Tuesday, July 10, 2007

To Cape or Not to Cape?

Superheroes. Whether you're a fan or not, you know what they are. You may not know the Green Hornet from Green Lantern, but the concept is as part of our culture and mythos as much as any other creative concept of the modern age.

So where are they?

I know we have heroes. Our law enforcement and first responders are overflowing with heroes. From as near as the local community center to as far away as the war zones of the middle east we have heroes. And I'm certainly not attempting to minimize their importance or contributions.
I'm just trying to figure out why something so popular, so ingrained in our collective psyches, doesn't actually exist outside of fiction.

Statistical Occurrence of Super Powers
I know the likelihood of a benevolent alien finding Earth out of all the possible planets in the universe is pretty low. I know that a freak accident - by definition - that grants special abilities instead of instant death is also pretty unlikely. But if you read the literature, there are plenty of over sources of caped crusader powers that are closer in the realm of possibility.
Take Batman, for example. No powers at all. Just money and free time combined with a serious emotional illness. There are dozens of super heroes who aren't really "super" but go out and fight crime. Green Arrow and his clone Hawkeye. Robin. Nightwing (I know, for you purists out there that's cheating). Karate Kid. Batgirl. The Punisher.

Some of them aren't even rich. They just have a willingness to open a can of whup-ass when needed, and look good in spandex.
Then there's the technology heroes. Some are rich, some are just lucky. Ironman is a good example. He's not from another planet, or uses magic, or anything crazy like that. He just has a suit of powered armor. We're making stuff like that now. And I don't really expect someone to go tooling around town with something that high-tech, but even battery operated brass knuckles and Kevlar would be something.
Nada. Zip. Nothing.

Don't even get me started on useful mutations.

Ok, you got me started. A recent article I read suggested that there are about 175 mutations per generation. Multiply this by the number of generations in recorded history, and we should have gotten at least ONE X-Man. Using a completely made up percentage of .001 % chance for a useful super mutation, we should have a few of them wandering around in the US alone.
But we don't. Or if we do, they have chosen not to show themselves.

Lousy Working Conditions
One possible reason no one has decided to go the Punisher route, or the Spider-man route, could be how lousy the job is portrayed. Little to no money, no family life, crappy medical benefits, all the bad guys try to kill you, if the lose a fight they try to kill you, and if anyone finds out who you are, they try to kill you.

Not the greatest incentive plan. Sounds like being a police officer, actually.

Is that really enough of a reason not to fight the good fight? Thousands of good people put their lives on the line every day for small return on investment. They do it because it's the right thing to do, or they feel called to duty. Would it be any different if they could fly, or shoot heat rays, or talk to animals?
I don't think so. Yeah, maybe some people would look at their incredible ability to manipulate any objects made from paprika and decide they'd rather work in an office, but there would be at least one or two people who would take to the skies in the fight for justice.

So where are they?
Privacy Concerns
Maybe it's the whole secret identity thing. I wouldn't think it would be that big a deal for people to know who you are. Cops and firefighters don't wear masks, although granted they aren't as big a news item as guys who fly around carrying cars. Maybe it's a big concern. If so, it's pretty clear that secret identities won't work as well in real life as they do in comics. No way would a change of clothes and a curl of hair convince people in the real world that Clark Kent and Superman are two different people. Even a full costume like Spider-man wouldn't fool people for long, even if the super power was the ability to speak in different voices. With paparazzi as good as they are and technology so spooky, a super hero would find themselves plastered all over the front page of a tabloid within days of going public. Probably scratching themselves in some unfortunate place while lifting a F-150.

Then again, we know exactly who Osama bin Laden is, but we haven't been able to even get a photo of him in years.
So what's the deal? Are all of our super heroes trying to figure out a good mask design? Are they ugly and self conscious? Or is this one not even close to being a factor?

When you think about it, it's probably more profitable to be a super villain than a super hero. And a good super villain probably wouldn't want to be labeled as such, but would instead work behind the scenes running a global corporation or becoming President of the United States. The Good Guys have always been less about running things and more about doing what's right. It's just that "what's right" always seems to involve having to work for others.
But building super armor or secret fortresses cost money. As do the repair costs and medical bills after a fight. And it would be hard to hold down a day job if you have to take off every few minutes to save the world. So where would a hero get funding? Probably through governments intent on using their skills, like Steve Austin (I always wondered why his arms didn't come off when he lifted a car. I suppose they worked that kink out) was forced to do. That would certainly explain why we don't see them around that much. They're all off playing James Bond making sure the price of oil stays level instead of foiling bank robberies.
Frankly, I think that sucks. The only positive I can think of in that is that it's always possible a government sponsored super hero might quit.

Who cares. We don't have any superheros, and that's all that matters.
All seriousness aside, maybe we have several supers out there, but they just don't have the drive to do anything with their gifts. Sure, it's easy to say that "with great power comes great responsibility," but it's another thing to get your butt off the sofa when there's a new episode of "Lost" on. Could it be as simple as that? Our society has brainwashed entire generations that the only benefit to being able to stretch hundreds of feet is so that you can get more Doritos without losing your seat? Think about it. As difficult as it can be to drag yourself out of bed to go to work, which pays for your survival, would you be inclined to also go out and fight crime after putting in a 40 hour work week?
Only if one of your super powers was boundless energy. I can barely sit upright after a day at work, and I work in IT. Put on tights and patrol for a few hours? Gah. I don't think so.

Truth be told, the only superhero in recorded history, depending on your point of view, was a guy named Jesus Christ. Granted, he was a pretty important superhero, but one every two thousand years seems a bit boring.
There seem to be enough reasons not to be an active, public superhero if you don't really want to be one. Laziness is a powerful rationalization tool. But I've got to believe that there are people out there who, if they had the gifts, would use them. I know I would. I think I would.
But I don't think I've really come to a satisfying conclusion on WHY there aren't any super powers showing up. Sure, some of them are unrealistic, like picking up a building without sinking into the ground. But nothing? At all?
That's so uncool. And if there was ever a time that we needed superheroes, it's now. Maybe just so we don't have to worry that our non super heroes will have to lay down their lives quite so often. That's really the true benefit of the mythos. To be able to count on someone to do good without reality blowing a permanent hole in them. It's a price they willingly pay, but one we wish they didn't have to.
Maybe, and I'm just brainstorming here, maybe without such a sacrifice being a real possibility, being a hero would just be cheapened. When Superman throws himself in front of a bullet, he can be relatively sure they'll bounce harmlessly off his chest. When our soldiers throw themselves in harm's way, they have no way of knowing if they'll end up a statistic or not.
I wish we had superheroes. But I'm glad regular heroes are in no short supply.