When you look back upon the literature that was published in previous decades or centuries, it is possible to comprehend what the big issues of the time were and the various opinions that pervaded the thinking simply by evaluating the contemporary literature that was popular at the time. The same thing can be said for television and film in the days following their inception and adoption in society.
Today it is obvious that we have many avenues through which comments are made about both the current state of things and the questionable future state of our society, our environment and our ability to survive. We worry about climate change, having enough food to feed the ever-growing population and the ethical or unethical nature of many of our scientific advancements, achievements, abilities and capabilities. We address these concerns in our television, in our film and in our literature. They serve as entertainment, admonition and a warning.
One of the things that I find most striking lately is the concurrent popularity of two seemingly divergent story archetypes in film, literature and television. On one side you have the Dystopian or post-apocalyptic stories where the main characters are plagued by tragedy and struggle to survive. They must rely on their own skills, wits and luck to do this. On the other side you have the omnipresent superhero story. These stories are characterized by heroes who possess superhuman powers and they take on the burden of saving the world and ensuring the survival of the human race.
I’m not sure why both of these story types are popular at the same time. The Dystopian or post-apocalyptic hero is typically pretty devoid of powers or special abilities. Of course, there are exceptions like The Mortal Instruments where the main character has some sort of latent ability that they have only just recently learned about. On the other side of the coin, the people striving for survival in the show The Walking Dead are simply people. (The Walking Dead is absolutely post-apocalyptic rather than Dystopian because there is no recognizable government in place. But we’ll ignore that for now.)
It can be argued that the popularity of the Dystopian and the post-apocalyptic stories hinge upon the collective fear of our current and/or future irrelevance. The destruction or near-destruction of life as we know it, which we see in these stories, can be interpreted in such a way. The fact that most of the heroes tend to be ordinary men and women (or even people on the edge of adulthood) expresses a tenacious hold on our humanity or our status as ordinary. It also expresses pride in our ability to be self-reliant.
This, in my opinion, stands almost in opposition of the superhero. Please keep in mind that I am nowhere near being an expert on the comic book/superhero/Marvel universe/DC universe or anything of the sort. I have viewed the movies simply as a person who enjoys a good superhero movie on occasion. So, I have no real authority on the subject. But, to me, the presence of a person or being with superhuman abilities suggests a desire to believe in possibility. That is, the possibility of being special or extraordinary, the possibility of heroes or saviors or the like. These figures offer us hope; hope that we are not forgotten, hope that we matter and that someone else outside of us believes this to be so too.
Perhaps these two mentalities do relate though. Perhaps we view ourselves as self-reliant, but deep down, we don’t want to be. A reliance on self is a possible expression of the belief that you cannot rely on anyone BUT yourself. The world, society, the government and all those mechanisms and people who were in place to protect you have failed and thus, you are left to stand alone against the madness.
In a superhero story, you have a savior of sorts. This figure has an important role to play because those same entities (the world, society, the government, etc.,) have all failed and are not enough to protect or save humanity from destruction—either at their own hand or at the hand of a villain. The superhero is hope, even if he or she tends to be a bit unconventional as far as the standard of humanity is concerned.
From what I know of superheroes, they don’t tend to be very young; or at least the stories that involve them don’t often take place in their youth. There are exceptions of course. I think the most notorious story about a superhero in his/her youth was the lengthy television show Smallville which told the origin story of Clark Kent/Superman (though I’m not sure that this show was actually considered to be a part of the DC universe. I’m not clear on how all that works).
The youthful hero/heroine is much more consistent in the Dystopian genre. They teeter on the edge of adulthood and prepare to enter a world that was created by their elders. It is a world that doesn’t make sense to them and they begin to question and then to, ultimately, fight back. This plot arc is viable for many stories that are top of mind today: Divergent, The Hunger Games, The Giver; and I wonder if all children think their parents just gave up or gave in to the tedious doldrums of society.
There are many other disparate traits of the superhero and the human hero. But they do share one very significant trait. Each typically bears a terrible burden. This burden is expressed in physical, mental or emotional pain or anguish; or perhaps in all three at once. It is this burden that makes these two archetypes so interesting. Even though the superhero is a superhuman (or alien, mutant or something else), he/she still shares this very human quality with our more “plain-jane” heroes.
It is the burden of being the hero that reveals the inner humanness of even the most powerful heroes (i.e. superheroes). It is this same humanness that creates a strong connection between reader/viewer and the very plain/less fantastical human hero. And this burden is one that, I like to think, we all bear in some way, shape or form.
The simultaneous popularity of the superhero and the more human or “plain-jane” hero is an intriguing occurrence in the literary/entertainment realms. Typically, you aren’t supposed to analyze or name a period in literary history until you are outside of it enough that you can look back and comment on it. But, today I’ve chosen to ignore this advice and this is what I’ve come up with: In a lot of ways, each story type expressed in this post seems to be very different from the other. But perhaps it is the traits they share that explains the reason for their contemporary occurrence and adoption in storytelling.