Every boy has his favorite superhero. Doesn’t matter if they’ve never read a comic; pop cultural osmosis will take care of that. Growing up, my favorites were Batman and Iron Man. My brother was a Spider-Man fan. I’ve got a buddy who loved Green Lantern and another who liked Robin. But why is it that we love heroes (super or not)? Whether they’re named Tony Stark, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Buffy Summers, or Atticus Finch, we have our heroes. But why? Why do we love having heroes in fiction?
Barring the rare invincible abnormality like Superman (in which case you’d need emotional tension to… that’s another essay for another day), heroes have a risk of death. Sure, we’re sure (well, kinda sure if it’s written by Joss Whedon) they’ll survive, but there’s that potential. Towards the end of Mass Effect 3, Commander Shepard’s armor has been destroyed and half-melted, but still our hero presses on, blood dripping from his wounds, in a final desperate attempt to save the galaxy. This is Shepard: the living legend who defended the Citadel from Sovereign, halted a Collector invasion, and united the races of the galaxy for the first time in millennia of history. He’s been augmented with cybernetics and carries enough firepower to take on a small army. Yet even he bleeds. Great, a lot of heroes get the crap beaten our of them. So what?
It proves they’re human! We love the everyman, the hero we can relate to. When creating Uncharted, Naughty Dog chose to stray from the trend of super-soldiers and overconfident protagonists and give us a fairly ordinary man dressed in a simple shirt and jeans: Nathan Drake. He’s a wisecracking smartass who spends as much time stumbling and falling as he does fighting bad guys. Drake’s snarky and funny, amusing us as he fumbles (sorry, improvises) his way through his adventures. It doesn’t take much to see that his bravado and bluster is just him trying to build himself up: an a attempt to steel himself for the perils that await. But he feels fear, he feels desperation. When Drake sees his friends get hurt his courage falters and we see the man within, we see ourselves. We like him because we’re like him. Drake isn’t that much different from us: he’s who we hope we’d be if we were in his spot, albeit wittier.
Similarly, Peter Parker, more so than most other superheroes, is terribly ordinary. He’s a teenager in high school striving for good grades and trying to win the heart of his girl. And he’s got spider-like powers. Nonetheless, he’s every one of us back in high school. Marc Webb captured this so well in The Amazing Spider-Man by introducing us to Peter the boy first. We get to know him before his powers, with his powers, and then when he finally calls himself Spider-Man. We’re not following the story of Spider-Man the superhero, we’re following story of this kid named Peter Parker. Even when he’s ‘officially’ a superhero, he’s still not invulnerable. Multiple times Peter shows up after a night of crime fighting battered, bruised, and bloodied. He’s just a teenage boy trying to do what’s right.
That’s the crux of our heroes. We want to know they’re vulnerable, we like them human (or at least mostly), but we want to see them do what’s right. We want our heroes to get beaten up and choose to go on because we hope that were we in their spot we would have the strength to continue. As an audience, we’re normal, powerless in our situations. None of us would stand a chance against the Reapers, Zoran Lazerevic, or the Lizard. But then, neither would Shepard, Drake, or Spider-Man were it not for their circumstances. Maybe, and just maybe, that could be us.
Our heroes aren’t perfect and invincible. Underneath the Iron Man armor is a middle-aged man on the brink of death. Green Lantern is just a guy with a fancy ring. Captain America was an earnest runt given a once-in-a-lifetime chance. The only difference between us and our heroes are our positions.
“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of,” said Joss Whedon once. In these heroes, super or not, we find our strength. We see our weaknesses and fallings mirrored, but more than that we see them overcome it for the sake of good. The exhausted Sam carries Frodo up the side of Mount Doom. Atticus Finch risks his standing in the community to do what’s right. Luke Skywalker refuses to strike down Darth Vader.
No matter how hurt or broken our heroes are, they choose to do the right thing, to carry on and fight again.
And we hope that we can too.