Let us talk for a few minutes about the idea of the superhero,(1) and what it means that adults take such things seriously.

It is an amusing recreation to provoke fits of furious outrage in a fanatic, but one to be indulged in with caution, for the obvious reason that fanatics, when outraged, can turn violent. Luckily, the fanatical admirers of superhero comics and movies seldom possess superior strength and muscle tone themselves, so it is usually safe to indulge in a simple psychological experiment. For readers who enjoy a good fireworks display, Dr. Boli suggests saying something like this: “The only version of Batman that was really grown up was the one with Adam West.”

This is generally all one has to say to set off the fireworks, and the show may go on for half an hour or so with no further input.

On the other hand, the subject of our experiment may launch a salvo of questions. How can you say that? What kind of moron are you? Don’t you realize that the Batman of the 1960s was a travesty?

You should be prepared to answer those questions. “I can say that by moving my lips and tongue in certain patterns while sounding my vocal cords,” you might say. Or “I am the kind of moron who thinks the idea of a man in blue tights fighting crime with expensive toys is inherently silly.” Or “I do know that it was a travesty, and that was what made it suitable for adults. To take Batman seriously requires the mind of a thirteen-year-old.”

These responses are not likely to dim the fireworks.

But what has our civilization come to when the adventures of men and women in silly outfits are treated as if they were newly discovered Shakespearean dramas? Why does a character have to have extraordinary powers (in Batman’s case, the awesome power of unlimited cash) in order to be interesting?

First, Dr. Boli will try to be fair by giving the best arguments he can think of for superhero adventures as high art. These stories are the equivalent of Greek tragedies. They use the stark simplicity of the battle between good and evil to deal with the ancient and unanswerable questions of human existence. Just as the Greeks gave each character a mask that indicated his place in the drama, we put our heroes in costumes that indicate their nature and their relationship to the universe.

All this might be true if it were true; it might, in fact, have been true of the earliest Batman and Superman stories, which Dr. Boli did not read when they came out, because he was not a child at the time and thought himself a little above the age at which those stories were aimed. But we run straight up against the paradox of the superhero in entertainment today, which is that we are putting all our effort into making our superheroes ordinary. We do this by emphasizing how it must feel to be an ordinary person given superior strength or agility or dexterity with knots or whatever the power of the moment is. In order to do this, we emphasize the tragic backstory that every superhero, and every corresponding supervillain, must have.

This is supposed to add depth to the character and the story. It does the reverse. We have forgotten the meaning of “backstory,” a word whose parts imply that this story should be in the back. We bring it to the front and say that we are adding depth. But now there is nothing in the back. Everything is in the front. There is no depth at all; we have removed it, and our characters are as shallow as cardboard cutouts.

Imagine how the great dramas of the past would be rewritten for a modern audience. We could see flashbacks to the early childhood of Oedipus. We could be treated to an extensive exploration of strained relationship between Claudius and his brother, Hamlet’s father, culminating in a murder that everyone could see coming. We could learn about Clytemnestra’s youthful struggles with acne.

These are things that would appeal to a thirteen-year-old, who might also be attracted to the idea of a crossover story in which Hamlet meets Orestes and they both have laser vision that makes things explode.

Well, we are a society of thirteen-year-olds now, and what annoys a thirteen-year-old most is when we don’t take his heroes seriously. That is the sin that the 1960s Batman series committed. It approached the Batman comics as an adult would approach them, seeing at once that the dead seriousness of a hero in blue tights was good for mocking, and that the colorful villains would best be played by celebrity comedians, not by Shakespearean tragedians. Most of the adults have died, though; the generation that came of age in the 1960s swore that they would never be adults, and they were true to their word.

There is much more to be said about superhero stories as an aspect of cultural neoteny. Dr. Boli is not sure that his readers would have the patience to sit through it, however. He may return to the subject at a later time; but meanwhile, there are other phenomena that deserve our attention, and we shall have a look at some of them soon.



  1. Richard says:

    I call them “rubber suit shows”. Good for mocking.

  2. Maypo says:

    I’ve always pictured Dr. Boli has the super hero of comedic insight!
    Now I’m confused whether that is a good thing.

  3. von Hindenburg says:

    There seems to be a self-reinforcing cycle with superhero properties (not movies, books, comic books, etc, because everything must be part of an holistic universe)… As the cost to make movies (and other media) has climbed higher and higher, the companies behind them have been forced to lean ever harder on the idea that these things *matter*. That, in our post-religious, postmodern society, these are the timeless tales that bind us together across race, class, politics, and generations. Every film must be another entry into a canon of Scripture that we eagerly await as a major cultural event. Otherwise everyone would realize how bland the plots are and how bad the CGI is.

  4. The Shadow says:

    Eh, seems to me that superheroes are modern mythology. The Greeks (and many others) gave their gods superpowers too. Though they didn’t always take them seriously, to be sure. Greek gods have all sorts of soap opera foibles too, at least as many as are in the comics. (Recall the trap Hephaestus set for Ares and Aphrodite – not exactly material for deathless literature, one would think, except it is.)

    Perhaps folklore would be better. When Roland spits twenty Saracen knights on his lance, is he not functionally a superhero?

  5. tom says:

    Nowadays I’d be happy to have a plain old regular hero, let alone a super one.

  6. RepubAnon says:

    Perhaps this traces back to the Iliad, where Hector faced Achilles in the days before mechanized warfare.

    The last traces of this were the pilots of World War 1, like the Red Baron and Eddie Richenbacher, engaging in solo dogfights far above the machine guns and artillery battering the poor souls in muddy trenches far below.

  7. Occasional Correspondent says:

    So, on the theme of neoteny, nowadays Batman is juvenile while ’60s Batman was Juvenal?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *