Ah here it is. The big one. The one it’s taken me all this time to say. There are two main points I want to cover in this one, a first bit where we look at the key aspects of the hero based on what we’ve learned, and a second part where we move on and take a shot at the dual identity. For your ease of reading and the fact that I want to put this to bed once and for all, this entry will be split in two to help ease the flow of ideas.
Section 1: What Does it all Mean?
In my earlier analysis of the King Arthur mythos I showed how a noble or person of privilege is held responsible for protecting his people. If you think really hard about it, each super hero exhibits that quality of a nobleman or the quality of Noblesse Oblige.
The concept of Noblesse Oblige is that those who have power are typically nobles and have an obligation to act in a fashion that is considered honourable. In turn they also have a responsibility to use their higher status to better the lives of those who do not have the same advantages. Or… in terms we are much more familiar with: With great power comes great responsibility.
It’s not even a bad idea that those with privilege are honor bound to help others before themselves. It is where a lot of heroic archetypes come from after the King Arthur era in the forms of people like: Robin Hood, The Scarlett Pimpernel, and Zorro. These are men of talent or prestige (usually both) who are shown an ill side of the world and task themselves to correct it. In fact, historians debate as to the fact that Robin Hood was originally noble born and a good archer. It’s believed that those facets were added later. Neat huh?
Knowing this it’s easy to show how many superheroes are derived from the King Arthur’s original ideologies. In fact it makes the idea of a man of privilege wanting to help people even more relatable.
Now, more than ever, I feel that the super hero’s power or special talent is the modern equivalent of the status of a nobleman. After all; isn’t a super power simply a more tangible form of the political power a nobleman would have? That’s oddly circular if you think about the fact that society’s heroic tales went from mythical heroes with legendary feats of strength, to mortal heroes with superior status and training; and then back to super powered heroes again.
But in this modern era it isn’t enough to have a hero who just suddenly sees society’s ills and works to fix it. There needs to be more personal reasons as well to add to that drive. It adds to the character’s drive and makes him or her more relatable because of those personal reasons.
But the evolution of the heroes’ strength (or nobility if we perceive nobility as an advantage one has over the common man) and his or her drive to do good deeds is only a part of the whole superhero package. There still remains the issue of the dual identity and if it is even necessary in some cases.
Section 2: The Problem with the Secret Identity
The problem I’ve seen with other works that analyze superheroes and the mythology is the hero is discussed but separate from the environment he occupies or, more accurately, his world. Villains are analyzed and they’re frequently called a crucial part, but I feel that a main villain is something of a final test of the hero. Not what he faces every day. The environment, the mundane challenge, must also be considerable. It must be so dangerous that the hero needs to hide his real identity just to find a moment’s rest. I just don’t feel that the modern superhero faces a dangerous enough daily life that he needs a secret identity.
As I’ve said, Spiderman is portrayed as a menace by the modern media, but the police rarely actively hunt him. It justifies his dual identity as he’ll be held accountable, but he has nothing to fear simply travelling from one point to another, in fact it is referred to as a calming thing for him. Even Batman really has nothing to fear driving down the street in the Batmobile as he possesses equipment and training vastly above that of the average thug and police officer. Only chaotic heroes like Punisher or Deadpool ever fear local law. But then, this is often depicted as a problem they have in their methodology, not a problem with the world. It is a self-destructive path and not emotionally fulfilling for the reader. Even then people know that the Punisher is Frank Castle so really, can we even call it a secret identity anymore? Still there isn’t a pressing need for most heroes to hide their true identity in most stories beyond simply being iconic and to protect family and friends. Even then that argument is kind of invalid when you consider that police officers don’t hide their identities to protect their families.
If that’s the case is it possible that the reason why the superhero identity is so important is because the superhero can have a recognizable image? If that’s the case then the literary reasons for keeping a dual identity gradually decline and become really shallow. At that point the only truly strong reason I can think of for the majority of super heroes to have an iconic dual identity is… well… to have a marketable appearance. That’s just not reason enough.
Recently I’ve heard a lot of comments from fan circles complaining about the X-Men. Specifically the idea that in a world that has a history of metahumans like Captain America, a government sanctioned hero; mutants are suddenly something people show bigotry towards. The problem is if you have a team of heroes who are naturally born with superpowers, some on potentially a godly level, and some who are effectively immortal; then you can’t just have simple enemies you can beat up. If the people are afraid of you and hate you, then you have a reason to hide, to wear a disguise. The sentinels are a real and tangible threat and bigotry towards individuals who are born differently is a real problem that people can relate to. It makes the struggle of the team much easier to feel for and thus any victory makes the reader feel a sense of elation for that triumph.
I think that’s why the superhero comic medium is in the decline that it is. There isn’t a sense of constant danger for a hero, especially an established one. The hero is often shown as a type of wish fulfillment character for the reader. This isn’t because they’ve learned life lessons or want to emulate the good deeds, but because the benefits outweigh the detractions. That doesn’t work. It just doesn’t! The challenge has to at least match the benefits if not surpass them to make the challenge viable. Otherwise it’s just dull.
The standard superhero who fights crime is just a reactive force rather than an active one, waiting for some danger or challenge to come to them rather than them actively questing for a known legitimate threat. The most militant hero who patrols nightly is still looking for something to engage. He doesn’t have a plan or a strategy to end crime forever beyond arresting people who commit crimes. This makes a lot of what he does pointless action and kills tension.
That’s why stories about villains are becoming more interesting; because in a just world of good people the villain is surrounded by danger and enemies! Hence he is the underdog and thus becomes a character to root for as his goals are harder to attain. Also his enemies are easy to establish: police, a rival hero, even common citizenry will attempt to harm him. I think that’s also why zombie stories are so effective and so beloved. It’s because the zombie is the dominant presence while a single team of intelligent humans are the minority. And since it’s a common thing for a human, even a talented survivor, to trip fall and get bitten then that danger is always real and much more exciting and rewarding. It isn’t really hard, in that respect, to compare a modern zombie survival story to that of a mythical hero travelling and fighting in a strange land filled with monsters. Albeit a little less romantic.
The novel series Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines works well with this idea. Using the concept of superheroes in a zombie world the heroes are tasked to protect the survivors of humanity. It’s a legitimate challenge, especially when there are zombified heroes, still acting like zombies but retaining their powers.
The problem is that it isn’t even hard to imagine current superheroes in situations where the challenge matches their abilities. Turn Gotham City into a dictatorship police state and have Batman actually becoming a symbol of free will. And I don’t mean copy V for Vendetta either, have Batman be the stealthy hero he is; robbing files from city government officials and handing them to their rivals within the administration to take them down. Meanwhile as Bruce Wayne he can sneak in as a member of Gotham’s elite befriending many of the same politicians and learning who to play against one another. Then the situation escalates when the city government starts hiring villains to hunt him down. Could you imagine what the Joker police would look like? Or the Killer Croc riot squad? At least then you’d have an explanation where the henchmen came from.
If the hero does not have a definitive goal beyond simply curing the overall problem of a troubled society then the hero’s quest becomes pointless. He is only solving the worst symptoms of the problem not taking steps to resolve it or even abate it. If the hero has a specific adversary at the very least if you don’t want to end the story you can always retell it in different setting and using different themes rather than just continually telling the story hoping it falls into the hands of writers who can manage a good run. If there isn’t something the hero can actively fight against, then the story can’t advance and if the story can’t advance, well what’s the point?
And so too does this work exist.