Why Superheroes?

20 Aug

I have three “in-general” theories about why folks like superheros:

Theory One: I like Good vs. Evil fights because they are so much simpler than the slings and arrows of slogging through every day. Superhero fiction usually revolves around battles between Good and Evil. Even when the line between them starts to gray, redemption lies in redefining it – with Our Hero firmly retaking the higher ground. Wouldn’t it be great to be the Hero to kids, to coworkers, to family and friends? And wouldn’t it be great to do it so easily: (1) Find Evildoer, (2) Smite Evildoer, (3) Smile and Pose. I’ve rarely seen a Superhero worry about offending someone, or how they will pay all their bills, or really want to call someone a nasty name in heavy traffic after work.

Theory Two: For United States Americans, superheroes reinforce some of our favorite cultural traditions. I wrote about this on LinkedIn, in response to a question there. Superman is an orphan, refugee from his destroyed planet, who crashlands on a rural farm — who then makes it to the top of the world! He’s the ne plus ultra of “making it,” with a private retreat home, the attention of the world, and invincible power. (Batman provides an interesting counterpoint to success, however: he is born into wealth, but his parents are killed in random violence. He lives to bring justice to the seamy side, having enough wealth to ‘create’ successful vigilantism instead of innately expressing heroism)

Theory Three: It’s important to remember the accessories: Superheroes get cool costumes and gadgets, but don’t necessarily make you work out the math. Where would Batman be without his utility belt? And how many things can possibly fit in it? In Gathering Grace, Ruth has a special ring, a “magical” golem, and nanoducks – each of which has its own importance to the story. While there has to be enough “science” or context to make the new device understandable, it invites the reader further into the escape. And sometimes, only sometimes, reality eventually surpasses the writer’s imagination. (Remember Dick Tracy’s watch?)

My main interest in Superhero fiction comes from a slightly different source, however: High school. For nine years I was a high-school science teacher, teaching chemistry and physical science in Seattle. I learned a lot during that time – about teaching, group management, writing, communication, assessment… but most importantly, I learned about people.

One day I realized: out of the nearly-thousand students I have taught, I’ve never met someone who is intrinsically boring. To put it another way, there’s been at least one unique and interesting spark in each student who passed through my door or shook my hand at the end of a class.

Not everyone’s talents were obvious in my science classroom, to be sure. However, once I had the image of each student with their own secret sparkyness inside, it was a short step to imagine they could each have secret Superpowers. So what if their sparkyness – their Superpower – wasn’t science?

My basic modus for handling recalcitrant students fundamentally changed: everyone has the right to their secret identity, after all. Perhaps he is a genius in history, I reasoned, so he needs other reasons to engage in Physics. I guess it’s not too surprising that the connections I was making to my students started improving by leaps and bounds.

After living with this revelation for a long while, I have to ask myself: do I believe in Superpowers? The answer is guarded: the Superpowers that people attribute to themselves are not always correctly identified.  But I do believe that each person has an interior sparkyness, some unique talent that may be known or undiscovered. I’d call that a Superpower, any day.


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