Suspenders of Disbelief
The curious case of real-life superheroes
by Anna Cain; illustrations by Kelsey Skordal
Of the top 20 highest-grossing movies of all time, one is a doomed nautical love story with an accompanying Celine Dion soundtrack, two follow an adventurous band of suspiciously good-looking pirates, three are animated kid’s films that probably made you cry and four are superhero movies.
On-screen superhero productions are slick, with high budgets and famous actors. Audiences are willing to suspend their disbelief. We allow a ridiculously over-powered, well-muscled, handsome male protagonist to don a cape and call himself Superman. We accept that a radioactive spider bite gives you superpowers, and we won’t even ask why Peter Parker goes back to high school in every new franchise. However, once heroes leave the comic books, we see how ridiculous they really are.
Real-life superheroes actually exist. Take, for example, Wheel Clamp Man, the savior of motorists in Perth, Australia. With his green tights and fake moustache, this local superhero bears a curious resemblance to Luigi from the Super Mario Bros. Wheel Clamp Man is a divisive, morally ambiguous figure who, like Batman, must sometimes straddle the line between hero and villain. Armed with a side grinder, he patrols the streets of Perth and cuts off the police wheel clamps attached to illegally-parked cars. Drivers thank him, but the police hunt him through the Australian underbelly. He shares turf with Captain Australia, who inexplicably wears a yellow “@” sign on his chest and patrols the streets of Brisbane every night to stop crime. According to his personal website, Captain Australia has a genius-level IQ and is an expert at parkour. In the United States, the most famous real-life superhero is Phoenix Jones, a professional MMA fighter who sometimes wears a gold and black mask. Jones is the leader of Seattle’s Rain City Superhero Movement. Unfortunately for the citizens of Seattle, the organization fell out of favor when Phoenix pepper-sprayed a woman while attempting to break up a fight.
When interviewed, most real-life superheroes acknowledge that their efficacy is not becaue of their martial arts skills, but because most criminals are shocked into submission when they see a man in a cape run at them. It is easy to laugh at heroes like “Knight Warrior,” a real-life British crime-fighter who wears a skin-tight electric blue costume and still lives with his mother. However, in addition to patrolling the streets, real-life superheroes perform another important job. When you watch an interview with Captain Australia, you are forced to question the tropes of the superhero movie, forget the utter badassness that is Bruce Wayne and confront how outlandish the entire genre is. Additionally, when caped crusaders like Phoenix Jones become a public menace, people ask important questions about the legality of the superhero movement.
Superheroes are, in fact, practitioners of vigilante justice. They usurp proper law enforcement officials, who are often portrayed as incompetent or corrupt, and claim the power to judge innocence or guilt. A stereotypical superhero is a good-looking but traumatized white male who carries a considerable amount of psychological baggage. Unless he is obscenely wealthy, our hero’s powers spring from a medical malady, such as a spider bite or exposure to radioactivity that he should probably consult a doctor about. A superhero is, in short, a possibly deranged individual with a Messiah complex and a total lack of accountability.
Real-life superheroes illustrate that this genre is at best unrealistic, at worst disturbing. And yet, famous actors continue to parade about in laughable costumes, and Marvel continues to reel in millions of dollars with every new sequel. One could argue that audiences are prepared to accept this sort of hero without any snickers or awkward questions. The superhero genre springs from comic books and is a relatively new phenomenon, but it draws on some of the oldest cultural archetypes.
In 1936, a mythologist (yes, that is an actual job) named Major FitzRoy Richard Somerset, Fourth Baron of Raglan (yes, that is his actual name) published a ground-breaking work called “The Hero.” According to Raglan, tragic and classical heroes from different cultures and folk traditions follow a set archetypal pattern. Only Oedipus meets all 22 of Raglan’s heroic characteristics, followed by Theseus, who hits 20, and Romulus, 18. Batman scores a 16.5 on the Rank-Raglan mythotype, placing him just below Hercules.
Obviously, the Batman story varies across comic books series and movie franchises, and different versions will receive slightly different scores on the Tragic Hero Test. For the sake of convenience, I have used the most current and well-known Batman installment, the Christopher Nolan trilogy, as the basis for comparison to the Rank-Raglan mythotype. Spoilers ahead.
