In search of superheroes

In search of  superheroes

For all of us who’ve been brought up on a staple diet of comic-book do-gooders — which ‘category’ does your favourite fall under?



By Vir Sanghvi

Published: Sat 16 Feb 2013, 1:07 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 9:58 AM

By some coincidence, I watched the new American TV show Arrow, and the 
Andrew Garfield-led reboot of Spiderman on two conse-cutive nights. I am not sure you’ve heard of Arrow, but it is based on the old Green Arrow comic book. In the comic, Green Arrow was an archer who fought criminals while dressing like a man who had escaped from the sets of a Robin Hood movie. The TV show updates his cost-ume by putting him in a hood so that he looks nothing like Robin Hood. In fact, he looks like a mugger.

The Amazing Spiderman is an attempt to do to the Spiderman franchise what the Christian Bale-Christopher Nolan movies did to Batman. It goes back to the very origins of Spiderman and tells us how nerdy Peter Parker became a 
superhero while still remaining, well, nerdy Peter Parker.

There’s a new Superman movie on the way: it should be out over the summer. And the two biggest box-office grossers of 2012 were The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. So, I guess it is fair to say that when it comes to the box-office, superheroes rule.

But am I the only one to feel that most superheroes can now be placed into one of three clearly-defined categories?

Category one is the crime-fighting billionaire. The first billionaire superhero was, believe it or not, the Phantom. In his original avatar, Phantom lived in an American city and donned his costume and mask to fight crime every night. Then, Batman came along. Bruce Wayne is a billionaire playboy who spends his days partying and then turns into Batman when the sun goes down. Because Batman was such a success, Lee Falk, the creator of the Phantom was advised 
to move his hero out of America. So, the Phantom took up residence in the Skull Cave and the similarities with Batman were excised from the strip. (Till the end of his life, Falk insisted that Batman was a complete copy of the Phantom.)

Oliver Queen, the millionaire who turns into Green Arrow, is also a Batman-like figure, except that his technology is much more primitive. And then, there’s that other crime-fighting billionaire, Tony Stark, who turns into Ironman whenever the folks from Marvel Comics give him a call.

The second category of superhero is the alien. The most famous of these 
heroes is undoubtedly Superman. He is a visitor from another world but takes it upon himself to fight for ‘truth, justice and the American way’.

There have been other alien superheroes before, among them the Martian Manhunter, Jon Jonz (forgive me, if I have got the spelling wrong but the poor man seems to have gone the way of life on Mars and disappeared). The Martian Manhunter never really made it big but Wonderwoman, who remains the most famous female superhero, also comes from the alien school of origins. In the comics, she’s not really an alien but a goddess of some description. And the movies make it clear that while Thor may be a god, he also belongs to another world whose denizens take it upon themselves to drop in on earth every now and then. For instance, the action in The Avengers movie centres around Loki, the God of Mischief, who pays a deadly visit to earth.

That leaves the third category: the 
superhero created by science. They’ve tweaked the origins of Spiderman in the reboot but the basic principle is the same. Peter Parker assumes spider-like powers by accidently blundering into a scientific experiment. (In one comic book origin story, Peter becomes Spiderman because he is bitten by a radioactive 
spider.) So it is with Captain America. He is a weakling transformed into a superhero thanks to an injection invented by a doctor who wants him to participate in America’s battle against the Nazis. The Hulk is also created as a consequence of a scientific experiment that goes horribly wrong. I am guessing here but I seem to remember that The Flash and The Atom also owe their powers to science.

There are, of course, a few heroes who do not fit into the standard categories. In the old days, there was Captain 
Marvel, who was actually a small boy who turned into a superhero every time he yelled ‘Shazam’. This was, apparently, the doing of a wizard. And then, there’s Green Lantern, the subject of a recent movie, whose origin is part science, part alien.

In the comics, Hal Jordan, a test pilot meets an alien who recruits him to be part of an inter-planetary police force called The Green Lantern Corps. Jordan has no powers but the aliens give him a power ring which allows him to do pretty much whatever he likes from beating up villains to flying to distant galaxies.

Super-villains also have the same sorts of origins. Superman’s arch enemy, Lex Luthor, is a billionaire who turns into a criminal when he is not running his empire. Catwoman is a burglar called Selina Kyle who discovers that she suddenly has interesting powers (but beware: there are many versions of Catwoman’s origins though the story of the Michelle Pfeiffer version is pretty much the template now). The Joker is an ordinary criminal who falls into a vat of green paint and turns into a deranged super-villain. Most of Spiderman’s enemies seem either to be alien-type figures or are the results of scientific experiments gone wrong.

Is it possible that there is a fourth 
category that I have not thought of? I’m sure there is. And if you have any sugges-tions, do email me.


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