1930s America was a dark time socially. The country was still recovering from the Great Depression, Fascism was overtaking Europe, and refugees were fleeing to find new homes. For ten cents, comic books became a popular escape. In these stories, selfish criminals acting against the post-Depression socialist norms are caught by all-seeing and all-powerful superheroes, brought to the Police, and punished by the Law.
Superheroes, once clean-cut perfect specimens (both physically and emotionally), have become more violent and anti-hero, illustrating a change in core values. Our evolving society has changed our perception of justice, and along with it our very understanding of what it takes to be a ‘hero’. Values change, but they often do so to ensure that justice is served.
The Beginning: The Earnest Hero
Superman first appeared 80 years ago standing as a beacon of righteousness (who on that note, celebrated a huge milestone with the release of Action Comics #1000 on April 18th!). As an immigrant, albeit from another planet, Superman wanted to fit in and use his powers to uphold American values. That morality became the template for all superheroes during the Golden Age of comics when good and evil were clear-cut notions. Batman and Robin used their cunning wit to track down crooks. Wonder Woman and Captain America used exceptional strength and unique weapons to fight Fascism. Powers made them superheroes, but their unwavering protection of law and justice reflected the values of the time.
Post WWII: The Hero Next Door
After World War II, the battle-weary returned having fought back against an unspeakable evil. Heroes no longer needed to be of supernatural origin but were simply regular people in our neighbourhoods. What followed was enlightenment that in each of us there can be a superhero.
Major scientific breakthroughs were another product of the war. Comics used technology like nuclear radioactivity (known to be powerful but was commonly misunderstood) to enable ordinary people to receive powers.
These new superheroes had many of the same human problems as the reader. Spider-man was a nerdy teenager who had to balance crime-fighting with completing his homework. The Fantastic Four fought amongst themselves as much as they did against terrible monsters. Comic readers found it easy to connect emotionally with superheroes who had flaws, fears and inner demons just like us.
Mid-50’s Onward: The Flawed Hero
By the mid-50s, comic books were scapegoated unfairly, explaining a rise in juvenile crime (gamers today know how that feels). The comics industry chose to limit violence and topics deemed “unfit for children”. Contrary to this, comic legend Stan Lee wrote a story showing the effects of drug abuse on one of Spider-man’s friends. Immediately, superheroes were no longer fighting clear-cut villains but battling social grey zones like racial segregation, poverty and addiction.
In a few short decades superheroes went from invincible gods defending the law to common people put in relatable, unwinnable circumstances. Tony Stark (Iron Man) battled alcoholism, Green Lantern confronted poverty, the X-Men fought figurative racism against mutants, while Luke Cage fought literal racism.
The Modern Age: The Anti-Hero
The more human superheroes become, the more difficult it was for them to see the distinction between right and wrong. Lawmakers and the police are not always protectors of the innocent as much as keepers of the status quo. Therefore, anti-heroes like The Punisher and Spawn rose in popularity using vigilante justice to take the law into their own hands.
The most blatant mass media example was in the recent DC Extended Universe films like Suicide Squad where villains are forced to perform heroic tasks and in some cases feel for them.
Superman’s return to the screen Man of Steel wasn’t the righteousness hero from the past but a brooding and dark one. Batman v. Superman as well as Justice League movies had a Batman inspired by Frank Miller’s iconic The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel dealing a level punishment on criminals some considered deadly and also used guns which has up until now been a line he wasn’t going to cross.
Superhero personalities and origins have evolved alongside a progressively complex society. For these superheroes — as in our own lives — it’s difficult to deliver true justice while battling one’s own demons. What has remained unchanged is the need to serve a greater good in our world.
What’s Next? The PoMo Hero?
Now that we’ve entered the post-modern (PoMo) age of culture where dichotomies such as good versus evil are blurred, one wonders where our heroes will evolve next. Social media has given voice to a variety of perspectives and points of view, making way for more complex, authentic stories. Today’s audience wants to know the people behind the characters being portrayed, online or on-screen. This is especially important when contrasting ‘older’ celebrities and the newer ones- those being kids making videos on Youtube. Through the various methods of access, we all strive to better relate to the people we look up to now more than ever before.
Erik Killmonger as a relatable villain in Marvel’s Black Panther movie that the audience loved to the tune of $1.3 billion.
Aside from character relatability, there is a line being blurred between what is right and wrong. As the web has introduced a variety of perspectives and experiences, we are facing a crisis of identity. What makes a hero in this gray zone? Will our heroes become villains? Our villains become heroes? Discerning who’s who in this new landscape will inevitably depend on your own experience as a viewer.
As demonstrated in Marvel’s Black Panther movie, a relatable villain with a motivation that seemed more pure to many observers than the heroes that were fighting him made for a beautifully complex story. Some are saying that this story has changed the superhero narrative forever.
Whether it’s true or not, heroes and villains are being written and portrayed in storyworlds with more complexity and diverse narratives which is a refreshing change.
One thing is for certain: the notion of good and evil are far from clear today. And that may be the most interesting evolution yet.