So both Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice have made the rounds in the past few months. One of them is great; one of them is not so great. Still, they do represent an important talking point: even though superhero movies have been around for a good while now, they still have enough clout and momentum to stay self-sustaining, at least for a while yet (and more for the Marvel camp than, say, Fox, Warner Brothers, or Sony). We’re bound to see more of them, obviously. There are detractors, and they have a good point -- we’re at risk of oversaturation, for sure -- but hey. Maybe we’ll get a good Doom Patrol movie out of WB, so that my dream of seeing Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man on the big screen can finally be fulfilled.
That does bring up something worth discussing, though. Obviously, the Marvel movies (and others) have brought once-obscure characters into the spotlight, and pretty successfully; where would Iron Man be if not for the efforts of Robert Downey Jr. way back when? But I wonder how many people the movies are actually converting. That is, how many people have gained enough interest in comics thanks to the movies to actually seek out these heroes in their natural habitat? How many people who weren’t already down with stuff like Asgard or the Infinity Gauntlet have even run a Google search? Are people actually converting into true fans?
I’d imagine so, because the movies serve as condensed introductions. But that leads to a follow-up question: who are people choosing to follow, and why? Who’s captured their hearts and minds? Who is the best superhero?
Okay, that’s like three questions (technically four), but whatever. It’s for a good cause.
You know me by now, I hope. There’s no higher honor than to be called a hero -- but since that’s a hell of a lofty plateau, sometimes we just have to make do with creating heroes. That’s fine with me, though. They may not always be realistic, but as movers and shakers in fiction they’ve got every right to defy the laws of science of reason. It’s all in service of pushing ideas. Concepts. Intangibles that can teach audiences, or even inspire them to be heroic in their day-to-day lives. Granted that show of ideals can arise from heroes using fancy powers to beat up the baddies, but a round of fisticuffs every now and then is easy to appreciate.
And there’s such a wide range of heroes that can be created. We’ve seen that over the years, across stories, mediums, cultures, and more. You’ve got cerebral heroes that use their minds and their words to succeed. You’ve got brawlers who fight their hardest every single day. You’ve got Boy Scouts who might as well have “the right thing to do” tattooed onto their faces. You’ve got dark avengers that stoop to some real lows in their pursuit of justice. Strong guys, weak guys, cunning guys, dumb guys, gifted guys, hard-working guys…and not even guys, in a lot of cases. We’re not wanting for superheroines either, guys. Google is your friend.
I’m going to go ahead and guess that right now, there are people out there at this very moment arguing about which superhero is the best -- which is to say that someone’s having that argument at all of the moments. It’s human nature to argue about something that, on the surface, seems so trivial. Who’s the strongest? Who’s the fastest? Who‘s the smartest? Who’s the richest? Who’s the bravest? Who’s the noblest? Who’s the coolest? There are so many adjectives you could apply to these characters that we’re probably dealing with something very close to infinity. There’s no guaranteed way we’ll ever be able to conclusively decide who the greatest superhero ever might be, as long as A) people have to go through decades of comics/stories, which I doubt they’re in the mood for, and B) free will exists.
I wonder if there’s a different way to measure a hero’s worth. Probably not on a grand scale, but I think it’d help if people overtly defined what makes a good hero in their opinions. Is it enough at this point to say “I like Spider-Man because I think he’s cool”, and not launch into a pages-long treatise on why he’s the greatest hero ever delivered to us from on high? Well, maybe. Sometimes it’s good to be simple. But as I’ve argued before, thinking deeply and critically about the media you consume can only enrich your understanding of it -- and more importantly, your appreciation.
I’m only one guy, and the best way to avoid tripping over my feet -- and the feet of everyone else in the northern hemisphere, while I’m at it -- is to speak for myself. I’ve said again and again that Captain America is my favorite superhero, but why is that? Not to break kayfabe, but I wasn’t a super-fanboy of him as soon as I learned how to tie my shoes (three years ago). He was just kind of there, as a guy who I’d occasionally use in video games. Maybe it was the double-whammy of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Captain America: The First Avenger that made me a believer. Owning Captain America: Man Out of Time certainly helps, though. Boy, did I luck out by grabbing the first Cap comic I laid eyes on.
In terms of “power levels”, Cap doesn’t have the raw ability of someone like Superman -- so even if they’re on the same axis, the super-soldier doesn’t have to worry about people saying “he’s so powerful he’s boring”. Still, there’s more to a hero than his powers, and I’d like to think that -- when he’s written or portrayed optimally -- Cap manages to be about more than punching Nazis. My idealized version of him is that he’s a good guy who fights for justice, BUT there’s a sense of normalcy and common decency that keeps him grounded. Is he a pure cinnamon bun? Yeah, kind of. Is he also forced to confront the harsh realities of a world he’s an inherent stranger in, with his personal set of values creating conflicts internal and external? Uhhhhhhhhhh…iunno, maybe.
So I guess if we absolutely had to pare it down to basics -- a surefire way to decide the worth of a hero -- then maybe we could at least start by individually, personally answering a simple question: how well does the hero sell what he or she is about?
In the wake of Batman v. Superman, that’s something worth thinking about at least a little bit. Zack Snyder’s recent films starring the big blue Boy Scout have tried to convince the world that Superman is a symbol of hope, but (to put it mildly) haven’t done the best job of it. But it’s not an impossible task to sell an idea via a hero or fictional character; Supergirl in the titular CBS show managed to confirm her status as a symbol of hope (and peace, and justice, and everything even remotely related to it) in the span of a single season -- if not a couple of key episodes. Execution matters; if it’s not on-point, then the end result is just a big ol’ batch of telling, not showing.
It’s going to become more important from here on. If the Marvel God Machine is going to keep churning on, then we need to see each individual movie -- and each individual hero -- put effort into differentiating them. Sell an idea, not just cool fighting or funny jokes. Then again, it’s not just going to be the movies that’ll need more scrutiny. I’ll go ahead and assume that the comic book industry isn’t the healthiest or the biggest earner right now, but the companies are still holding it down. How? By mixing up -- or flat out remixing -- the heroes they have on tap.
There’s been a lot of noise about Cap going from the Star-Spangled Man to Mr. Hail Hydra. Ms. Marvel’s solo movie is still a ways away, but we’ve long since gotten a taste of what the heroine can offer via the Kamala Khan incarnation. And more recently, Iron Man is going to go from Tony “Just Put It In My Veins” Stark to a (very) young black woman who goes to MIT and builds her own version of the famous suit. Seems a bit implausible, but whatever. I’m sure it’s good.
The important thing is that a hero might -- or maybe should -- live or die based on the strength of his or her ideals. Likewise, it’s important that they actually put in work to sell those ideas, whatever they may entail. I may have implied otherwise, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be “squeaky-clean hero spewing virtue out of every orifice”. You can have dark heroes. You can have flawed heroes. You can have weak heroes. Just do something substantial with them, and you’ll be A-OK.
But I guess that’s dodging the real question: who is the greatest superhero?
I don’t know. I’m legitimately interested in finding out, even if there’s no ironclad answer. So I suppose that’s where you guys come in. If you know comics, the movies, or anything in between, feel free to weigh in. Make a case for your favorite hero, and try and win me over. Why? Because it’ll be fun!*
Also, don’t worry about Saitama being used in this post. That means nothing, and you should expect nothing from it. Yup. Don't worry about it at all.
*Disclaimer: making a case for your favorite hero may not be fun.