Monday, June 26, 2006

The hard lives of superheroes

Krrish is here, and Superman is flying in faster than a speeding bullet. The superheroes look like they will win a few battles at the box office.
Like most guys I know, I love superheroes. Like most guys, I don’t know why. It’s been many years now since I was in school. I am way past the age when I could allow myself to believe that a nip from a radioactive spider would do me wonders. Yet here I am, a journalist and a hardbitten cynic, getting all excited about alleged descendants of aliens.
Is it fascination with the powers they have that still engages the adult me? Or is it fascination with the double life that every superhero, inevitably a tortured soul, must lead? Or is it perhaps some strange satisfaction in seeing one’s version of 'good' triumph?
Perhaps it’s the combination.
The typical tale of every superhero is one of pain. He is always the ordinary guy who comes to have extraordinary powers. He always becomes a superhero in very difficult circumstances. Superman became superman because his planet was destroyed. Batman had it easier; only his family was destroyed. Spiderman’s grandfather died before he became Spiderman.
Every superhero uses his powers to protect the values he believes in. This brings him into conflict with others who have different values, and with his own self. Every superhero is always lonely. For, the superhero must suffer pain and loss to keep his secret even from the few who love his ordinary avatar. He knows he will live a life of danger – does he have a right to endanger those he loves?
Thus Peter Parker, the lonely, shy, gawky, bespectacled boy who is Spiderman, walks away from Mary Jane. Bruce Wayne, the brooding, solitary man who is Batman, must risk looking the rake before his love Rachel. Superman keeps running away from Lois and is eventually ditched by her after a decades long courtship. The Hulk, arguably the angriest superhero of them all, has it all bad – he can’t be with his girl because of the power he has. Our own Krrish is luckier in the end, because he is from Bollywood, but he too lives his entire life until superher-dom in a cloud of loneliness.
Of course the superhero soldiers on with his job of saving the world. That’s why we love them. They have problems, like everyone else. They suffer reverses. Yet when they are down, they find strength within themselves. They have courage to do the right thing. In the end, they always win. It is in this mythical ‘coming good’ of the loser, and the eternal victory of good over evil, that we rejoice.
The philosophical question – what is good – is not so easily answered.
The superhero always stands for the status quo. He stands for preserving the existing order or restoring the old order. He isn’t on the side of revolution. Continuity and incremental change are more to his taste.
Would any superhero support an uprising against the government? Or a new religion? I think not. Those are things villains do. They are the agents of change. They may do evil, but they are potentially catalysts for good. That's why the Kauravas went to heaven, like Ravana.
Obviously, there’s more to superhero stories than meets the eye.

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