Superheroes(TM) = Largely Impractical

I know it. You know it. We all know it. It's just like a lot of things people get really enthusiastic/defensive about. Take opera, for instance. As a genre, it's essentially about sociopathic people. Psychopathic, in some cases. If the goal of opera is to serve as a sort of emotional cautionary tale, we probably shouldn't identify with the characters as much as we tend to. If the goal of opera is to suggest we ought to live out our passions to their utter peaks and valleys, well, they probably shouldn't exhibit to us that the most likely result of this is maiming and/or killing yourself and/or loved ones. Try to express to an opera lover, however, that the form is all a bit inconsequential, and you better be prepared for a fight. With claws. And fangs. And arias.

Similarly, we fanboys (Uninitiated: this is slang for unabashed geeks of pop culture, usually comicbooks, video games and strange rock bands) will take umption with anyone claiming Superman(TM) is a silly thing. He is so NOT! And you know why? 'Cause he rules!

There you have it. Fanboys can only argue with one another, because no one else takes the subjects as seriously as they do. This is well documented, even in the Aviary. When I posted an entry on my belief that Batman(r) could beat Wolverine(c) in a fight, I got the most number of responses ever. All of them from, to one extent or another, adamant fanboys. Or perhaps I should call them, adamantium fanboys! Get it? Do you get it? If you don't now, you probably never will.

Well, I have to come out as saying that I recognize the ridonkulous impracticality of the superhero(TM). This in no way lessens my enthusiasm for that aspect of my fantasy life, in my opinion, yet I know some of my fellow fanboys (henceforth, FBs) will feel betrayed. To them, I sincerely apologize. Try to understand: it's not you, it's me. I've just moved on. Priorities have shifted, and we'd only be holding each other back if we pretended like everything would eventually go back to being the same. I'd like us to still be friends, someday, down the road. When you're ready. You know, get together for the occasional Marvel(c) movie, maybe every once in a while Gchat over the possibility of maybe writing that cross-over first-person video game we always imagined . . .. But no more frenzied re-enactments of the fight between Hellboy and Sammael in the museum of antiquities. It, it would just be too hard. And weird. Admit it: It would feel weird, after all this.

For the purposes of this little essay, we must agree at least for the sake of argument that Superman is fairly ridiculous. He is excepted. He was the first, and probably the only conceivably successful superhero, what with all his powers. The only power he wasn't given is omniscience, and if the Highlander had really existed, Superman'd probably have that by now, too. Highlander: "I can see, everything! I know, everything! I--" ~Krchktk!~ Superman: "Oh geez. Here I am, just innocently flicking beer nuts in Cleveland, and one happened to fly to New York to decapitate you, Christopher Lambert. Sorry about that. Guess I'll be doing all the seeing/knowing/etc. from here on out. And the first thing I'm gonna do is flick beer nuts at the guys who will be responsible for Highlander 2."
(Yeah. I'm getting that geeky. Bail now, while you have a chance.)


The principal impracticality, of course, is that superheroes have to have a right-place/right-time habit akin to John McClane's wrong-place/wrong-time one to be even remotely effective. Only a few are prescient, and those, it seems, serve more to complicate storylines than to avert badness. Comicbook writers have been combatting this impracticality for years. Spider-Man has his "Spidey sense," various characters work as reporters, or computer gurus, etc., and I suppose Batman is just so smart that -- when the bat-signal isn't involved -- he can still calculate the likelihood of crime in a given radius. But it's all a little convenient. What's my point? Let me take it right off the bat with Bats, my favorite. He can't. Act. In. Enough. Time. Especially when the bat-signal is involved. I imagine it as if I were Bruce Wayne. (It's my 'blog--I can do what I want.) I see the signal, miraculously distinct against atmospheric water vapor, and I leap into costume, out the window, grapple-swing into my car (you know, the Batmobile?), drive to police headquarters, grapple-swing/shimmy up to the roof and . . . Two-Face is there, holding Gordon hostage, having already killed half an orphanage in the crime Jim had just gotten a warning about when he turned on the bat-lamp. Hell: Even a cell-phone call can't overcome the time it takes to get through midtown, no matter how late at night.



