Superheroes have traditionally been excluded from academic study [i] however, the superhero as a genre and an aspect of the comic book as modern mythology, has rich cultural significance. “Hero myths contain universal elements and have a continued presence in cultural memory”[ii]. At the same time, superheroes reflect the technological dream, social values, prejudice and ethos of the time. In this paper I explore how superheroes can be made sense of in relation to notions of power and identity. Although I will draw generally on superhero material, I am specifically interested in superhero films, and focus particularly on Marvel heroes.

 

A myth is a story, often about gods and their abilities that humans do not possess or are unable to use. Superheroes parallel ancient myth, for they save the world and punish evil villains, as ancient gods did. They also resemble the “richness and resonance” of the Greek mythology[iii]. If the Greek civilization had its deities as heroes in the Greek mythology, America has superheroes rooted in comics[iv].Superheroes are Messiah-like figures that save man from evil[v]. Heroes also save the world from self-destruction. On the surface, the superhero as modern myth is essentially a story about how heroes save people from the verge of collapse, extinction or colonisation by extraterrestrial enemies and deities. Thor (2011) and Iron Man (2008, 2010) are good examples. Captain America (2011) saves the United States from the Nazis and defends American ideals.

 

When analyzing superheroes and their power, it is important to note that the concept of power includes more than the limited scope of power based on physical strength or force. Power in a general definition refers to the social, political and/or physical ability to influence one’s behaviour to do something[vi].  It may seem natural in the context of superheroes to confine the concept of power to coercion and physical force, considering that superheroes possess super-power to fight evil-minded foes and villains. One of problems of exclusively focusing on the super-power of the protagonists, though, is that this could limit understanding of how these fictional characters are related to the real society and culture.

 

Among different concepts and dimensions of power, such as political, economic and discursive power[vii], a definition by Foucault[viii] is particularly insightful. According to Foucault, power is “a complex strategic situation in a given society.” The myth of the superhero is that a person is born with exceptional talents or abilities, such as the ability to fly, to shoot lasers from their eyes, to become unbreakable or even to live forever. Other characters obtain their power in an accident, like the Hulk or Spider-Man. Despite the mythical characterisation and setting chosen by the original creators of superhero comics, it is not the super-power per se that makes certain cartoon or movie characters superheroes, as antagonists and villains also have strong powers. If Foucault is right that power is linked to social construction, superheroes are also social constructs rather than being ‘born that way’. The power of superheroes is important, for it reflects how (super)power is understood, legitimized, limited or constructed in complex situations.

 

Understanding the social construction of superheroes becomes easier if we take a closer look at the changes in how superheroes have been presented over time, and their efforts to fit in with society. What seems to be easily overlooked when consuming superhero comics or films is that superheroes adopt social and cultural norms, and follow rules. To a large extent, superheroes seem to become tamed or even repressed by social norms and politics. Although they do save humans from evil and extraterrestrial beings, they do not provide spiritual salvation to humans. These heroes neither create new rules nor directly punish so-called bad guys. Instead, the superhuman hero seems to sacrifice difference as part of a humanization effort in relation to a social politics of power.

 

In recent superhero films, the superheroes are no longer invincible or immune to human suffering. In films such as Thor (2011), Iron Man (2008; 2012), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and Hancock (2008), the superheroes get physically hurt, go financially broke, suffer from psychological traumas and lose the high moral ground. In other words, they become ‘real’ in relation to their audiences. Adamou explains, Their everyday identity links them to everyday people that may feel disempowered within Western social structure and invites sympathy, while their superhero identity embodies desires for power and changing the world.[ix]

 

Humanising superhuman heroes is integral to the storyline and design because a recurrent theme in superhero fiction is an identity crisis [x]. Take the example of the movie Hancock (2008). John Hancock is a vigilante superhero who is reckless and even alcoholic. He earns a bad reputation as a result of his senseless lack of care for public property, is jailed and becomes a bad role model -- kids call him “asshole” – before learning to control himself, develop good public relations, and behave like a model citizen.

 

Thor, who is a demigod, also learns how to live with and act like humans. In The Hulk, Dr. Bruce Banner attempts to control his anger so he can remain human. Mutants in the X-Men, Tony Stark in Iron Man, Spider-Man, Batman and numerous other heroes go through hard times, as they do not fit in the very society they are protecting from villainous outcasts. While superheroes are appreciated for their superhuman abilities, they are also regarded with suspicion and treated as the Other. Adamou explains, “Fear of Otherness, . . . , is the projection of one’s own unconscious onto others, as the discovery of the conscious is the first discovery of Other in the Self.” [xi] It is this fear of Otherness that marginalises superheroes.

