The “Hero” in “Superhero”

Consider this post a companion piece to my previous one, wherein I discussed Peter Parker and the nature of heroism. Here, I plan on exploring this theme further, but expanding the parameters so as to include other characters besides just Spidey—specifically Superman and the Fantastic Four.

Last time I noted that “if inborn or accidentally-obtained superpowers are the only thing that makes your character a hero, then how much of a hero can he or she really be?” I failed to make note of the fact that there were at least a couple of occasions in the comics when Spidey actually did lose his powers. The earliest (and likely most famous) example was the first Spider-Man annual, wherein he was on the verge of having to face six of his greatest enemies (the Sinister Six) without his spider powers. These powers returned, however, just before any proper combat took place—a rather unusual circumstance for our normally-unlucky webhead.

Later in the tale, Spidey would posit that his power loss had been “psychosomatic” and brought on by “guilt.” In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, Spidey’s powers come and go in a similar fashion, which the Tobey Maguire-Spidey chalked up to an “existential crisis” in the most recent Spider-Man film, No Way Home. The other famous instance of this in the comics was Amazing Spider-Man #200 (Jan. 1980), when a drug from Mysterio causes Spidey to temporarily lose his spider powers again, forcing him to confront Uncle Ben’s killer without said powers.

Many other superheroes have found themselves in similar circumstances over the decades, as this plot has become something of a standard. Writers keep coming back to it because it’s naturally dramatic and also serves as a strong character study. No true hero will ever refuse to meet their opponent and fight/compete with them on even terms. In fact, they will always press on when innocent lives are at stake, regardless of the odds, even if it means sacrificing their own life. Conversely, the villain will take unfair advantage of his opponent whenever the opportunity presents itself, and shamelessly flee if their own health or safety is ever at risk. This is an important part of what defines heroes and villains as such in fiction.

A classic Superman story from the early part of the Silver Age serves as a very strong example of this trope—perhaps the strongest possible example, in fact.

“The Showdown Between Luthor and Superman!”

Written by Edmond Hamilton with pencils by Curt Swan and inks by George Klein, “The Showdown Between Luthor and Superman!” took place in Superman #164 (Oct. 1963). In the story, Luthor escapes from jail and challenges Superman to meet in a “fair” fight—one where Supes doesn’t have the advantage of all his super powers. Superman, being a man of honor, naturally accepts.

Modern readers will likely find the set up to be a huge plot contrivance, as Superman is the one who finds a planet under a red sun to serve as their battleground and takes Luthor there with him. Realistically, legal authorities would not be happy to see Supes take this extremely dangerous, convicted criminal anywhere… and certainly not off world! I think it would have worked a lot better if Luthor escaped to the red-sun world himself and then dared Superman to come get him. Regardless, the two quickly make their way to this world and commence their duel.

At first, in a battle of straight fisticuffs, Luthor starts out fast, giving Supes a black eye (as depicted on the issue’s cover), but this is largely because Superman is accustomed to holding back when fighting someone. He recovers quickly and proceeds to knock Luthor out in short order. Supes goes to get his fallen opponent some water, but then a combination of Luthor’s treachery and climatic conditions separate the two.

Luthor stumbles upon a human civilization and uses his scientific genius to help them with some of their problems. He does this to gain favor with the people so that they’ll help him destroy Superman, but appears taken aback when they hail him as a hero. The one problem Luthor can’t solve for them is the massive drought with which they’re struggling.

Supes eventually catches up with Luthor and they resume their battle, with Luthor having come up with some fresh, fiendish devices to fight for him. Eventually, however, it comes back down to a physical fight, with the crowd solidly behind Luthor and booing Superman. Just as Luthor is on the verge of victory, his will seems to falter and Superman prevails. As Superman is taking him back to Earth, Luthor requests that Supes replenish the world’s water supply via some giant icebergs from a lifeless ice planet, and Superman happily agrees to do so.

