Archive for the 'Superheroes' Category

The Greatest Power

By Rick Hutchins

If you had the choice of any super power, which would you choose?

This question is asked frequently at dinner parties, in coffee houses, on Internet community forums and on personality tests. It’s always interesting and revealing to hear how each person would take advantage of one chance to make an exception to the laws of reality, to find out which power they think is the greatest. But it’s usually answered as a lark, with whimsy — time travel to go back and invest in Microsoft or invisibility to hang out in the high school locker room — or with a darker undercurrent of wish fullfilment — super strength or mind control to take revenge on those who have done us wrong. Only a small number seem to respond thoughtfully on what power would bring the greatest good to the greatest number.

Only a small number seem to fantasize about being a hero.

Because that’s the problem with super powers. Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The original super-hero was Superman; he provided the template for all who were to follow and he was gifted with multiple powers. He was super strong, he could fly and see through walls, and move faster than the speed of sound. He could melt lead just by looking at it and his very breath could surpass the strength of a hurricane. Bullets and lasers bounced harmlessly off his skin. He could pass through the heart of a star unharmed. If ever there was a man with absolute power, Superman was he.

But consider how this man lived. The most powerful man in the world worked as an anonymous reporter, disguised as a mild-mannered everyman, bullied by his boss and rebuffed by the women at the office. His downtime was spent in his Fortress of Solitude, in quiet contemplation among the souvenirs and mementos of his extraordinary life. He could have had any woman he wanted, by force or charisma; he could have had any riches that he desired; he could have ruled the world, for no one would have dared deny him anything. Instead, he used his power to protect the planet, to defend the defenseless and to help down cats who were stuck up in trees.

From the day we are born, we are told that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But Superman, the iconic figure of our subconscious desire for greatness, puts the lie to that. He tells us that you can have all the power in the world and still live a life of humility and generosity. He shows us that the greatest power is incorruptibility.

None of us will ever leap a tall building in a single bound, change the course of a mighty river or bend steel in our bare hands. Seldom is any one person put in a position to save the world or to alter the destiny of Humanity. But we can always return that lost wallet with the contents intact, tell the truth when it matters, stand our ground when it’s easier to walk away or do unto others as we want them to do unto us.

Everyone has the potential to be a hero because everyone has the power to be incorruptible.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and has been an avid admirer of heroism since the groovy 60s. In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

This is Hutchins’ fourth guest blog post here.  His first two, on astronaut and scientist Mae Jemison and the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, will appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

Superman’s Song: Transfiguring a Superhero

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

It actually seems strange that so few of our blogs here have been devoted to superheroes.  By definition, they are the perfect representation of the way people think about heroes.  They have all the key personal attributes.  In our book, we reported the traits that research participants used to describe heroes.  We called them the Great Eight.  And Superman, the quintessential superhero, illustrates them better than almost anyone.  The “Man of Steel” who “fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way” is Strong, Smart, Selfless, Caring, Charismatic, Resilient, Reliable and Inspiring.  Perhaps Superman’s most obvious heroic characteristic is Strong, but he does pretty well on all the others.

So it would seem that there would be little need to embellish the myth further, and make Superman a Transfigured Hero.  Yet one of the most interesting recent portrayals of Superman does exactly that.  In the 1991 music video by the band Crash Test Dummies, Superman’s Song is a dirge sung at the Man of Steel’s funeral, with some aging superheroes in attendance.  One of them appears to be a slightly overweight, middle-aged Wonder Woman and another might be an elderly Green Lantern.

The song’s chorus emphasizes Superman’s selflessness:  “Superman never made any money, for saving the world from Solomon Grundy.”  That characterization is not particularly new.   But a twist on the selflessness theme suggests that Superman had to overcome temptations to stay on the straight and narrow.  Heroic narratives recount the ways our heroes struggle to overcome obstacles, both internal and external.  There weren’t many external obstacles that really tested Superman, but resisting such deadly sins as Greed and Sloth suggests overcoming internal ones.

Regarding greed, the song claims that Superman “had a real job, even though he could have smashed through any bank in the United States, he had the strength, but he would not.”  Regarding sloth, we hear “sometimes when Supe was stopping crimes, I’ll bet that he was tempted to just quit and turn his back on man.”  But not Superman.  He “stayed in the city, kept on changing clothes in dirty old phone booths €˜til his work was through.”