 

Bainbridge[xii]  notes that superhero “characters may be the modern-day incarnations of monsters.” Stan Lee, one of co-creators of Marvel Comics series Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk, said he thought that creating a superhero out of a monster was a good idea[xiii]. The monster here refers to “the sympathetic monster of Frankenstein and The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the idea of a monster having a secret identity from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde[xiv]. When the Hulk was first created by Stan Lee and colleagues, it was closer to a monster – that is, an exceptionally strong green monster without an ability to control his power and anger – than a human or hero. When the super-humans or any characters with extraordinary powers reject these social norms, ideals, and rules, they become enemies, foes, and evil villains to humanity.  It is their ability to control powers and willingness to live among people that sets heroes apart from villains who often also have super-powers. Although some superheroes have unimaginable or unrealistic powers that are unique, they always act within social and cultural boundaries. In other words, the superhero as modern myth is not about super-powers, but the relations of power in the society in which the story is created and told.

 

The classic superheroes announce their "hidden" nature though the vehicle of the mask [xv] so the design of characters and costumes is never solely focused on the character looking good because “The superhero can be understood as visually, kinetically, and even verbally performative. The visual element is the most obvious; the iconography of superheroes depends upon costumes and masks”[xvi] (p. 114). Designing superheroes goes beyond the “theatrics of self-display” (ibid). Their body and costumes have a significant connection to their physical power and symbolic meaning. The masks and costumes are designed to have a function of hiding and revealing the identity and power of superheroes.

 

A particularly important function of superhero masks is that they are designed to have a reversed meaning from the usual function of masks. While a mask is generally used to hide one’s identity, the mask symbolises the real identity and power of superheroes. Superheroes reveal their inner-self by wearing their mask, rather than taking it off. Wearing a mask is an act of revelation and liberation from self-control and repression by social norms that prohibit excessive power and Otherness. For superheroes, taking off the mask hides their secret identity so they can be part of human society. On the other hand, the secret identity of superheroes is a reflection of the realm of law, social norms and values that enforce the heroes to conceal their inner-self and repress their power. The problem is that they are weak when they are one of us. Tony Stark without his Iron Man suit, Thor without his hammer, the Hulk without his anger and Captain America without his shield are weak and vulnerable. Thus, there is a close connection between power, identity and design of the superheroes.

 

This humanisation of superheroes is important both for designing them, and for creating plots and story. Bainbridge [xvii] argues that superheroes were “premodern” in earlier days: ‘they promote themselves as divine figures of retribution, offering both the promise of transcendent justice in place of equality (enabled by their superpower) and physicality in place of rationality (accentuated by their formfitting costumes) as conduits to truth (beating, sometimes literally, the truth out of the villain)’.

 

These premodern goals are clearly reflected in the action of the main characters, as they directly control crime and protect communities instead of bringing the criminals under the law. Bainbridge considers that “Justice is therefore interventionist and legal institutions undermined and to some extent ignored” by superheroes (ibid). In earlier superhero comics, power rather than justice ruled.

 

The superhero stories became more melodramatic over time. New superhero stories began to include five literary elements: moral polarisation, overwrought emotion, pathos, non-classical narrative mechanics and sensationalism[xviii]. With melodramatic plots in many superhero stories, the audience develops positive and supportive feelings toward the hero or protagonist, while antagonistic characters are associated with emotional dislike and morally negative views. Furthermore, the audience also develops sympathetic feelings toward the superheroes [xix](Tookey, 2012).

 

Although these melodramatic elements can make superhero narratives more appealing to the audience, there are many drawbacks. The melodramatic superhero narrative resulted in creating “the euphoric illusion that we are innocent victims of a hostile world by focusing on the protagonist's suffering whereby virtue undergoes unbearable trials and endures extremes of pain and anguish” [xx]. Another downside is that there tends to be a sexist prejudice that women are weak and vulnerable: in superhero stories women often need rescuing only to develop a romantic attachment to the male hero. Such a positioning of women can be found in Marvel hero films like Avengers (2012), Thor (2011), Incredible Hulk (2008) and Iron Man (2008). It is also a feature of the DC superhero stories: ‘In melodramatic plays the virtuous role is often represented by a young female who demonstrates the stereotypical feminine qualities, such as weakness, passivity, and muteness, muteness in the sense that her message will require elucidation or interpretation by somebody else’[xxi].

