greek mythology, have no Achilles' heel. Superman himself is vulnerable to the mineral kryptonite, but of course, he will never be killed by it. Unlike the great Achilles. Unlike the more traditional heroes of folklore and of reality, modern superheroes have no moral context. They are generally in the service of "good" and against "evil," of course. But the good that they serve is undefined, undistinguished, unmotivated, and the evil they oppose is likewise... Superman happens to be good, was good even as Superboy. But he can afford to be good, for no one can harm him, no one can touch him. It takes no special effort of will or courage for him to do the right thing, as for a human hero. The fact that he is not tyrannical is, of course, in some way commendable-yet it seems to tie in with his deep naiveté that makes good seem rather foolish by comparison with evil. What the impact of Superman's good on small viewers will be is hard to predict. Perhaps the fact that he, with his superpowers, is unequivocally committed to the good will impress them and encourage them to imitate him in doing good. Will older viewers get the message that good is a luxury possible only for those with impossible superpowers?

Well, a few points on this postulation. There's some inaccuracies. First of all, Batman is hardly "a fantasy creature." He's a real human being that bleeds, hurts, freezes, burns, and is in every way a human being. He's a quite exceptional one who manages to be a powerful player in the Superhero world despite his lack of superpowers.

Nor can one say that Superman is merely good because he has Super Powers. Writers in all eras of comics, radio shows, and television have put Superman in peril, they've put him in situations where he has no powers or is confronted by an opponent with just as much strength and power. That's when his status as a hero is proved or disproved. Because if you'll only fight with an overwhelming advantage, you're not a real hero.

However, Brown's overall point is one we should heed. We should never associate powers with virtue. Just as a man who is greedy and doesn't give when he earns a modest wage won't become a generous one if given $100 million (at least not a generous man with no ulterior motives,) we have to be very careful that we don't give the impression that a simple change of circumstances will make us better people.

If only I had super powers, if only I had more money, more time, etc. are our common complaints. At the heart, our problem is our own sinful nature and those things we haven't dealt with. Having a superpower or a device change someone's character betrays not only a fundamental understanding of what man's problem is, but also reality itself.

Stan Lee's Spiderman is a great example of how to realistically build a superhero. Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider. Now, if Lee wanted to be unrealistic, he would have had Peter jump onto the street and start fighting crime. Peter, however decided to use his abilities to make himself rich and famous. He chose not to stop a robber, the robber kills his Uncle Ben. When his Uncle Ben dies, he at last learns the lesson that his Uncle tried to teach him in life, "With great power comes great responsibility." Christ said it best, "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required..."(Luke 12:48)

In writing fantastic circumstances, we can't let the fantastic circumstances change who our hero is. Like money, sports, and power, getting superpowers or falling into another dimension doesn't change your character, it reveals it. And even in fantastic situations, that reality must be constant.

I dealt with this in a Super Hero comedy novel I'm working on called, "Tales of the Dim Knight." Dave Johnson, a Super Hero fanatic, gets incredible powers from an alien symbiot. He takes up the Super Hero mantle, but without invulnerability a pastor of an inner city church is shown to be a bigger hero.

Getting superpowers doesn't make Dave instantly smarter or selfless, or wise. If it did, I wouldn't have much of a story, and even less of a comedy.

Of course, Dave grows during the story and becomes more heroic by the end of the novel, but it's not because he got superpowers, but through what he experiences that he grows.

Bottom line, when writing a story, we're still dealing with human beings (or at least, creatures who we want human beings to find believable), and we have to remember that beneath masks and capes, start captain uniforms, or suits of armor, we're telling the story of real people, who should have real character. Otherwise, we don't have a hero, as much as a myth, and we fall into the error that Brown warned of.


karen_m said...

I like the point that superpowers aren't a one-way ticket to heroic character, but I do think that superheroes are more complex than he made them out to be. As you pointed out in your post, a true superhero becomes so not just because of his powers but because of an internal character journey or moral compass. The fact that there are supervillians obviously points to the fact that goodness doesn't come with x-ray vision and super strength.

This is one of the reasons I like the X-men universe so much. You have an astonishing array of powers, but just as varied are the people who possess those powers. You have the whole gamut of human behavior, both its virtues and vices, and the characters all have their journeys, especially in the comics.

Anyway, great post.

One Grammar Nazi note: Powers /Do/ Not a Hero Make. I get a little obsessive about subject/verb agreement.


Adam Graham said...

I bow to the Grammar Nazi. The change has been made. Thanks for the comment.