But the most interesting element of the song presents Superman as a refined gentlemen, in great contrast to another fictional hero, the crude Tarzan.  After lyrics claiming that “Tarzan was no ladies’ man” and that he would just “scoop €˜em up under his arm like that, quick as a cat,” we hear:  ”Clark Kent, now there was a real gent.”  While the King of the Jungle “could hardly string together four words, I Tarzan, You Jane,” Superman “would not be caught sittin’ around in no junglescape, dumb as an ape, doing nothing.”

Thus this song not only mourns the death of Superman – “the world will never see another man like him” – but adds a new element to the narrative, one describing a cool, kind, sensitive, almost feminist strong man, who though weary remains true to the “never-ending battle.”  While sometimes he considered escaping the pressure of being our rock solid superhero, to “join Tarzan in the forest,” he stayed Resilient and Reliable to the end.  No wonder he is so Inspiring.  And a real gentleman to boot.

Below is a clip of the Crash Test Dummies video of  Superman’s Song.

Thor, God of Thunder: Another Summer Blockbuster Superhero

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

Every summer seems to have its share of movies featuring superhero protagonists, and the summer of 2011 is no exception.  This year we have Captain America and his fight with World War II Nazis.   There is also the Green Lantern's battle with the awesome power of Parallax.  Perhaps topping them all is the Norse God of thunder, Thor, who must overcome the Frost Giants and the treachery of his own brother.

Movie studios are releasing more and more superhero movies with each passing decade.  Over the past few summers, ultra-successful films have been made featuring Batman, Iron Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four, to name but a few.  We appear to be enthralled by tales of people who possess superhuman powers, who are confronted by evil, and who overcome formidable obstacles in triumphing over the direst of circumstances.

Why do we identify with super beings with magical powers?  One reason is that the creators of superheroes endow them with a crucial flaw or limitation that makes them very human in their vulnerability.  Almost inevitably the superhero's flaw jeopardizes his life and the lives of those he wishes to save.  With a small assist from a sidekick, often a mere human, the superhero is able to overcome his shortcomings and vanquish the enemy.

Quite early in the movie Thor, we encounter the superhero's three flaws:  pridefulness, impulsiveness, and blindness to the manipulations of his evil brother.  These shortcomings of Thor lead to his banishment to earth, where he must live as a mere mortal.  As with most superheroes, Thor receives help from a variety of sidekicks, including a beautiful scientist named Jane who becomes his love interest.  She falls in love with two very important characteristics of Thor which are typical of a superhero:  his chiseled body and his mysterious origins.

The greatest source of Thor's superpower is the hammer Mjolnir which, after his banishment, is only accessible to him if he proves himself worthy to receive it.  After Thor has lived for some time as a mortal human, his arrogance begins to soften and he gradually acquires compassion and wisdom.  At the film's climax, Thor is engaged in a great battle with a seemingly indestructible automaton sent to earth by his disloyal brother.  Battered and near death, Thor offers to sacrifice himself to save others, a proclamation that affirms his worthiness to wield the hammer and defeat both the automaton and his brother's evil rule.

To ensure a sequel, the movie ends with a few loose ends.  Thor is separated from Jane, and not all the villains have been defeated.  We look forward to seeing what happens in the next installment of Thor.

One final caveat:  Phil Zimbardo, a social scientist and expert on heroes, has lamented the fact that most people's default image of a hero is the classic superhero with superpowers.  According to Zimbardo, this mindset prevents people from recognizing that the most important heroes in our society are average, everyday people who lack superpowers but who do the right thing when called to do so.

Zimbardo may have a point.  We should indeed see ourselves, with all our puny human limitations, as potential heroes who can make a positive difference in people's lives.  At the same time, we see no harm in escaping into fictional worlds in which extraordinary beings such as Thor are able to transform entire societies with their super-strength and super-morals.  These superheroes may be just the right elixir for those of us who need an entertaining refuge from the dark realities and mundane routines of daily life.

Below is the trailer for Thor.

Blog Contest 2nd Place Winner: Batman: The Unique Superhero

The following blog post finished 2nd in our recent contest for a free autographed copy of our Heroes book.  Each week we have been posting a hero profile from the top 5.  Next week we will post the winning entry.  Congratulations to all five of these excellent submissions.  — Scott Allison and George Goethals

2794269061_f70cee271d_z.jpgBy Mila Buckner

Batman is one of the world's most famous and beloved superheroes, and he is also one of the most unusual.  Appearing in comics, television, and major motion pictures, Batman hides behind the identity of Bruce Wayne, a playboy billionaire and industrial tycoon.  As a child, Wayne witnessed the murder of both his parents and vowed to avenge their deaths by fighting crime.  Undergoing a quest for both physical and mental excellence, Wayne transformed himself into the dark hooded and caped Batman.  Batman's transformation into a hero is as unique as it is purely self-motivated.