“Luthor, did you deliberately let me beat you, so that with my super powers I could help keep your promise to those people to whom you’re a hero?”

“Ridiculous!” Luthor responds, but he then thinks to himself, “He guessed my motives in losing the duel… but I’ll never admit to him that I went soft!”

The story ends with Superman passing along a photo of a statue of Luthor that the people of this planet (eventually to be named “Lexor”) had created in tribute. Luthor is rather touched by this.

“A great statue of me… on the one world where I’m a hero! It was worth coming back to prison for!”

As we can see, this story is not only a great character study for Superman, it is an equally great (if not greater) character study for Lex Luthor.

But the wider point of this post remains this: A superhero has to be more than just their super powers. It has to be something in their character or make up that makes them genuine heroes. In the case of Spider-Man, as previously discussed, his intellect and staggering scientific skills are what make him “super,” but it’s his character, his sense of responsibility, that make him a hero. Any characters that are going to call themselves “heroes” or “superheroes” have to have selflessness and honor as core traits in order to be truly heroic.

This holds even more true for Superman. Since he is the first and most powerful comic book superhero, he has to be the most noble and honorable, as these traits are what justify him wielding such power and holding such a position. When Superman is written well, it will be crystal clear to every reader that it is precisely these traits, his character and his nobility, that truly make him both super and a hero; that define him as Superman. Any Kryptonian can visit Earth and have the same superpowers, but that doesn’t make them Superman. Only Superman can be Superman.

Superman II

Continuing with the train of thought of a powerless Superman (and as long as we’re invoking movies over these last two posts), let’s circle back to a major pet peeve of mine courtesy of the film Superman II from 1981. This film also shows us a Superman stripped of his powers, but utterly fails in portraying the situation properly.

Anyone who has seen the film (and shame on you if you haven’t) knows that at one point Superman gives up his powers so that he can live a more normal life with Lois Lane. Almost immediately afterward, the powerless Clark Kent, along with Lois, runs afoul of this bully at a diner. In an act of proper manly honor, Clark invites the bully to “step outside” to settle their differences. When Clark turns his back, the bully attacks him from behind, sending him through some glass and causing him to bleed in a very dramatic moment. So far, in terms of character and narrative, none of this is bad—but things are about to take a turn.

Clark tells Lois, self-deprecatingly, “I think maybe you ought to hire a bodyguard from now on.”

“I don’t want a bodyguard,” Lois responds, “I want the man I fell in love with.”

‘I know that, Lois. I wish he were here.”

Oof. This was hard to hear for any true Superman fan. But it would get even worse.

So Clark steps to the bully once again and the bully laughs. An elbow to the gut followed by one punch in the mouth and Clark is done—not only did Clark do nothing in the fight, he appeared incapable of even defending himself. Lois then jumps on the bully and seems to be a more effective fighter than Clark could ever dream of being. After getting her off his back, the bully walks out while Lois consoles a whimpering and moaning Clark, who’s still lying on the floor.

Great Krypton, you could not have accomplished greater character assassination against the Man of Steel if you tried—and they weren’t trying, folks! And it gets even worse still!

In the denouement of the film, the re-powered Kent returns to this same diner to give the bully a thrashing. Problem is: doesn’t this make Kent the bully now? He returned to fight the guy with an outrageously unfair advantage, given that he had his powers back at this point. In addition, it screams to the audience that Superman is an absolute nobody without those super powers. This is the worst possible message to send in a Superman story.

If I had the opportunity to edit or correct this, here’s how I would have handled it: the powerless Clark Kent encounters the bully in the diner. They get into a brief fight and, despite his lack of super strength, Clark still knocks him to the floor, seemingly victorious. Then Clark turns away and the bully attacks from behind, knocking him through the glass, causing Clark to bleed, still giving you that dramatic moment of him seeing his own blood for the first time. Meanwhile, the other patrons of the diner grab the bully and throw him out of the place before he can do any further damage (and we never see the guy in the movie again).

