Regular FeaturesSpecial Report
The SuperheroesWhere they come from and why they rose
Choi Ju-hye  |  bibidibabidipoo@yonsei.ac.kr
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승인 2014.04.27  16:27:07
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"WHAT HAVE I to fear?" asked Tony Stark. Loki replied, "The Avengers. It's what we call ourselves. Sorta like a team. Earth's Mightiest Heroes type thing." This statement that Loki makes to Tony Stark means more than just introducing the Avengers; it demonstrates the extent to which superheroes have gained popularity among the world's audience, that they have now united as a team, reaching the world's mightiest status. Cinemas all over the world have been dominated by the superheroes for years, by those who possess superhuman powers that can save humanity from otherwise inevitable catastrophes. But why are these superheroes so popular? What is it about them that make the entire world go crazy? Where do they come from, where are they now, and where are they going?

The Birth of Superheroes

It was the DC Comics, one of the largest American companies in comic books, and the related contents that initiated the superhero theme in comic books. The first superhero that appeared in a Hollywood movie was “Superman,” in 1938. Created and presented by Richard Donnor, the movie “Superman” made Christopher Reeves, the actor who played Superman, the first (and the everlasting) hero of the United States. He was then subsequently followed by other emerging superhero-themed movies, such as "Batman," "Green Lantern," "X Man," and "Iron Man." These superheroes succeeded in attracting many people around the world, which is manifested by the fact that all the movies of the “Spiderman” series alone are within the twenties ranking of the world’s most watched movies. Thus, it would not be an overstatement to say that the sub-culture of the United States was mainly centered around these superheroes. Superhero movies further met a blooming period during the 1990s, when the Computer Graphics (CG) technology significantly developed, enabling the visual portrayal of superhero actions and powers that were hitherto impossible and unimaginable. Especially considering the fact that Hollywood was suffering from lack of movie themes around that time, the advent of superheroes and their mesmerizing superhuman feats was a miracle that was to be continued. It was through the superheroes that Hollywood and the US cinema industry was able to maintain and expand into the larger world market. From Perfect to Perfect Superheroes did transform as time passed, although they have always been perfect. In the United States, two different types of superheroes formed: the first type is value-representative, and the second type is human-attractive superhero. A value-representative superhero embraces a specific virtue or value system, demonstrating such characteristics through his actions and life. A good example of the first type is Batman, the quintessence of justice and the clear sense of right and wrong. It is evident that in all situations in the movie, Batman always strives to be the one who can distinguish the right from wrong and good from evil, the one who follows the instinctive righteousness that is not necessarily influenced nor changed by the societal rules and laws. These types show that superhero movies can surpass the mere purpose of entertainment; they prove that there is one or more moral lesson(s) that can be learned and hence can be didactic. The second type of superhero—the human attractive type—that began to emerge as the prominent type in the modern days, involves superheroes like Spiderman, Ironman, and X man whose humane personalities are more emphasized than other virtues. By appealing to the public with their humaneness, these superheroes succeed to connect with more audience more deeply, thereby engaging the audience into the movie. As aforementioned, Spiderman (Peter Parker) can be a humane-attractive hero in that he is greatly influenced and even swayed by his emotional state and struggles, which sometimes leads him to difficulties and dilemmas. When Peter Parker, the actual identity of Spiderman, experiences difficulties in his relationship with his love, MJ, he gets too emotionally upset that Spiderman’s superpower diminishes. Simultaneously, the clear distinction between the good and the evil that pervaded previous superhero movies is fading away by showing the behind stories of the supposed antagonists, making it harder for the audience to decide which side is the good and the bad one. Taking Doctor Octopus—Spider Man's arch-nemesis— for example, his disposition is known to have turned when he was abandoned by his lover, Mary Alice, and indirectly caused his mother's death. He also had a very turbulent, harsh childhood when he was bullied at school and his family broke apart. Considering such circumstances in which Doctor Octopus was raised, it becomes quite difficult to label him as an absolutely evil person. Hence, the dichotomy of good and evil becomes more complicated, considering other factors that have influenced the characters to become the way they are shown presently in the movie. Superheroes also began to alter culturally, as they began to spread from their origin—the United States—into the world. Amadeus Cho, a genius superhero created by the writer Greg Pak, is one of the most successful Asian superheroes. Cho, unlike Hulk or any other superhero who possess great physical powers, excels intellectually and appeals to the audience through his wisdom and knowledge. He deviates from the traditional depiction of superheroes who have overpowering physical strength, standing out as the outlier. On a similar vein, Korean superheroes who appear in Korean movies and drama are different and distinguished from those of the United States. In most of the Hollywood movies, the superheroes fight against a great, usually-unknown evil force which, in the end, perishes to elevate the superhero as the mighty savior. Korean heroes, on the other hand, are far from being perfect or elevated as "the" one; rather, they appeal to the audience by acting as the rescuers of the poor people, those who are most desperately in need of help, without revealing themselves too much. For instance, it can be reasonably stated that the purpose of the existence of the Korean legendary hero, Hong Gil-dong, is to help the poor by redistributing the wealth that had previously been unevenly and unjustly possessed. He steals the riches from the upper aristocrats, who have accumulated such wealth through unjust means, to secretly give them away to the poorest of the poor in the society. Hong Gil-dong rapidly emerges as a hero, but not for his perfection in super powers but for his philanthropic actions.