Unlike Spiderman, who was bitten by a radioactive spider, or Superman who was secretly an alien from another planet, Batman is a regular human being whose personal drive and rigorous mental and physical conditioning allow him to achieve superhero power.  Batman's foremost qualities include wealth, physical strength, intelligence, and obsessive passion for justice.  Void of fantasy circumstances or characteristics, Batman is a hero worthy of our admiration, inspiration, and identification; he is a man at his greatest.  As quoted in the 2005 film Batman Begins, "If you make yourself more then just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, then you become something else entirely."

In addition to his exceptional strength and intelligence, Batman is a superhero because of his unwavering moral compass.  Batman lives in the fictional American town of Gotham city, a metropolis plagued by crime, greed, and corruption.  Within Gotham, Batman fights crime by combating menacing criminals such as the Joker, Two-Face, Catwoman, and the Penguin.  More importantly, however, Batman fights crime by standing as a symbol of hope for ordinary citizens batmanrobin.jpgwho need not show fear in the face of danger.  As noted by Joseph Campbell in his classic book A Hero with a Thousand Faces, individuals who refuse their call to adventure or heroism do so out of fear.  As an ordinary man who chooses to step up and fight crime, Batman overcomes this fear at an individual level, and his example encourages other members of society to do the same.  As a superhero, Batman continues to be as unique as he is a very mysterious figure.

Often referred to as a masked vigilantly, Batman is frightening and intimidating in the manner befitting a villain.  Batman is accused of being a criminal himself by the citizens of Gotham because he is not afraid to break the law in minor ways to achieve a higher goal.  As depicted in the film The Dark Knight, Batman also allows himself to be hated by the society he serves.  Foregoing all self-aggrandizement, Batman does not look for the love and admiration given most super heroes.  Instead he claims that by not being a hero he can be something more.  Living like an outcast, Batman is the €˜Watchful Protector', a benevolent godlike force looking out for society.

Unconcerned with glory or recognition, Batman is purely motivated to bestow a boon on his fellow man.  Batman believes society is capable of justice and this motivates him to fight crime. When Gotham is overrun with corruption and greed, Batman still sees the potential for good in people and refuses to let society consume itself.  Ideally, society sees the good in the hero, but with Batman, he sees the good in society.  Batman symbolizes a hero's most important role:  the ability to believe in others when they have stopped believing in themselves, and the faith to inspire them for change.

Below is the trailer for the last Batman movie The Dark Knight (2008):

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No Ordinary Family: The Latest TV Superheroes

ABC logoBy Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In our previous blog on Joseph Campbell, we noted how the stories we construct about heroes tend to reflect both our deepest fears and our dreams of conquering them.  Heroes demonstrate for us how the best attributes of humanity can overcome the most daunting challenges that life throws at us.  As Campbell observes, nearly all hero stories follow a general structure that involves the hero's call to adventure, a set of hurdles for the hero to overcome, and a transformation of both the hero and the society in which he or she lives.

The new ABC television series, No Ordinary Family, borrows the key elements from all the classic tales of heroism throughout ages.  In the show, the Powell family is portrayed as an average American family, slightly dysfunctional but also likeable.  Their "average-ness" is crucial; it enables us to relate to them and to whimsically entertain the notion that what happens to them could also happen to us.  As with many superhero tales, the Powell's adventure begins with a traumatic event.  For them it is a plane crash in a remote South American lake that exposes them to an unusual, magical substance in the water.

The show's fun lies in how each member of the family gradually discovers his or her individual superpower.  Jim Powell, the father, finds that he now has the reflexes to catch a bullet fired from a gun.  Humorous scenes feature him discovering other super-skills such as the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  No Ordinary FamilyHis wife Stephanie, while rushing to make an appointment, discovers she can run at the ludicrous speed of over 700 miles per hour.  Why do we resonate to heroes with super powers?  According to Joseph Campbell, a central part of the hero archetype is the idea that our heroes have supernatural aids.  Superheroes, by definition, can do magical things that ordinary people cannot.

In contrast to the two adult Powells, who have acquired physical superpowers, the two Powell children discover that they have developed superior mental acuities.  Daphne, the teenage daughter, realizes that she can read people's minds, and the son, J.J., is transformed from a below-average student into a super genius.  In keeping with stereotypical superhero tradition (e.g., Iron Man), Jim Powell's sidekick is an African-American, a friend named George.

