The modern version of the super-action-hero can be traced to Jerry Siegel in the early 1930s, who, along with illustrator Joe Shuster, developed many different characters for comic books and strips for newspapers including Superman. But Siegel’s first version of Superman was a total failure, because he made him ‘flawed’, someone that would use his extraordinary powers for personal gain and was something of a bully. The first version was also bald. After many makeovers, changes to the backstory, and noting that ‘bad’ guys don’t sell newspapers very well, (his Superman stories were rejected by publishers for years) he finally settled on the version we have today: a nearly invincible man, handsome, incorruptible, honest to the core, who stands for justice, and who is a champion of the downtrodden.
Siegel didn’t invent the notion of an extraordinary fictional human or the idea of heroes in general or science fiction. Science fiction writing had been around for some time. He didn’t create the word ‘superman’. The general public had used the term for years to talk about any man that had unusually high ability in any area. He wasn’t even the first to use it in science fiction stories. But what he did do was create a template for what would become the modern action hero.
Why are modern action heroes big business? They are fiction, they don’t exist in reality, and they are creative constructs of human imagination. In general they have no relationship to how the world of humans or the Universe actually works. And yet people flock to theaters to see their imaginative exploits, e.g. correcting wrongs, standing against tyranny, and saving the world.
One could argue that the modern superhero is today’s version of ancient myths with just a few differences. Nearly every creation story from human cultures for all of recorded history and probably well before had some version of a super hero. They set in place rules of conduct, they had superpowers to control the forces of Nature, they provided explanations for creation, and they could intervene in individual human affairs in ‘supernatural’ ways by bypassing Natural laws, thereby directing and altering human destiny. They drew a sense of awe and devotion just as imaginative super heroes do today and for a large swath of the population.
On one level people are attracted to super heroes because they can do what ordinary people cannot. Through imagination, a person can sit safely in a theater chair and transform him or herself into that imaginary figure and story on the screen. Without any danger we can save the children in the school bus from crashing over the bridge, or take out a squadron of the ‘bad guys’, or make the entire earth spin in the opposite direction. We can stand against the forces of greed and injustice. We can save the damsel in distress. And we can do it all despite bombs and lasers and fistfights with equally endowed bad guys without getting a single scratch. There are armchair quarterbacks and there are armchair heroes.
Siegel’s first version of superman didn’t sell because it was too realistic. How many people would not use special powers of an indestructible nature to their own advantage? Use them to gain great power. Use them to force on others their own version of accepted conduct. Use them to gain great control. On a human level we do this as a matter of living, using innate abilities and talents to our own advantage.
Heroes and messiahs do not have superpowers. They do not possess any abilities or talents that billions of other people don’t have. They are or at least could be you or me. They don’t wear gaudy costumes or hide their identity. But like Siegel’s ultimate creation, they do stand up for what nearly everyone can agree are the best ideals of humanity: justice, courage, compassion, honesty, integrity, sacrifice.
But Siegel’s ultimate version of Superman is flawed because he has no flaws. It would be easy to do all those wondrous and death-defying things, for good or ill, without worrying about physical harm. It would be easy to smother an exploding bomb in your cape if you knew it wouldn’t hurt you. It doesn’t take courage to do that. But a true hero is a flawed real person thrust into a situation that requires an extraordinary physical and/or mental effort, a situation often fraught with danger, but forges ahead because he or she believes in the best ideals of humanity.