I'm one of those long-time comic book nerds that liked superheroes before their subculture just became, well, pop culture. From my long-time fandom stems an embarrassing sense of excitement whenever I learn that a new superhero movie adaptation is on the way. However, as the years went by and the comic book movie genre began growing in popularity, I noticed these superheroes had started to lose their impact on me.
That fading enthusiasm had me worried. Was my love for superheroes just a phase that was wearing off after all these years? No. I still loved superheroes; it was just the movies that stopped resonating as strongly with me. No, it was something else, but a something else that was hard to pinpoint. I went around in circles in my head until a dusty lightbulb turned on.
I realized that where superhero movies had started to lose me was when they started favoring spectacle over character and focusing on big action set pieces over what made their titular characters so special. Yes, we were getting plenty of eye-popping confrontations between characters like Batman and Superman, the Hulkbuster vs. Hulk, Iron Man and Captain America, etc, but they came as a result of burying the true essence of what a hero is.
A Story That Changed My Life
I knew this quirky kid years ago, one with glasses and a haircut reminiscent of a young George McFly from Back to the Future. He was isolated, didn't speak to anyone other than a couple of friends. He loved #superheroes, though, and he always had a comic book in hand during recess. Unfortunately, that was the bullies' favorite time to pick on him. The ever-popular jocks would take one look at his peculiar reading material and either shove him down onto the floor, or give him a beating.
But just like Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger, he shook it off and came back to school, each day with a different comic book to read, whether it was Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Daredevil or the X-Men.
That resilience, however, had a price and the bullying continued. At the time, superheroes weren't the franchise-carrying icons we know them to be today, and as a result, they didn't grant you good street cred in most schoolyards. Finally my curiosity got the better of me: I wanted to know what motivated him to go to school wearing his love for superheroes as a badge of honor, when he knew it would only get his butt kicked and items of value flushed down the toilet.
So I sat down next to this kid during recess. He fearfully put his comic away, and I asked him what his deal with costumed adventurers was, using myself as an example: I loved them, but I didn't broadcast it around the bigger guys, whom I knew could take my head off with their worked-out pinkies.
To enlighten me, he told me a story. As it turned out, he lived with... well, not so nice people. He suffered brutal beatings, constant psychological abuse, and other nightmarish daily realities that I won't go into here. Unlike most kids we knew, he didn't have a safe space to go to after school. He was in a constant hostile environment, divided in different locations.
Understandably, it took a toll on him. He confessed something to me: There'd been countless times in which he considered suicide. That day, in fact, he'd thought about jumping out his bedroom window, thought about closing his eyes and letting himself go while the world continued on without him. But there were two things that stopped him from doing that: His comic books and his superheroes. Somehow, some way, they inspired him to get back up and keep going every time he wanted to give up.
Superheroes Represented Who He Wanted To Be
Seeing the curiosity on my face, he was kind enough to explain. You see, people may have thought of #SpiderMan as simply a quippy acrobat with a penchant for getting into fights with bigger guys than himself. But that boy saw Spidey as a guy his own age, one who would encourage him to stand up to bullies in school. Peter Parker's jokes would lift him up after receiving a particularly brutal beating at home.
#Batman was the billionaire Caped Crusader who spent his nights being the Dark Knight to general readers. For him—a kid whose family couldn't even afford a pair of pants that properly fit him—Bruce Wayne became something more, a good man who had everything but decided to risk his neck every day for people like him, that abused kid. As for #CaptainAmerica? He taught the kid discipline and perseverance. Asking himself what Steve Rogers would do kept the kid strong on days when he wasn't allowed to eat anything, when he starved for days at a time to the point where he couldn't even sit straight, and his eyelids felt like ten-pound dumbbells.
I was speechless. I'd never heard anything like that, and I was conflicted. At the end of the day, these fictional characters didn't save him. They may have offered an escape from reality, but they didn't help him when he was being beaten, or abused, or denied food—he ultimately helped himself. So why did he hold such a special place in his heart for superheroes? Once again, he corrected me. They may not have been there physically, but their presence was enough to keep him going:
"'They're the people I wish would be there by my side to defend me when I'm scared, when I need saving. Superheroes are my personal promise that everything will get better.'"
As someone who had loved comic books since I was a kid myself, I felt like I knew superheroes like the back of my hand, that I understood them and their motivations. But by opening his heart to me, this peculiar little kid opened my eyes to the fact that, to many, superheroes were much more than dressed-up entertainers fighting colorful bad guys. They're figures of hope, a promise of bright light at the end of dark tunnels. They're role models for those who don't have, but often sorely need, one. They are the voice that whispers to a kid contemplating doing the unthinkable to hold on for just...one...more...day.
Movies Need To Get Back To Making It About Heroes, Not Spectacle
We used to see representations of that in movies like Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, when Spidey gives all of himself to protect children; The First Avenger, when Steve Rogers throws himself in front of a grenade to protect his friends; in 1989's Batman, even Iron Man, as Tony discovers a new, more righteous side of life. That's from where my frustration with modern comic book movies slowly built up. While there are certainly touching moments to be found in each new superhero adventure, too many of them have shied away from those noble elements that really make us care for a hero, that make us aspire to want to be them, and for the right reasons. Traits which, in certain dire circumstances, can save a kid's life more than delivering cool action sequences and attractive visuals.
A costume and a bad guy to beat up don't make the superhero, as children are erroneously led to believe by most modern superhero movies. There's nothing wrong behind embracing those elements in a movie –– in fact, they're quite welcome. But superheroes carry a huge responsibility to their fandom. At their best and most inspiring, they are examples to follow. Beneath the tights, powers and out-of-this-world physiques, it's who they are inside that endears them to people, and that needs to be reflected in their different adaptations. It's not about their muscles; it's about their heart and their minds.
Embracing fictional characters like that may sound ridiculous or goofy to some, but they're the perfect friends to have by your side when you're having a bad day, to offer uplifting words when you're going through a tough time. As #StanLee wisely said in the final panel of Amazing Fantasy #15, "With great power, there must also come great responsibility."
Keep in mind, that's not to say the comic book movie genre is getting it all wrong. There have been a few recent examples of films that truly capture their titular heroes' essence, such as #WonderWoman, #SpiderManHomecoming, and #GuardiansOfTheGalaxyVol2. To continue that good streak, studios just need to take care of one thing: Not bury the essence of the characters they're handling beneath a thick and undistinguishable layer of action and spectacle.
The stories need to explore the question of who these people are at their core: What motivates to go out and defend those less powerful than them? What makes them want to fight injustice on a daily basis, despite the fact that there will always be evil in the world? Those questions are the perfect opportunities for studios to craft heroes as fully-formed characters and not just chess pieces to be moved around between action sequences. I'm confident we'll we see that more often.
To this day, I don't know why that boy from school opened up to me. Maybe he was trying to avoid me taking his comic book away, maybe he just needed someone to talk to. But I sit back sometimes and think about how he changed me with his life story, how he gave me a new perspective on characters I thought I knew so well. That's something I'll always carry with me.