Why Superheroes?

    Then what is it about the superheroes that make them so attractive to the public? There are several historical, social, and psychological explanations suggested by the scholars and movie critics that render superheroes so interesting. A historical reason of the advent of superheroes is the lack of origin, or the establishment of U.S. identity. Unlike other countries in which a certain, usually divine leader who is capable of incredible feats is known to have established the country, U.S. does not have such legends or myths that conveys the significance of the nation's creation. For instance, Korea has the famous legend of Dangun, who is believed to have descended from the heaven and found the nation. Such legends, according to Kim Min-shik (Prof.,Dept. of Psychology, Yonsei Univ.), are almost crucial to maintaining the sense of community and superiority that is necessary for a nation. The belief that an establishment and existence of a nation is based on the divinity and heavenly will empowers the people with confidence, and almost rights, to continue adhering to their nation, claiming that they are its citizens, and promote the sense of their nationality. The legends act as incentives and driving force for patriotism and ultimately, the psychological maintenance of the notion of a community. On the other hand, it is widely known that the United States was first established by the European immigrants who had abandoned their previous settlements for religious freedom. Such evident historical fact does more than realistically explain the country's origin; it implies the deficit of the divine purpose in nation-building process. Thus, superheroes act to substitute this non-existing base of the nation by embodying justice, courage, and other virtues through which they save the entire humanity. A societal explanation for the popularity of superheroes can be accounted to the unstable, anxious social and economic situations including global financial crisis, shrinking job markets, and psychologically stressful societal atmospheres. Feeling frustrated and inept in the larger environment that cannot be controlled by an individual's will, the public can be consoled and experience catharsis by watching the superheroes achieve miraculous victory in the plot of the movie. Hwang Sang-min, a Psychology professor at Yonsei University, commented on such stress-relieving aspect of the superhero movies in the Union Press's article on October 23, 2013, "As the new government did not meet people's expectations and aroused dissatisfaction among the public, people started to turn towards the superheroes for psychological fulfillment that they cannot find in the realistic world." On a similar vein, it is often the case that the antagonists that the superheroes fight against are usually middle-aged, selfish men who only seek for their own benefit and good. For instance, the antagonist in the Iron Man, the comic book, is a middle-aged boss who calculates all the situations and manipulates those around him according to his own needs and interests. This reflects the societal situation of the United States in the 1960s and the 70s, when there were much controversies and debates going on in the society regarding various issues such as the Vietnam War, racism, and the Cuban issue. It, then, consequently demonstrates the complaint and challenge that the rising young generation of liberalism poses to the older, more traditional and hierarchic generation. There are several psychological reasons that accompany the popularity of superheroes as well. One of the simplest explanations on the superhero trend is the fact that any human being have imaged or thought about the fantasy of being a hero at least once. This daydreaming is common in almost all individuals, due to the fact that humans essentially are beings with limitations and inherently have the desire to be unlimited. Perhaps because of such prevalent dream that is shared by much of the populations all around the world, the superhero movies simply appeal to them in a sense that they revive and satisfy those fantasies that were never visualized before. Moreover, certain characteristics shared by the superheroes also serve as an important connecting mechanism between the heroes and the audience. The actual identity of superheroes is one characteristic that makes many superheroes attractive. Spiderman’s actual identity—the actual person behind the Spiderman custom— appearing as a normal, and even physically weak man who is bullied by many others for his infirmity and queerness renders the character more approachable and even empathize with the audience. As such, superheroes are usually the weakest, dumbest, and the least popular figures in their ordinary lives and yet once they transform, they change into the strongest, smartest, and the most popular hero in the society. This characteristic