 

One could argue that heroines or female protagonists play important roles in superhero films. It is true that there are female superheroes who out-power male heroes and villains. However, these female characters tend to illustrate sexist stereotypes of female qualities. They are often weak, slim and saved by male protagonists who are masculine, young, handsome and powerful. The gender stereotypes and melodramatic narratives “reinforc[e] hegemonic masculinity through bodily performance . . . and the masculine values of strength, activeness, speed, virility, stamina, and fortitude . . . that become the basis of superheroic abilities” (ibid).

 

The recent success of superhero films is not limited to a function of special effects and cinematic technologies that make these films look more real than ever before[xxii] (Bukatman, 2009). It is a collage of special effects, narrative plots and the ‘human-ness’ of superheroes that make these films more agreeable and enjoyable. Superheroes become more realistic in a sense that they struggle and experience difficulty. The superhero as modern American myth reinforces social ideals, roles and prejudices, and marks the very human placement of the individual in relation to issues of identity and power





Marvel to Melodrama: Superheroes and Issues of Power and Identity by Jeehwan Ahn



[i] Bainbridge, J. 2009. ‘Worlds within worlds’: the role of superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universe. In Ndalianis A (Ed). The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero. New York: Routledge. pp. 64-85.

[ii] Ndalianis, A. 2009. Comic book superheroes: an introduction. In Ndalianis A (Ed). The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero. New York: Routledge. pp. 3-15.

[iii] Jones, J. 2008. Batman steps on Achilles’ Heel. The Guardian. 28 November

[iv] Sancton, J. 2008. Why America Worships Superheroes. Vanity Fair. 25 July

[v] Schelegel, J & Habermann, F. 2011. “You took my advice about theatricality a bit . . . Literally”: theatricality and Cybernetics of Good and Evil in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, and X-Men. In Gray, R. J and Kaklamnidou, B. (Eds) The 21st Century Superhero: Essays on Gender, Genre and Globalization in Film. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. p3.

[vi] Haugaard, M. 2002. Power: a Reader. Manchester:  Manchester University Press

[vii] Haugaard, M. 2002. Power: a Reader. Manchester:  Manchester University Press.

[viii] Foucault, M. 1990. The History of Sexuality, Vol 1: an Introduction. (5th ed). New York: Vintage Books. p121

[ix] Adamou, C. 2011. Evolving portrayals of masculinity in Superhero film: Hancock. In Gray, R. J and Kaklamnidou, B. (Eds) The 21st Century Superhero: Essays on Gender, Genre and Globalization in Film. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. p 99

[x] Bukatman, S. 2009. Secret identity politics. In Ndalianis A (Ed). The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero. New York: Routledge. pp. 109-125

[xi] Adamou, C. 2011. Evolving portrayals of masculinity in Superhero film: Hancock. In Gray, R. J and Kaklamnidou, B. (Eds) The 21st Century Superhero: Essays on Gender, Genre and Globalization in Film. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. P 99

[xii] Bainbridge, J. 2009. ‘Worlds within worlds’: the role of superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universe. In Ndalianis A (Ed). The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero. New York: Routledge. p73

[xiii] Bainbridge, J. 2009. ‘Worlds within worlds’: the role of superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universe. In Ndalianis A (Ed). The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero. New York: Routledge. pp 64-85

[xiv] Bainbridge, J. 2009. ‘Worlds within worlds’: the role of superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universe. In Ndalianis A (Ed). The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero. New York: Routledge. p68

[xv] Bukatman, S. 2009. Secret identity politics. In Ndalianis A (Ed). The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero. New York: Routledge. p 114

[xvi] Bukatman, S. 2009. Secret identity politics. In Ndalianis A (Ed). The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero. New York: Routledge. p 114

[xvii] Bainbridge, J. 2009. ‘Worlds within worlds’: the role of superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universe. In Ndalianis A (Ed). The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero. New York: Routledge. p 67

[xviii] Bainbridge, J. 2009. ‘Worlds within worlds’: the role of superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universe. In Ndalianis A (Ed). The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero. New York: Routledge. p 68

[xix] Tookey, C. 2012. Superhero onslaught on the Avengers Assemble is simply irresistible. Dailymail. 19 April

[xx] Bainbridge, J. 2009. ‘Worlds within worlds’: the role of superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universe. In Ndalianis A (Ed). The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero. New York: Routledge. p69

[xxi] Bainbridge, J. 2009. ‘Worlds within worlds’: the role of superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universe. In Ndalianis A (Ed). The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero. New York: Routledge. p69

[xxii] Bukatman, S. 2009. Secret identity politics. In Ndalianis A (Ed). The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero. New York: Routledge.