In almost all superhero stories, the hero's superpowers are necessary to fight extraordinarily powerful criminals.  No Ordinary Family is no exception.  Jim Powell encounters a series of villains who also possesses extraordinary physical powers, making the fight between good and evil a suspenseful undertaking with (at first) no clear victor.  All superheroes also possess a vulnerability.  It turns out that the Powell family members are fallible humans in most ways.  Moreover, having only recently acquired their superpowers, the Powells are unaware of the limits their super-skills and how to best use them.

The proliferation of superhero stories, in comic books, movies, and television shows, is staggering.  What is the allure of the superhero?  At the end of the first episode of No Ordinary Family, Jim Powell tells us that "the problems we face may not be ordinary. But then again, neither are we."  With this line, Powell has precisely captured the universal appeal of superheroes.  An inescapable reality of life is that we often must face fearful circumstances beyond our control, circumstances that require remarkable courage and strength for us to prevail.  Extraordinary problems require extraordinary solutions.  Superheroes are exactly the tonic we dream of when life punches us in the gut.

Below is the trailer for the pilot episode of No Ordinary Family.

What Makes A Hero? Not Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

103761017_fd3e9e0ce8.jpgBy James K. Beggan

What makes a hero? Courage, intelligence, cool thinking in hot situations? That’s typically what people think of as the raw material for a hero. But I’d like to offer an alternative opinion: What makes a hero is irrationality and madness. Being a hero involves taking an action that doesn’t make sense. If it made sense, it wouldn’t be heroic; it would be logical. Often, when the press interviews someone who’s done a brave thing, such as run into a burning building to save someone’s life, his or her comment afterwards is to the effect, “I acted without thinking.” When people jump into the water to save someone from drowning, they risk their own life. The mental calculus is a sure loss of one life vs. a possible loss of two lives. What is logical? Well, it depends on the likelihood of success. If there is a very high chance (Olympic swimmer to the rescue), then the action is logical and not heroic. If there is a low chance, then the action is heroic but very foolish and not rational. In other words: Crazy.

Who are the superheroes? The modern archetype is Superman or Batman. These heroes are larger than life. Superman was literally superhuman (or super-non-human, actually, as he was born on the doomed planet Krypton) and Batman was the son of rich doctor and became a millionaire industrialist. Consider Spider-man, skinny teenager bitten by a radioactive spider and somehow imbued with the power of a spider. A less well-known hero is Green Lantern, who was actually part of an interstellar police force organized by the Guardians of the Galaxy to patrol the universe. According to the origin story, an alien Green Lantern crashes on earth and sends his power ring on a mission to find a man without fear. Green Lantern’s power takes the form of a green ring that holds a tremendous reserve of green energy.

What do these superheroes have in common?  They are all mentally disturbed.

Superman is actually Kal-El, a child is rocketed to earth by his parents just as his entire planet explodes. 2794269061_f70cee271d.jpg Kal-El becomes Clark Kent, who, in turn, becomes Superman. What is probably Clark’s sole motivation in life? To atone for surviving the death of his home planet. When he’s not saving the world, Kal-El/Clark/Superman delights in hiding behind these different identities and sets up a love-hate relationship with Lois
Lane.

Batman is, in reality, Bruce Wayne, who saw his parents murdered as a child. He explicitly devotes the rest of his life to fighting crime, to avenge the death of his parents. Dressed as a giant bat, no less!!!

Spider-man initially plans to turn his superpowers into a gravy train by appearing on the Ed Sullivan show as an acrobat. He is too self-focused to bother to stop a criminal who ultimately murders his Uncle Ben. When Spider-man realizes the cruel twist of fate, he devotes the remainder of his life to fighting criminals (“with great power comes great responsibility”).

As a man without fear, Green Lantern is probably clinically insane. Fear is a normal response to danger. Without fear, what is to stop Green Lantern from walking into a hail of bullets or jump into a lion’s cage? greenlantern-firstflight.jpgWithout the fear of repercussions, what stops him from stealing money, or raping women? With the power ring, he would be unstoppable: An imposing force without a care in the world.

Generally, we think of a hero as a figure deserving of admiration. We assume that heroic behavior is motivated by a positive human emotion or noble characteristic. But in reality, people do what appear to be good deeds for self-aggrandizing reasons. Are sports figures heroes, or opportunistic individuals trying to make a buck by exploiting a skill they possess? Are police officers and fire fighters heroes or civil servants trying to make a living to pay on a mortgage? With a modern mass media system, everyone knows that a good deed can be spun into a series of appearances on talk shows and ultimately a book deal.

There is a thin line between hero and crazy person (Beggan, Gagne, & Allison, 2000). When we set up our children to admire heroes, what are we really teaching them? To self-aggrandize, to take careless risks, to disregard logic? Is that really what a hero does?