indirectly satisfies the audience's desire to escape their limits, weaknesses and turn into someone who is awesome, admired, and strong. Another common personality trait superheroes share with the audience is, surprisingly, their passivity. Most, if not all, of the superheroes actually never act in advance to prevent bad events from occurring—they merely react to mishaps and accidents once they happen. There is no act of prevention made nor is there any forethought that occurs to eliminate the evil force before it causes any damage. The passivity—perhaps you can call it untimeliness—of the superheroes can be well-connected with the majority of the audience, who also tend to be passive and un-acting. Because there are not many individuals who actually change the environment around them and ultimately the world, superheroes' passivity is understood by, and connects the audience to the characters in the movie. Why not Superheroes? Superheroes are not always welcomed, though. Despite all the visual attractiveness, astounding intelligence and captivating traits, there are many critics who scowl at the fantasy, addiction, and propaganda that Hollywood superhero movies elicit in the society. One of the most criticized aspects of superhero movies is their tendency to spread biased propaganda on a certain race, sex, and country. If you ever stop to think about it, in almost all the cases, superheroes are nice white men: ranging from Superman and Spiderman to Iron Man, all the prominently-recognized superheroes are represented by white males. And what is usually required or expected of a normal man in the actual society is possessed by those superheroes, which not only directly influences and enhances the 'good' characteristics that males should possess but also shapes and propagates the general notion of white men being all superhero-like. Similarly, the representation of women also gets somehow fixed and even biased through the superhero movies. Almost all the women who appear in the superhero movie are weak creatures who need the help of the heroes in order to be saved. Taking Spiderman for example, Mary Jane, played by Kirsten Dunst, is targeted by the Green Goblin who aims to kill Spiderman and hence attacks those who are dear to the superhero. As such, women in superhero movies are usually portrayed almost as being inferior to the men creatures in the movies and sometimes appear as being burdensome and as weaknesses to the superheroes. These depictions consequently maintain and even strengthen the sexist biases that are present in today's society. The superhero movies are also criticized for propagating American vision and values, secretly permeating through all the societies and spreading the pro-American ideas. The superhero movies are sometimes referred to as 'silent propaganda,' as they indirectly but significantly contribute to propagating the American ideologies. Kang Nae-young, a professor of the Department of Media in Mokwon University remarked in An Analysis on Superheroes Ideology, "The mass production of superhero movies is, industrial-wise, neoliberal and ideologically, a clandestine desire for cultural colonialism and justification for the expansion of the United States into the global issues." Jo Young-ju, the professor of the Department of Media and Commercials in Youngnam University, also added in his discourse Why I like Spiderman, "Of course, movie industries do not completely and entirely convey a country's ideology, but it is undeniable that movies have consistently contributed and regenerated the societal values and dominant beliefs of a country. Hence, getting used to the Holly superhero movies imply that we are getting used to the American ideologies without any resistance." After all, it is still undeniable that superhero movies were initially made for and tailored to the United States.

*              *              *

The elements many people consider as natural and take for granted in superhero movies actually have a meaningful background and history, with numerous changes throughout history. Having the Americans and now the entire world as their audience, the superhero movies serve to satisfy social, historical, and cultural needs of those who watch them, thereby arising as one of the most dominant trends across the global village. Yet, precisely because the impact of the superheroes is enormous, the negative side-effects of the aforementioned trend are just as powerful and fatal. While the growing scale of superhero movies can be noted, the formation of superhero teams both counteracts and narrows down the variety of superheroes, leaving the future of superheroes unclear and ambiguous. Ultimately, which path the superheroes will take remains to be seen— after all, they have all the superpowers to save themselves and the world from perishing.

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