With Great Power...
Why do we like stories about super heroes?
Every summer, without fail and without abandon, several movies will come out about ordinary people who have extraordinary power. I'm talking about superheroes, of course. Superman, the X-Men, Iron man, Batman, the list goes on. As a culture right now we are inundated with these power-toting, tight-uniform-wearing, death-defying saviors of the entire universe. There's a problem, it threatens the entire world, and there is only one person (or one team of people) who can solve it. The circumstances and scenery might change around these characters, but the constant is that these are all action stories with some other stuff thrown in for flavor.
I'm not saying that they are all the same. Well, I kind of am saying that, but bear with me. When you cut down to the heart of things, almost all stories are the same. But don't let me get all philosophical and blue-sky-thinking on you, there's plenty of that to come. I intend to break down these genres and really dig into them to see what I can find. Yes it's all speculation on my part, yes I'm doing my best to research these topics and cultivate a better understanding of things, but at the end of the day I'm just a guy with some opinions about things. I get things wrong. I'm under no illusion that what I have to say about something is the last word that is to be spoken on the subject. What I'm doing here is trying to work out these subjects myself, and the reason I post this stuff is to get you, dear reader, to think about it as well.
Movies, and particularly superhero movies, often get accused of not having an original thought. Look in the box office at the summer lineup and you'll see sequels, prequels, reboots, spin offs, movies based on books, movies based on TV shows, movies based on comics. After a while you begin to wonder if there are any more original stories to tell. Has every story been told? Has every tale been spun? Has every narrative thread been tied off in a neat little bow, snipped clean so that nothing else can slip in?
I don't think so.
Sure, every type of story has been told. And like I mentioned above, when you cut deep enough, most stories are about the same thing. What hasn't been exhausted, and what can't be exhausted, is how those stories are told. We all have a unique voice, a unique style, a specific view of the world that can't be replicated in another human being. You can get close, but never exactly match. That's because we all have a little thing called consciousness. We are all constantly having experiences, and there are no two people in the world in the entire history of the human race, that have had the exact same set of experiences. Close, sure, but not exact. Those variances are what make you uniquely you.
You do have a story to tell. It's your story. Sure it may sound a lot like someone else, and if you took the outline it might look exactly the same as one or two others that you come across. But when you flesh that story out, when you put some meat on those bones, the story takes on something of yourself. That's something that nobody else can do for you, because they would do it in their own style, injecting themselves into the story.
Weren't you talking about superhero stories? you ask. Land that plane!
Let me beg your indulgence for a minute. The plane does land. We are not going down in the Hudson. You will make it to Charlotte with dry socks and luggage.
In the story of your life, you are the protagonist. At least, I hope you are. If you look at your life, examine it, and discover that you are some side-character in your own story, or even the antagonist, then we might need to take a step back from this particular discussion and think about why that is. I plan on exploring that very topic in a future post, but for now let's assume that you are the hero of your story.
In your story there are problems and setbacks and relationships and character development, it just happens over a long period of time. Instead of an hour and a half in front of a giant IMAX screen, these plot developments roll over weeks, months, years, even decades. It's a slow burn, but it is your story. And in your story, those problems and setbacks are your world. The world as you know it is in danger. Yes that is a bit over-dramatic for a lot of minor plot arcs in your life like that time you forgot to take your phone charger to work and your iPhone died in the middle of an epic Crossy Road run, forcing you to email your wife and tell her that you could only be reached via your work number and realizing that you were going to have to actually work at work that day (hypothetically, of course). Call it a B plot. Iron Man just wants his shawarma--and for the aliens to stop attacking Manhattan--but he does want that tasty Mediterranean sandwich too.
We all want to be strong enough, fast enough, smart enough to be able to save the entire world when the world needs saving. At least, we think that we want that. Really what we want is to be able to have those TPS report on our boss's desk by the end of the day and not have to sweat about it.
I often wonder about what would really happen if regular people like you and me had the power to save the world. If you or I had Superman's powers (not if we were Superman, because if you were Superman you would do what Superman does, since you would have his experiences and world view and would not, therefore, be you), would we really go out of our way to save the world? I would want to say yes to that question, and you would probably answer the same, but when the rubber meets the road would we just fly off into the sunset and explore the universe? Retreat into the fortress of solitude for just a week or two and finally catch up on those seasons of the Wire that you never got around to watching because you just can't even do it anymore. You're Superman, you don't need to work or worry about other trivial life things.
And that is where things get interesting. To quote a superhero movie: "With great power comes great responsibility." Maybe you aren't a superhero, but you do have some power in the world, however large or small that power is.
So is it escapism we're looking for? The simple answer is yes. Why else would you go to a movie except to escape your real life? OK, maybe you would go to some documentary about the decline of African Dung beetles (is that a thing?) or about some fancy new diet that can fix your problems in order to learn something new or engage with the narrative of current world events or history, but even those things have an element of escapism to them.
So why superheroes?
I think it's because we all want to be one, but we actually really don't want to be one. We want the problems of the world to be fixed, just by someone else.
But what if you were a superhero?
What if you tried to fix something small in your world, in your sphere of influence? Because I'm here to tell you that you do have the power. And I'm also here to tell you that you have the responsibility commensurate with that power. As long as you keep doing the same things over and over again, you're going to get the same results. If you aren't happy with the results, if there is a pain point in your world that keeps coming back, maybe--just maybe--you need to do something differently.
You have the power to do something about it.