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Jim Beggan was born in Buffalo, NY, spent five years in graduate school in Santa Barbara, and has lived in Louisville, Kentucky for over twenty years, where he is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Louisville. As a kid, he developed an interest in comic books, initially a fan of DC comics but eventually a fan of Marvel. He still remembers the glory days when Captain Marvel gained cosmic awareness and became at one with the universe. Currently, he teaches courses on human sexuality, statistics, and self and society. When he is not teaching or doing research on exercise videos, he does the Insanity workout videos, walks on a treadmill, and swing dances in the vintage style. At the moment, he is working on his balboa technique.

References

Beggan, J. K., Gagne, P., & Allison, S. T. (2000).  An analysis of stereotype refutation in Playboy by an editorial voice: The advisor hypothesis.  Journal of Men’s Studies, 9, 1-21.

 


Reed Richards: Fantastic Family Man

Oops!  We had to remove the hero profile you’re looking for because it will soon appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals, to be published by Routledge in 2013.

Our contract at Routledge required us to remove many of our profiles on our blog at this time.  But we do have other hero profiles and information about heroes on the menu bar located on the right side of this page.  Check it out!

In the mean time, please accept our apologies.  Here is more information about our new book.

You can click here to return to our HERO home page.  And thanks for visiting!

– Scott Allison and George Goethals

 

Iron Man: A Classic Superhero in the Modern World

Iron ManBy Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

Comic book superheroes have long captured people's imaginations.  The prototypical superhero has an extraordinary power or ability, a secret identity, a strong moral code, a striking costume, a sidekick, and a mortal enemy.  The world inhabited by the superhero is typically dark and sinister, with a formidable villain posing grave danger to the general population.  Only the superhero can save this world.  He or she (but usually he) triumphs by overcoming three types of obstacles:  family of origin issues, a unique personal vulnerability, and the fearsome villain.

The latest superhero enjoying great popularity is Iron Man, portrayed in two recent movies by Robert Downey, Jr.  Iron Man made his first appearance in a Marvel Comic book in 1963, at the height of America's cold war with the Soviet Union.  Iron Man's secret identity is Tony Stark, a brilliant weapons designer who suffers a severe heart injury while being kidnapped by a foreign menace.  In the original comic version, the kidnappers are Russians; in the first Iron Man movie, they are Afghan terrorists.  Robert Downey, Jr.To save his life and aid his escape, he constructs a powered suit of armor that transforms him into a nearly unstoppable human weapon.

What accounts for the great critical and box-office success of the Iron Man movies?  There are several factors.  First, the part of Tony Stark is played superbly by Robert Downey, Jr., who is both charismatic and likeable.  Second, as viewers of Stark's remarkable accomplishments, we are especially impressed because he is a man without an innate superpower.   He relies solely on his superb mind and fierce determination to overcome his enemies.

Third, the Iron Man movies have successfully put a modern spin on many of the classic superhero themes.  For example, narcissism, rather than humility, is seen as a virtue.   In place of the cold war is the threat of terrorism, to which all modern viewers can relate.  Modern technological gadgets are portrayed as the solution to the world's problems; we even witness Robert Downey, Jr. use his cell phone to hack into the U. S. government mainframe.  There is racial and gender diversity, with African-Americans and women showing as much physical prowess and genius as Tony Stark himself.

But with all these modern trappings, Iron Man owes most of its success to its effective use of the classic elements of the heroic journey.  There is a poignant origin story, featuring Stark’s emotionally unavailable father who plants the seeds of greatness in his son.  There is adversity for Stark to overcome, namely, his damaged heart that is failing him and requires his genius to Iron Manrepair.  The villain in Iron Man 2 is an evil Russian physicist, who is nearly Stark's intellectual equal.  Stark's inherent goodness is highlighted when he saves a small boy from certain death at the hands of the villain.

Iron Man 2 also emphasizes the hero's reliance on social support to achieve his noble goals.  Early in the movie, Stark notes with pride that he has no sidekick, yet in the final battle with the villain he concedes that he needs help from his friend, James Rhodes.  The movie ends with Stark winning the heart of his beautiful female love interest, Pepper Potts, played by Gwyneth Paltrow.  Throughout the story, Stark receives important assistance from both Potts and the physically formidable Natalie Rushman, played by Scarlett Johansson.

Why are we drawn to superheroes?  Put simply, we admire their ability to overcome imposing obstacles and triumph over evil.  In a dark world, their actions shine the light of hope and promise for a better tomorrow.  Below is a movie trailer for Iron Man 2.