Monday, June 22, 2015

My Top Five Superheroes (and Why)

My sister asked me, the other day, to list my top five superheroes. She may have been fishing for birthday ideas; she may have been looking for ways to raise her son's standards higher than Hawkeye. Whatever the case, I gladly listed the following (in order):

  1. Daredevil
  2. Batman
  3. Robin
  4. Captain America
  5. Moon Knight
I struggled more than I expected to finish this list. The top three were easy; the bottom two were hard, and I suspect that I'll second-guess this list even before I post it. But I do notice some commonalities:

  • None of these heroes is super-powered at a cosmic level. There is no Superman or Hulk. Captain America is, of course, a "super soldier," and was recently listed among the most powerful superheroes in the Marvel Universe, but his power is essentially enhanced strength, coupled with shocking discipline and focus, and high moral character.
  • Only two of these heroes are not in the Marvel Comics universe, and those two (Batman and Robin) are tightly connected to each other.
  • Only one of these heroes has a public identity; the rest are in the shadows, although they have a tight network of supporters who know their secret.
  • Each of these heroes is associated with a particular place.
Daredevil, as ably demonstrated in the Netflix series of the same name, sets his focus on Hell's Kitchen in New York, a neighborhood that has never enjoyed the benefits of New York's hubris. While the Avengers are saving New York from giant robotic lizards coursing through a wormhole to another universe in the skies above, Daredevil is confronting drug dealers and dismantling crime networks in the same span of city blocks he grew up in and refuses to leave.

Batman and Robin are inextricably identified with Gotham City, which is Superman's Metropolis after the lights have gone out. Although their adventures have taken them to the farthest reaches of time and space, Gotham remains a principal character in their story. It's no surprise, in fact, that the city has its own television series; place matters supremely in the Batman universe.

Captain America's association is right there in his name. He was created jingoistically; his first cover shot as a superhero showed him punching Adolf Hitler in the nose. In his first iteration during World War II he was a salute to the greatness of his country of origin, but in subsequent iterations, beginning in the comics in the 1960s during widespread civil unrest and carrying over into contemporary films with the cynical sensibility of the postmodern age, he represents the tension between our sense of our national potential and our unease of our tragically flawed history as a country.

Of all five superheroes, Moon Knight is my least familiar and also the most tenuous connection to a place. Whatever power he has comes from Egypt, but he locates himself in New York - except when he doesn't, when he moves to the West Coast or meanders throughout the world. There's a kind of schizophrenia to Moon Knight's story; his superhero persona is only one of the many characters he plays in his life, and his sense of dislocation does damage to his relationships and even his psyche. Maybe that's why I'm so intrigued by him; Moon Knight is what happens to us when we aspire to greatness but lose sight of our placedness.

Obviously there's more to the story than placedness with these characters. Three of the five have capes; two of them don't. I don't think that's overly significant, although a childhood fascination with comic book superheroes surely has something to do with the color and fluidity of the art. It's sort of trendy to claim that placedness is the primary driver of my hierarchy of superheroes; I recognize that. But the fact that place is one of the particularly cool things about these heroes is not lost on me, and I wonder how much their broad acceptance in the broader culture (with the exception of the relatively rootless Moon Knight, all of them have a strong foothold in pop culture) is tied to the idea that a particular place breeds a particular kind of hero - the hero a place needs, the hero each of us could commit ourselves to being.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

1) John Wayne ?
John Wayne quote :- "Well its about time."

Anonymous said...

At 8 I read Harry Scuhtulez comic books, Harry was my best friend. Cowboys were the heros when I was a kid, because they were human & avaliable like the Lone Ranger. Superman & his genre were si/fi like Cinderellas fairy godmother. We wished they existed but reality did not lend itself to quantum physics & supernatural magic.
Today I understand quantum physics, so I know that the si/fi is reality & so is the supernatural magic, it is all possible only we either do not qualify or we don't know how.
Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Maxwell Smart ?

Anonymous said...

You don't tell your parents that you know the truth about Santa & the trip down the chimney until they are ready & for many reasons, including that they have so much emotional energy invested there.
Parenting is a 2 way thing.

Anonymous said...

The Greatest American Hero TV series 1981 - 1983
Ralph was mortal & all human ...... until one day something strange happened that propelled the unsuspecting Ralph into a world of superness. We watch as Ralph courageously embraces his new person & indeed responsibility & duty of care to the surrounding world.
It is 8:53 am. in Coburg Victoria Australia & look at where my mind is -
but Ralph is my most favorite super hero
He is a nice guy who just got a shot in the arm 7 is trying to make the best of it & assume the position thrust upon him with all that he has.
I was doing the ironong & I got hooked.
Cheer
Mira

Anonymous said...

Super Powers Bestowed &/or Inherited.
BBC - Drama - Jekyll 2007 - staring James Nesbit as Dr. Tom Jackman.
The 2 little boys are interesting.
Quantum Physics - but for a rew genes here & there it could happen to anyone .../?

Anonymous said...

Look what I found down memory lane.
Harry's comics
Mandrake was my first superhero favorite, next to Cinderella's Fairy God Mother.
Mandrake the Magician: who started in 1934 is said to be comics' first superhero.
Mandrake is an actual magician, his work is based on an unusually fast hypnotic technique, when Mandrake gestures hypnotically his subjects see illusions. Mandrake also possesses psychic, telekinetic powers, invisibility, shapeshifting, & is able to teleport periodically. His hat, cloak, & wand passed down from his father Theron, possess great magical powers to assist him.