The greatest superhero movies aren’t cartoons or direct adaptations, they are films about regular people who step up when events conspire against them.
People who don’t read comic books have often assumed that I will be an avid cartoon fan because of it. While I do enjoy some cartoons, I would say that I don’t like cartoons or cartoon characters any more than most people who do not read comic books. Since some of my friends work in animation, I do like to see what is happening and I get a kick out of them, but the kind of movies that I really feel exemplify comic books are the ones which depict real life superheroes. I’m not talking about the literal translations of comic books to film like Iron Man and Batman (which are definitely a damn good time, but don’t quite give me the same feeling as reading a great superhero comic book.) I’m talking about films about regular people who step up to the challenges that life throws at them and become their own superheroes. I touched on this earlier in the year when I went to see Harry Brown and it seemed so reminiscent of the Frank Miller book The Dark Knight Returns, and now I’m beginning to understand that this is true across the board.
Rather than enjoying the cartoon-like appearance of comic books, my appreciation of them is more to do with the following. First, (as I’ve touched on before in these columns), I see comic books as a superior form of story telling. The combination of evocative art and writing is able to reach that much deeper into our emotional, primitive, non-verbal imagination with the still-imagery in tandem with words so that we can fill in the blanks and build our own tempo. The stories truly come to life through our own experience of reading them. Reaching deep into the non-verbal mind and using representative imagery, comic books awaken lost memories. We can relate because we aren’t reading through the veneer of the learned language, that is used too, but on a deeper level, we understand.
The second reason that I fell in love with comic books (and continue to adore them) is the superheroic content. I’m primarily a fan of the superhero. This is not to say that I’m _only_ interested in people wearing brightly colored skin-tight clothing, in fact many of the superheroes that I read about in comic books do not wear classic costumes, but they are still the heroes of their stories (e.g. John Constantine, The Question, Sandman, Planetary, etc.)
The concept of the superhero isn’t a new one, it is a lovely metaphor embodying the highest ideals of humanity, the qualities that we can aspire to. There is a tremendous attraction in the concept of the lone warrior, someone pitted against the world with only personal instinct and self-awareness to serve as anchor and support. I love superhero comic books because I love to read about people who are pushed to the edge of sanity and find deep reserves of strength within themselves. It is exciting to get a glimpse into a very personal odyssey. In fact the word “odyssey” comes from the story of Homer’s The Oddysey, the 10 year voyage that Oddyseus took returning from Ithica after the Trojan wars. This word is based on a superhero of sorts, depicted in an epic poem. Thus our language is influenced and shaped by the great superheroes of our past. Conversly, now our superheroes are shaped by our language and reflect our culture. These stories shape our perception of life and give us a way to understand ourselves in times of duress.
In comic books the specific origin story of most superheroes is perfunctory, often revisited and discussed, but rarely overtly the center of the story. Despite this, the superhero comic book is a window into the daily challenge that each superhero must meet in order to do their job. Life has forcibly taken them outside of the norm, given physical powers which have forced them to become more than they ever thought was possible. Taking on the burden of living outside of previously assumed limitations and changing life in order to step up and be more is the underlying story in every superhero comic book.
In reality, the experience of coming to the end of our limits, being under more pressure than we think we can stand, is often a defining moment of self-discovery. Pivotal moments in our lives which test us, change us and while these experiences aren’t anything to be sought after, emerging from the other side with the knowledge that we can survive and grow is an incredible gift. Appreciating the times which try us can be difficult in the moment of struggle, sometimes it can take years to see the value, but it is an essential part of our development and we can be grateful for each opportunity to continue to grow. The times that test us and take us to the limit also allow us a glimpse into our own capacity for heroism. There are the moments that, if we were in a comic book, would be our own “origin stories.”
When Angela Del Toro took on the family mantle of the White Tiger (during Bendis’ run on Daredevil), I was touched. Basically a humble story, but the fact that she was at a pivotal point in her life, being asked to go outside of her established life and accept a fundamental change was intense. Being able to witness her slow acceptance of the honor and the burden of her uncle’s powers was a moving experience. It is in humble stories like this that I truly appreciate the superhero genre.
For me, outside of comic books, the closest I come to the high of reading about superheroes, is in films which exemplify the heights of human endeavor. If you enjoy seeing a person accept the mantle of superhero, this sentiment is beautifully echoed in some great films. A few I’d recommend unreservedly which explore the turning moment in people’s lives, are the recent 127 Hours, or the inspiring films The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Hearts of Darkness, Touching the Void, or films about East Germans; The Tunnel and The Lives of Others
These films aren’t to all tastes, we all enjoy superhero comic books for different reasons, but for me, these are the ones that capture the true spirit of why I love them.