So, I finally caught the new and much-awaited The Dark Knight Rises a few weeks back. Yes, it is too late for a review, and most certainly to annoy anyone with a spoiler, but that’s not the purpose anyway.
So, a week and three days after the movie hit the screens I convinced my otherwise uninterested sister to watch the movie with me.
We headed for the theatre – myself with lots of excitement and her indifferently asking, “So, is there anything I should know about the first two movies?”
Yes, that was my companion! Anyhow, we did manage to catch the movie.
And surprise of all surprises, as we headed out, she turned to me and said, “I actually enjoyed the movie.”
This is the same person who had once said about Harry Potter, “Such hypothetical nonsense.”
So, that got me thinking. What is it about super-hero books and movies that make them so popular?
To begin with, super-heroes give us everything we look for in literature, especially the kind that mythologies are made of. There’s good and there’s evil, and there’s an obvious demarcation between the two —no grey areas to stress the mind. That is, unless you start analysing the subtext.
Next, even through all the drama — moments when the super-hero is beaten, looks like he’s down and out — we, the readers and viewers, always know that the ‘good’ would eventually win. That is like hot-chocolate —comforting like nothing else.
The narrative helps us remain detached. It is another world. The hero has powers we can’t have (also giving an opportunity to conveniently take the blame off ourselves for not fighting the system.) The villains are super-villains — at par with the super-heroes. After all, what fun would it be if it was not a fight among equals?
Everything is exaggerated — the threats, the saves, the virtues as well as the vices.
And often, the hero is an alien — either literally (Superman) or alienated from the society, sometimes overtly (X-men) and at others, subtly but still clear enough (Batman). But, whether the super-heroes know it or not, accept it or not, they have the most impeccable mix of human virtues that moral science textbooks extol.
However, through all this, there is one thing readers can connect with — the public. It is the typical passive crowd that anyone anywhere can relate to. It is always an onlooker — sometimes a critic and sometimes a fan, but always passive. It does not, or maybe cannot, deal with its own mess. For it the super-hero is God when he/she is setting things in order and the villain the very next moment when something goes even a bit wrong.
The other relatable qualities are the political connotations and backgrounds. There are always some higher political powers that mistrust the super-hero, even try to hinder him or her, but also use them for their own advantage, when the time is right. Often, the larger fights are about issues that the world can envisage — nuclear and electrical power, magnificent medical experiments that result in a product that can be misused by antagonistic forces and others.
So, here’s why I think super-heroes are cool — if you downsize everything it brings us to our own reality.
Looking at history, the first super-hero is reported to be Mandrake. The magician who could use his powers of hypnosis to conquer enemies was born in a cartoon strip in 1934.
However, the first popular super-hero was Superman (1938), quickly followed by Batman (1939).
Several other characters, including the very popular Wonder Woman and Captain America (the name itself is telling), were all children of the Great Depression in the US in 1930s. A bizarre coincidence or the cultural need for icons of hope?
I believe it’s the latter. The “heroes” were born to combat misery, to fight a system which seemed to have engulfed everyone in a hapless situation. The people wanted someone to ‘set things right’.
Over years, the number of super-heroes and heroines has grown manifold. They have matured; have started using the cool new-age toys. The nature of crime and villains have also undergone a change as have the political backdrops.
Coming back to Batman, the one who leaves every other super-hero far behind. He is also a child of misery. Of course, not poverty struck. After all, a poor Bruce Wayne would not be Batman at all!
Batman is a super-hero not by virtue of being gifted. He’s Batman by the virtue of tragedy and the change that it brings with itself. There is, after all, no doubt that there would be no Batman if his parents — the philanthropic and wonderful Waynes — were still living.
He becomes a super-hero purely out of his own strength of convictions. Someone had rightly said something to the effect that Batman in a jumpsuit would just be a vigilante in a jumpsuit, not a super-hero. In the absence of supernatural powers, he is a super-hero because he adds mystique to his strength with his costume and not vice-versa.
And that’s where Batman becomes great. He is the guy who can take the fall. His beneficiaries are never sure if he’s a hero, though many feel he is just as much a threat as his nemeses. Batman doesn’t see himself as the ‘good guy’. And, yet, he is as altruistic as they come. He is a larger-than-life because he has made himself such. He is a man who trains himself to be a ‘super’ man.
Though, through the course of history super-heroes have remained popular, since 2002 (with the exception of 2009 and 2011) at least one super-hero movie has found a spot in the top-10 top-grosser’s list. And this year, The Avengers has bagged the top-spot with a proud $1,460,596,809, that is more than $1.46 billion. Two other super-hero flicks, The Amazing Spiderman and The Dark Knight Rises, are also on the list and may quickly shoot up the ladder, given the hype they have generated.
These are troubled times too. With one country after another falling through the cracks in one way or another, it’s again a time of social, economic and political uncertainty. And once again the super-heroes are back. Coincidence you say?