Why a well-rounded superhero is the best superhero

Why a well-rounded superhero is the best superhero

A well-rounded superhero (and supervillain, for that matter) is ecstasy for nerds. A brooding superhero with persona, philosophy, ethics and worldview? Food for thought. And not just the junk popcorn variety.

Supplying a never-ending amount of nerd ecstasy for years on end, a good superhero never disappoints. Whether born with mutated genes resulting in abnormal powers, or whether possessed of exo-abilites brought to fruition in the Earth’s atmosphere, or with a knack for obscure martial arts and a burning thirst for revenge, the superhero provides an epic quest and a magnificent character development, often spanning decades.

But what makes a superhero a superhero? Can anyone don a costume and use a few technological gimmicks to lock up the “bad guys”? If that were true, then the friendly neighbourhood flasher could grab his favourite trench coat and an iPad and take a bite out of crime for himself. And, to be fair, some people have become real superheroes – they’re clearly crackers but lovely, so good luck to them.

In comics reality, however, the superhero must have depth and history to his character, and not everyone can become one. It’s not enough to know that Batman became Batman; We must know why he choose “Batman”. We must first learn about his character, sans abilities, before we see his alter ego. Or, instead, his powers should manifest in direct result of his personal philosophy, as in the case of the X-Men’s Wolverine. Used to his ridiculously high endurance (his original mutation), Wolverine acquired an air of recklessness as only the near immortal can. Snikt.

The same principles apply to the hero’s arch nemesis; the super villain. To match the super villain’s juxtaposition to the hero, certain differences exist. Part of what makes the “new” Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight so terrifying is the fact that we as the audience have no idea who he is, where he comes from, or why he does the things he does. The movie never answers these questions, unlike other stories, and this lends a heavy air of thrillingly dangerous mystery. Bruce Wayne’s good friend Lucius Fox explains that some men don’t want the money. Some men just want to watch the world burn. In this case, we don’t get the supervillain’s back story – but we do get his philosophy. The essence of his ethos. That is enough to repel and attract us in equal measure.

In other storylines, the villain’s uprising is used as a foil to the hero’s. In the movie Spiderman, Norman Osbourne injects himself with an unstable chemical around the same time Peter Parker’s radioactive spider bite starts affecting his DNA. Osbourne gains abilities similar to Parker’s, but pays for it with his sanity, lending a motive to his extreme, deadly actions.

Just as each supervillain shapes each superhero, each hero’s background acts as the driving force of his crime-fighting philosophy. For many years, the accepted hero’s method of choice was imprisonment. Stop the “bad guy”, foil his evil plans, and hand him over to the cops so he could learn his lesson in the clink. This gorgeously cut-and-dried morality ran through all American comics in the Silver and Golden age of comics (you know, square chins and girlfriends but no night-time naughties).

In more recent examples, we see many heroes choosing to walk the path of the “antihero”, resorting to murder when an antagonist cannot be placated or working directly against figures of authority and law enforcement as a strict vigilante who answers to no one. Watchmen’s Rorshach, the psychopathic antihero, believes the ones who torture, rape, and kill should die as they lived.

“Never compromise”, says Rorshach, “even in the face of Armageddon.” When he learns the truth about an evil scheme which has killed millions, yet – by introducing a common enemy to earth – has brought about world peace, Rorshach knows he must act against it, even if that means potentially destroying the newfound harmony. Rorshach must live to follow his morals, even if that means dying by them, too. Thus is the decision for many modern antiheroes.

The superheroes of comic book and movie lore are amazing, no doubt about it. Not just because of their abilities, but their whole mentality. Each hero comes complete with his own persona, philosophies, and personality and in doing so provides an escape from reality into something both meaningful and brooding.