You know, not all superheroes are the same.
Like, their motivations are completely different. On the surface, they all seem like crime-fighting do-gooders who protect the innocent, do the right thing and use their powers for good not evil.
But they do it for vastly different reasons.
Take Superman. I once heard Brad Pitt mutter to a stray reporter: “Man, I would just like one day.” One day without the crazy paparazzi scrutiny. One day where he could just stroll into a Starbucks and get a frappucino and not get mobbed. One day of not being one of the most recognizable people on the planet. And that’s why Superman would hunch his shoulders, put on the glasses and the suit, slick back that pesky curl, and lift his voice an octave to be mild-mannered Clark Kent. Now, given the size of the man, it seems incongruent, but somehow Christopher Reeve actually made it look plausible (RIP legend). Superman just wanted to be normal. Just once in a while. Just, in the immortal words of Joan Osborne, “just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home.” For the rest of the time, he was fighting Lex Luthor, aliens and the odd interdimensional menace, saving humanity and kicking ass. It was as a result of the values his Kansas Earth fathers (and his other planetary real father) had imprinted in him, which was a duty to serve and protect. It’s very American, and he does it because he was always going to do it.
Then Spiderman came along. Where Superman was the ultimate alien superbeing trying to get some downtime, Spiderman was actually just a nerdy teenager in his core desperately trying to figure out how to manage his ‘gifts’. And, in mismanaging them for profit, he learns the painful and everlasting lesson that “With great power comes great responsibility.” So he saves people because he screwed up, and he’s desperate to not do it again. And he masks his insecurity behind a stream of wisecracks. And he’s a hot mess of anxiety that someone will figure out who he really is because if they do, another one of his loved ones will be in the firing line. And the bad guys do, and his girlfriend does die. Spiderman is not only a really really unhappy dude, but his fears also prove justified. So he just keeps on trucking not because virtue is its own reward, but because he’s trapped in a kind of guilt that forces him to set aside his own happiness and goals.
Batman? Millionaire playboy beating up on the criminal element in their spare time, using their vast resources and fraternity protection to do just whatever the hell they want? Don’t get me started. His excuse is his parents were killed as a kid, and now his whole life needs to be payback.
Slightly less dark is the Hulk. Bruce Banner, if you make him angry enough, lets loose the beast. You know, that part of all of us that is invincible, will take care of the bad guys, and let us break stuff without consequences. Mr. Hyde was the first incarnation of this particular fantasy, and the theme will have legs for as long as stories are told and movies are made. He is a hero by default not design, and taps into the raw ideal of just throwing out all the rules to take care of business. The tantrum that we all occasionally still wish we could have.
I’m reflecting on superheroes because of an exercise we did in my EO Forum. It was a poem prompt that asked you to write a dozen lines on “Where I’m from”. One of my “froms” was “I am from golf clubs and squash rackets and comic books.”
The exercise had me thinking I am from a lot of things. But “I am” is influenced by where I’m “From”, but there’s also a choice. There’s learning and assimilating other information and growing and understanding self and doing the work and figuring out how to be the better version of the you that didn’t take accountability for your actions but blamed it on your background or your trauma or your parents or your opportunities.
Superheroes do what they do for different reasons, often influenced by their childhood traumas and experiences. We’re all the same… but, luckily, these days, there are lots of ways to alright stop, collaborate and listen. And come back with a brand new invention…