Who is superman?

Published: 05th August 2013 12:37 PM  |   Last Updated: 05th August 2013 12:37 PM   |  A+A-


What makes an individual a superhero? Is it all about the capes and colourful tights? Where did the idea of a superhero come from, and how can we trace the concept from our earliest myths and legends to today’s big-screen blockbusters? I can’t answer all these questions in 700 words, but I’ll try and give you a few points of reference to think about and explore on your own.

The idea of a person with powers above the ordinary dates back to our ancestors’ earliest hero stories. Perhaps a tribe that revered the memory of a great chief who helped them settle in larger territories, or a hunter who brought home great feasts for the whole clan would tell stories about these heroes, slowly adding more and more impressive details and feats to the tale each time.

So eventually you have stories about someone like Bheema, or Hercules, who are known for their immense strength. The ancient gods are something like superheroes, as we can see by the way the myth of Hermes, the speedy messenger of the gods, influenced the creation of the super-fast Flash, or how Marvel used figures derived from Norse gods like Odin and of course Thor in their comics. But, while superheroes may have godlike powers, they are usually not gods but human beings, or human-like beings who have amazing powers.

Some of the more immediate predecessors of the superhero idea may be found in pulp fiction and early comic heroes. The Phantom, for instance, has a distinctive costume and masks his true identity. He fights crime and although the people of Africa ascribe supernatural powers to him, his only powers are those of a keen mind and a well-trained body. Mandrake the Magician, on the other hand, fights criminals with the use of his amazing hypnotic powers, making crooks think their guns have turned to bunches of flowers and so on.

Another prototypical superhero is Doc Savage, created in the 1930s, a bronzed, muscular man who has been trained since birth to have a superior mind and body. He is a brilliant scientist and a formidable fighter.

In a way, even Sherlock Holmes can be seen as a kind of superhero — his powers of deduction are far beyond those of ordinary investigators. Add to this his mastery of disguise and his skill at martial arts, and you have a pretty superheroic package, albeit one without a distinctive costume or secret identity — unless of course Sherlock Holmes wasn’t his real name after all!

Now the term superman itself is a translation of the German word ‘ubermensch’, which the philosopher Nietzsche used to refer to his idea of the perfected human being, who has gone beyond the limitations of our current beliefs and ideas and risen to his or her full potential. Perhaps Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, two young men who had been trying to create a memorable character for the comic books for a while in the 1930s, had some idea of the philosopher’s concepts when they came up with the character who kicked off the whole superhero concept as we know it today: Superman.

Superman, of course, is not human at all, but an alien whose powers exceed ours so much that he may as well be a god. Yet he chooses to use these powers to fight crime and  help the powerless, and to live as a human being amongst us, in his secret identity as Clark Kent. This is where the heroism comes in — to use your amazing powers not for personal gain but to help people.

Of course, I am ending this essay at the very beginning of our topic. Because the success of Superman paved the way for a veritable explosion of the superhero genre. Soon, you had characters like Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and more battling crime in colourful costumes (except Batman who tended to darker colour schemes). Other superheroic universes featured characters like Spiderman, Captain America, Iron Man and the occult superhero, Doctor Strange. Today, the superhero genre isn’t something confined to comic books for children, but has entered mainstream entertainment at the movie theatre.

In the midst of all the hype, it’s important to remember that, exciting as the fights and weird costumes in superhero stories might be, the heroic ideal is what lies at their core, and is what makes superheroes people that we can all identify and be like in our own way.


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