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The past several years have brought us a host of movies about so-called superheroes. Marvel and DC have brought their increasingly expanding stables onto the silver screen with such breakouts as Iron Man, Captain America, the Batman series… and certain offerings that weren’t received with open arms (does anyone really want to remember Ryan Reynolds in either of his superpowered debuts?). But it’s not only these comic book powerhouses that have become part of this increasingly popular trend. Notable additions to the superhero phenomenon are taking place both on and off the screen, from Watchmen and Kick-a** that seek to defy the traditional superheroes as good guys mentality to real-life examples of good men and women in costume bringing smiles to the faces of all (Deadpool patrolling a small city in Washington and Batman’s fender-bender incident in the news immediately come to mind.)

But what is the attraction of these ladies and gentlemen in spandex and swimsuits? What draws us to these two-dimensional characters? Is it their superpowers? Their oftentimes perilously skimpy outfits and well-toned bodies? The cataclysmic battles they and their villains face on what is pretty much a day-to-day basis? It could be any one of these factors. Perhaps even a combination of some or even all of them. However, it is an inherent truth that the superhero movement is enduring. In fact, it has endured for thousands of years, in the myths and legends of the likes of Hercules and his 12 Labors.

But is that all there is to the appeal of heroes? Is it really that we are merely impressed with their ability to lift heavy things or outwit their foes? Because otherwise, they wouldn’t have endured. They would be old hat by the next year, as many fads often fade away. The truth of the matter is that superheroes exist because people need them. It seems a silly statement, that a world would need fictional beings made of ink, paper and words… and yet, it’s true. The world needs superheroes because they serve as an example for people.

SUPERHEROES CAN GIVE US HOPE WHEN WE ARE AT OUR WEAKEST.

Captain America was created in the 1940’s, and was introduced in an extremely dynamic way. Namely, punching Hitler in the face on the cover of his serial. It set the tone for the kind of role this hero was to play in the years leading up to the end of the second World War. This was a time when morale was at an all-time low, and the Allies needed a pick me up. Superman pulled a similar stunt as well, but it’s Captain America who truly made a dynamic splash in the collective consciousness of the USA… at least during the wartime period, where he often fought the Axis powers. He faded out of the public eye for several decades until a dramatic comeback after being frozen in the life, but the point is the impact that he made during his initial grace period as a hero.

Captain America inspired people young and old alike, in a time when hope was a very fleeting thing. He helped them believe in a bright future ahead; one where America had won. And they didn’t need him at the forefront during that time of peace. But now that America is once again in turmoil, alongside the rest of the world, they need dynamic heroes more than ever.

SUPERHEROES SHOW US THAT EVEN THE STRONGEST CAN FALL, BUT THEY ARE STRONG BECAUSE THEY STAND UP AGAIN.

Of course, heroes are often seen as perfect ideals, which have pushed away a lot of people who may otherwise have enjoyed the genre. There are claims that it’s boring because “they’ll always win”. But the truth is that this isn’t always the case. Take the prolific Superman himself. One of the longest enduring and most iconic heroes in history, Superman is also one of the most hated in recent times due to his apparently boring fights. And yet, Superman has had his share of defeats, despite his strength and abundance of powers. One of the Man of Steel’s most famous encounters was in 1992, against a foe appropriately named Doomsday, which resulted in his death.

Let us set the scene. In 1992, sales for Superman were slowly dropping. Therefore, a new plot device was introduced: Superman’s death. Doomsday was a nigh on unstoppable and brutish killing machine, with no regard for any form of life whether large or small. To protect his home of Metropolis, Superman seemingly succumbs to his wounds after a cataclysmic fight. It doesn’t matter much that he is eventually resurrected to provide further adventures to the world. Here, Superman is not Messianic, although he can come across that way to some people. He is capable of being defeated… but is able to return and continue onwards. To soldier on with his life and serve as a reminder that even the mightiest can fall… but that it should give us hope as well.

SUPERHEROES SHOW US THAT PEOPLE MAKE MISTAKES, BUT THAT THEY CAN BE OVERCOME.

Although Iron Man is now very well known in recent years for Robert Downey Jr.’s sarcastic and witty take on the hero, the misnamed superhero has actually been around since 1963, acting as a headlining member of The Avengers and serving as an iconic part of the team. However, being a genius billionare playboy philanthropist hasn’t always been fun and games for Tony Stark. During a nine-issue run in the 1980’s, Mr. Stark actually suffered from something that he is stil attempting to shake off today; alcoholism.

In the aptly named arc “Demon in a Bottle”, the Iron Man stories take a turn for the worse as a repulsor ray fired from the suit accidentally kills an esteemed ambassador. What started out as a mild habit for the playboy suddenly became a very serious problem, as he continues to drink to forget his problems. Finally, with the help of his friends, Tony starts the long process towards breaking his addiction. He does break it eventually, but the point here is that comic books and, most importantly superheroes, are a great platform for getting across important messages to the general public.

What’s important to note here is that despite how great a life heroes seem to have, they are capable of making mistakes. They show so-called “normal” people that everyone is capable of making bad decisions, and that there is no shame in that. Superheroes demonstrate that, with enough will and dedication, these mistakes can be conquered. That people are not alone in messing up every once in a while, but that through their own efforts and the assistance of others they can learn and understand the world better from their mistakes.

SUPERHEROES DEMONSTRATE THAT THE WORLD ISN’T BLACK AND WHITE, AND THAT OUR ACTIONS WILL ALWAYS HAVE REPERCUSSIONS.

And, at the end of the day, despite the prevalent good versus evil stereotype that has been attributed to superheroes, some of the greatest heroes have been some of the most morally conflicted. Batman is probably the most famous example as this, seeing as the Dark Knight has gone toe to toe with some of the most dangerous and also most sympathetic villains in comic book history. But what makes this particular example so poignant was that real world decisions actually had an impact on this superhero and his outlook towards fighting crime.

There have been several Robins over the years, but one that was apparently universally unloved was Jason Todd… so much so that a poll was actually set-up to decide whether he lived or died. Ultimately, he was killed off. But what may didn’t realize was the profound effect that this would have on Batman, and that entire universe as a whole. Batman felt extreme guilt over Jason’s death, which contributed to his becoming colder and more detached in future stories. And he very nearly broke his code to not kill, nearly murdering the Joker for what he did. Not to mention Jason’s death led comic book readers to realize that what they’d done had serious consequences.

Superheroes are a study in contradictions, and the yin-yang dynamic that rules the world. They are both the most powerful people in the world, and also the most vulnerable. Superheroes are the ultimate form of escapism… but also serve as a powerful reminder of the realities that we face today, and the ability of every man and woman to push themselves to heroic standards. In the words of Captain Hammer, who in most other respects is certainly not an ideal man, “Everyone is a hero in their own way. Everyone has villains they must face.” And superheroes remind us that, yes, there is always a superhero within us… if we are only willing to look and see.