These days, popular culture is soaked with superheroes. Spiderman and X-Men broke into the movie market when I was a kid, but after a short while, Iron Man rocketed through the air and Steve Rogers stole our hearts, and the Avengers stood most prominent on the scene. We’ve had an endless tirade of Batman and Superman since the 1960s, and these days, if you haven’t heard of Harley Quinn, you’ve been living under a rock. Superheroes – even those familiar to us now – have had all sorts of faces, all sorts of troubles, and all sorts of flaws. These days, they’re pretty much just like us. Only, you know, super.
I think we can all agree that if there’s one more Spiderman or Batman reboot, we’re going to lose our minds.
I’ve noticed that most of these films, especially more and more lately, spend a lot of time talking about how the superheroes need to rein in their powers and stop behaving like they’re better than everyone else. Stop saving the world if it means destroying things. Stop hurting people to rescue people. Who cares if they’re bad guys? They have mothers! Or, who cares if the bad guys killed them… you were involved with the bad guy, and despite the fact that you stopped them, they exist because you exist and therefore you’re no better than them. I’m starting to feel quite bad for Steve and Wanda and the others… they’ve a lot of guilt constantly thrown on their shoulders. Especially because we all know that if they stood down and took up a nice vacation house in Maui, the world would call them selfish for not saving it the next time something bad happens.
But it’s because of the superheroes that we have supervillains, right?
I would argue that’s not inherently true. One could say that villains exist because of heroes, but isn’t it just as arguable that heroes exist because of villains? Humanity evolves to its greatest capacity for survival, thus the use of the term “mutants” to describe the X-Men and others like them. Great goods and great evils are in the eye of the beholder, and even while we may gasp to think that the Holocaust, for example, is anything but evil… it wasn’t considered to be by those who were engaged in the activities, as revolting as that may be. History is written by the victors and had the war gone another way, we would see things differently now. Nature has a way of balancing herself, and it’s useless to fight her.
A hero and a villain are the same thing, in their own eyes. They are fighting tooth and nail for the things they believe should be true. Harley Quinn and Deadpool are excellent examples of the middle ground, where it’s difficult to entirely class them in the black and white category of good and evil – they have done bad things, but they’ve done them to bad people for a good reason. And yet, in her universe, Harley is a villain, while in his Deadpool is a hero. Anything bad they try to do to good people is half-hearted and fails, or they simply get bored and give up. They are hopelessly enamored with impressing one person (the Joker… and Wolverine). They are vicious, and yet, they somehow manage to be admirable. Why? They’re definitely not good people. What they are is raw, impassioned, and real. And, frankly, out of their minds. But we love them.
So, what makes a superhero? Or a supervillain, for that matter? Abilities exceeding humanity’s norm, and a strong sense of morality on one side or the other of what is socially acceptable. As humanity becomes less purely good, heroes like Superman and Spiderman with their shiny, just morals begin to fade into the background and the anti-heroes spring up. They are complicated, interesting, and relatable. Then, when things go quite wrong, it’s the villains who steal our hearts.