Another big one is the costumes. Even the most practical of superheroes have an iconic flambuoyancy that -- in reality -- would serve to somehow impede them to the point of their immediate death. Capes are nicely covered by a sequence in The Incredibles, but you can also look at some of the fight scenes involving caped characters in movies. Talk about your liabilities. Even a Musketeer knows the first thing you do is whip that bad boy off and use it one your opponent. Capes are pure drama or, if you prefer, opera. "Okay," the FBs say, "Okay, but what about someone more pragmatic. Like Punisher." FBs, listen to me very carefully on this. He is a gun-toting vigilante who goes up against other gun-toters, mostly at night, and somehow thought it would be a good idea to imprint an enormous white skull over his vital organs. The only guy asking for it worse is Bullseye. There are myriad impracticalities involved in superhero costumes, from color to shape to size to generally advertizing complete vulnerability with either explicit contours of anatomy or, failing that, partial nudity. Suffice it to say: Impractical.



The final impracticality I will submit -- though there are many, many more -- is that, sadly, superheoes are real, real dumb. Or ignorant; take your pick. Now I don't want to generalize here . . . well yeah, I kind of do, but it's justifiable I think. Superheroes never seem to get anywhere. This comes of being born from a serial story-telling genre, obviously, once such a thing got mixed with good, old-fashioned American values. I mean, Dumas wrote serial adventure stories, and they still had an end. On top of the superhero struggle being self-perpetuated, it's also completely devoid of social insight -- meaning both insight into society and into social behavior. Every superhero is essentially anti-social. Even the squeaky-clean ones. Captain America is/was as "out" a superhero as one gets, his methods nurturing compared to some, yet he still operated by a creed devoid of any kind of social understanding. I don't know if this comes out of the stories having originally been written largely for teenage boys or what (see, I lack social insight, too), but I do know that power fantasies do not help the real world too durn much. Especially when it comes to social problems such as crime and tyranny.



This is why, as I come full-circle in my fandom, I prefer the 1989 Batman film to the 1995 Batman Begins. Burton's film makes no approach toward reality, yet takes the character very seriously. It is stylized, it is operatic, it is ultimately a more successful vision of the world a character like Batman occupies. I love Batman Begins for taking the character seriously again, re-upping it from the quasi-disdainful visions of Joel Schumacher, but in trying so hard to make Batman a believable, naturalistic character, Nolan has put him into a world in which he will never really belong. Chris, the cape can just be dramatic-looking camoflage; the ears can just be odd and frightening; Gotham can just be crime-ridden rather than economically depressed. There are plenty of movies that portray true societal problems, and a few that even suggest realistic, complex solutions. Superheroes were never meant to be sophisticated. They're meant to be audacious.



So. Why stand up for our men and women in tights? Well, they got to me young, they did. When I was a pre-teen (even maybe a "tween"), and in hungry need of some kind of guidance for how to weather the storms of growing up, something about Batman made sense to me. Hell: Superman got to me way before then. In some ways I've been indoctrinated, I suppose. Similar to the myths of older cultures, superheroes gave me a common language with my peers (the geeky ones, anyway) and even my parents to some extent, and they lit up the questions I always had about how to please people and deal with adversity in nice, bold, primary colors. And now? Well, now there's definitely a lot of escapism to my pursuit of more heroic adventures. Reading a comicbook is still the best way I can relax and go to sleep at night. But I would be lying, too, if I said I didn't occasionally wonder "What would Batman do?" when I'm faced with a difficult quandry. And sometimes, just sometimes, that wondering leads me through to previously unimagined possibilities.

Now if only I could get some of those wonderful toys . . .
Updating the Great Dialogue on March 10, 2008:
Friend Lea sent me an article, in which Michael Chabon (as he invariably does) bests me in getting to the heart of the costumed-hero issue. Read it here, at the New Yorker.
 
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