I watched The Avengers last night for the first time (I know, I showed up really late to that party) and as I watched I was struck by how none of the superheroes were really very super. In fact, in terms of inborn or created abilities, there weren’t many superpowers to speak of. Among the Avengers, objects are the name of the game. Tony Stark flies around in a technologically advanced suit of armor–the only thing really special about him is his intellect. Hawkeye has a bow and arrow; Thor has a giant hammer; Captain America has a fancy shield.
Hulk…well, Hulk smash.
Superheroes have been central to the cultural iconography of America for most of the 20th century, and have undergone a marked renaissance in the 21st. Nearly every major superhero has enjoyed a movie (if not an entire franchise) dedicated to them in the past decade. Even superheroes who are considered “old-fashioned” (Superman) or less popular (Green Lantern) than heroes like Spiderman and Batman have been recently rebooted to suit modern times. And the Avengers, despite being more technologically reliant than many of their brethren, easily share the stage with more classically gifted superheroes like Superman, Spiderman, and the X-Men. So why the shift in modern times to a more technologically-reliant superhero? And what does it say about our culture’s fascination with superheroes in general?
Individual superheroes like Captain America and the Hulk can represent specific qualities respectively, but I think superheroes as a whole tend to occupy two major symbolic roles. Firstly, they embody control over an uncertain world, and secondly, they provide a nearly continuous stream of morality in a world painted largely in shades of greys. They show us the possibility of agency despite great odds; they show us not only what can be done in an overwhelming, overpowering universe, but more importantly, what should be done.
Superheroes are the mythology of modernity. They are the pantheon of gods to whom we rely on for advice and guidance, because they teach us that we are and can be our own gods, visualized larger than life in a world that constantly teaches us that we are small. That we ordinary folks can attain superhero status, real or symbolic.
Against the backdrop of this interpretation, more technologically-reliant superheroes make perfect sense. We live in a world of rapidly advancing technology, and the purveyors of that technology walk among us, real men and women of towering intellect. Geniuses like Steve Jobs, Marissa Mayer, Elon Musk–real-world titans who drive progress forward, day after day.
So while we still admire superheroes like Superman and Thor, their innate powers are difficult to relate to, alien and unattainable. They are more like the gods of the ancient mythologies, all-powerful and distant. We want superheroes like Iron Man and Batman, whose powers are only limited by what technologies they can dream up and engineer. Because in that universe, we too can be superheroes, capable of protecting the world and providing order to a world that desperately needs it.
Do you have a favorite superhero? Do you prefer classic heroes with true powers, like Superman, or modern heroes who rely on technology? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!