This would show that Superman doesn’t need any super powers to put a common bully in his place. The injury would be a result of a cowardly attack from behind, not from any real superiority on the bully’s part. All the injury would prove, then, is that Superman was (at that time) no longer immune to mundane human violence and treachery; not that he suddenly rendered himself utterly ineffective and useless. What they gave us on screen made Superman into a pathetic weakling, while that final end scene was even worse, making him look like a coward and a bully himself. Superman should absolutely never be portrayed in such a light.

Somebody should have given the screenwriters a copy of Superman #164 to read before they got started on their script.

Now let’s move on to the Fantastic Four, in a story that gets it right.

“What If the Fantastic Four Had Not Gained Their Super-Powers?”

Once again, a discrepancy between the cover title and the interior title in a What If? comic, albeit the discrepancy is rather slight this time. The cover of What If? #36 (Dec. 1982) reads, “What If the Fantastic Four Had Not Gained Their Super-Powers?” while the title page omits the “super,” reading simply, “What If the Fantastic Four Had Not Gained Their Powers?” (I wonder just how often the cover titles exactly matched the interior titles in these What If? comics. Not very often, I’m guessing.)

The story is precisely what the title(s) tell us: we get an alternate reality where Reed, Ben, Sue, and Johnny have no super powers. This altered reality is achieved when Reed suddenly develops a cool head, deciding to wait until they’ve received proper authorization for their space flight and all sensible safety precautions have been enacted. This allows their flight to be a tremendous success, which leads to Reed getting massive funding for his future scientific endeavors and basically 100% support and cooperation from the federal government. “Within the year” of the now-successful space flight, Earth becomes “a true space-faring planet, with outposts on a dozen different worlds.” Further, “with renewed government funding, Reed Richards’ rocket group has grown indeed. The patent for the star-drive is in Reed’s name, and with the wealth accrued from its use… he has created a vast scientific complex, dedicated to the advancement of mankind.”

When the Mole Man appears (right on schedule, as per Fantastic Four #1 in 1961), Reed, Ben, Sue, and Johnny are able are able to thwart him with even greater dispatch, thanks to the superior technology they’re wielding. The story concludes with the Watcher observing, “The Fantastic Four have none of their amazing powers to help them on this other Earth…. But it would seem their ingenuity and strength of spirit will serve them in good stead, even without the effects of the cosmic rays. Truly can it be said that it is the man, not the powers, that make the hero!”

Pretty much the exact same conclusion reached in that ’95 What If? story discussed last time.

The intriguing part about this altered state of affairs is what it reveals about Reed and the team in the regular Marvel reality. The implication is that if Reed had not been so reckless, he would have received similar support and the Marvel Universe would have been a much better place as a result. In other words, we’re given another (relatively rare) example of a What If? story that turns out happier than the standard reality—happier for the characters and their world, that is, not the readers. It seems unlikely that readers would be as thrilled by the adventures of a non-superpowered quartet and much prefer reading the adventures of Mr. Fantastic, the Thing, the Invisible Girl, and the Human Torch every month.

Being many years older now than when I last read this tale, and thus wiser and more mature (I hope!), there’s another, even deeper aspect to the story that also struck me after reading it in preparation for this post. Now we all know Ben Grimm/the Thing was terribly traumatized by that ill-advised rocket flight, but it only just occurred to me that the other three members of that flight crew had to be traumatized too, right? Not as much as Ben, certainly, but still, it had to be a significant trauma for them as well. It hit me that not only is Ben happier and mentally healthier in this alternate reality, but really everyone is.

I haven’t kept up with more modern comics, so I don’t know if any later-era writers ever explored this, but if not, it would seem an interesting thread to pick up. I know I’ve been critical of writer/artist John Byrne in the past, but he really did an excellent job on this one.

Circling back to our primary theme, always remember the words of the Watcher: “Truly can it be said that it is the man, not the powers, that make the hero!”

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