What makes a superhero, a superhero? Is it the ability to fly, beat bad guys to a pulp or to be invisible? None actually. Superheroes are not defined, contained or enriched by their powers. Some are born with them and others find them. It doesn’t matter how a superhero comes to have powers. What matters is how they use them and how they fare without them.
There is a scene in Spider-Man: Homecoming where Tony Stark (Ironman) admonishes Spider-Man and asks him to return his suit. Spider-Man says, “But I am nothing without the suit!”. Tony replies, “If you are nothing without the suit then you shouldn’t have it”. In the same multiverse at about the same time, Thor loses his Mjölnir, his hammer, literally his mojo. He is distraught. His father’s ghost explains to him (Lion King style) that the hammer was only to channel his powers. It was never the source of his powers. It rings true for all superheroes. If your power is an external source, if what sets you apart is not within you, then you are no superhero. You are an average person who got lucky. Luck runs out.
Love and selflessness don’t. I ridiculed Dumbledore’s notion of love being the most powerful magic of all. Now I get it. Though technically not a superhero but a work of fantasy fiction, Harry Potter destroys a far stronger opponent. He embraces death to save his people and that gives him power Voldemort never had – of putting others first and being unafraid of death so you may fight without fear. That is the power of love. Your life is not your own, it belongs to your people. You can give it up in an instant if need be.
When Batman flies into the sky with a nuke (Tony Stark does it too), it is only out of love. They had Charles Dickens in their mind.
It’s a common misconception that Bruce Wayne is Batman because of his money. His money allowed him the state of the art gadgets and batmobile but they are not why he is Batman. He is Batman because when he lost his family, he channelled that anguish to fight crime. To bring justice so that another child wouldn’t have to lose his family. That’s a superhero. Not the guy with the flashy car.
At the same time, superheroes aren’t always bringing light and saving the world. They also commit disastrous blunders. Tony Stark created Ultron, Batman doesn’t kill The Joker, Hulk destroys buildings like they are made of paper and many more. They have their flaws, their internal demons. They are often vulnerable, get their hearts broken, fight with each other, just like us. Sometimes they are on the verge of giving up and being ordinary. What sets them apart is that they don’t. At the end of the day they rise. They don’t let their mistakes and vulnerabilities cloud their judgement. That’s what makes them superheroes. They are beaten (especially Captain America, he gets thrashed by everyone). Yet they never stop fighting back.
Batman loses the love of his life yet he trains harder than ever to save and protect his people. Harry Potter took on a troll when he was just 11 to save a person he didn’t even like! Superheroes are brave beyond measure. They rarely take a calculated risk. They throw themselves in dangerous situations to protect others without a moment’s hesitation. This comes naturally to them. That’s why they are more than heroes. That’s why they are superheroes.
Superheroes aren’t born, they are made. Kal-El was born with superhuman abilities. But we don’t know him. We know Superman who used his abilities for the benefit of all humankind. He is a beacon of hope because of all the good he has done and sacrifices he has made. There are people like that who blur the line between fact and fiction. They are born just as ordinary as us but their courage, selflessness and conviction propel them to a higher plane. They rise above and beyond all adversities to bring hope in a cynical time.
It is like Charles Dickens said in A Tale Of Two Cities:
“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
[Dedicated to my superheroes, Dad and Sir]