1. Of Noble Parentage Part I: Father is a King.
Bruce Wayne’s father owned a multinational corporation. That’s the modern, American version of royalty. One point.
2. Of Noble Parentage Part II: Mother is a royal virgin.
Bruce’s mother is also obscenely wealthy; before she married, she was the heir to a chemical company fortune. That being said, we don’t know if she was a virgin. Half a point.
3. Father is often a near relative to mother.
To my knowledge, the movies don’t discuss any incest. Neither does DC Wiki. Zero points.
4. Unusual conception.
In his infinite directorial wisdom, Christopher Nolan chooses not to show Batman’s conception. Zero points.
5. Hero is reputed to be the son of god.
Batman is pretty awesome—the citizens of Gotham accept that without question—but not even Commissioner Gordon thinks he’s a demigod. Zero points.
6. Attempt to kill hero as a child.
Bruce survives the murder of his parents at the hands of a mugger, but his life was still in danger. One point.
7. Raised by foster parents.
Alfred the Butler. One point.
8. Few/no details of childhood.
There is a time-lapse after the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. One point.
9. Hero leaves kingdom, lives elsewhere.
In “Batman Begins,” an angry Bruce Wayne leaves Gotham, travels the world and becomes a student of ninja Liam Neeson. I never did understand that last part. One point.
10. Returns to future kingdom.
Bruce triumphantly returns to Gotham with his ninja skills, ready to fight crime. One point.
11. Proves himself by winning a great victory, often over a giant or dragon.
One is allowed a bit of flexibility in the precise nature of the great victory. At the end of “Batman Begins,” Bruce saves Gotham from Scarecrow’s hallucinogenic drugs and, again, stops ninja Liam Neeson. One point.
12. Hero gets married, often to the daughter of his predecessor.
Batman is definitely married to his work. One point.
13. Becomes king.
By the end of “Batman Begins,” Bruce basically owns Gotham. One point.
14. Rules uneventfully for awhile.
Between the fall of Scarecrow and the rise of the Joker, Batman just fights boring robbers. One point.
15. Makes laws.
Although I would love to count this because Batman lays down the law… zero points.
16. Then loses favor with his subjects.
See: “The Dark Knight.” The entire movie. One point.
17. Driven from his city.
Batman takes the blame for Harvey Dent’s crimes and goes into exile. One point.
18. Dies mysteriously or unusually.
Technically speaking, the hero need not actually die, or need not stay dead. For example, Jesus (who fits the hero archetype on a surprising number of points) gets credit for this point. At the end of “Dark Knight Rises,” there is a long and implausible scene in which Batman is blown up by a nuclear bomb but somehow ends up in a café in Florence. Either way, he got blown up by a nuclear bomb. One point.
19. Death comes at a high place, often the top of a hill.
Batman’s “death” comes while flying a nuclear bomb in the Bat Plane (Bat Jet? Flying Batmobile? Bat 747?). He was up high. One point.
20. Leaves no children, or is not succeeded by his children.
No kids, though I’m sure there are some Batman fanfiction authors who disagree with me here. One point.
21. His body is not buried.
Refer to the fact that he is blown up over the ocean by a nuclear bomb and then rematerializes in an Italian café. Definitely not buried. One point.
22. But he nonetheless has a holy tomb or sepulcher.
No tomb, but Commissioner Gordon does unveil a Batman memorial statue at the end of the movie. One point.
Although Batman is the clearest example of the Rank-Raglan mythotype, most superheroes have similar origin stories. Their deference to mythological patterns is actually an important aspect of the genre. If poorly executed, the superhero story can become ridiculous. To cite one example, Ant-Man, a crime-fighter who shrinks down to the size of an insect, will be played by Paul Rudd in a major movie later this year. And though “Ant-Man” seems like a practical joke, even the gritty Christopher Nolan movies raise awkward questions such as: Why does Batman always sound like he has laryngitis? or If you have infinite money and a deep desire to help the world, couldn’t you find something more practical than putting on a bat mask and punching muggers? Without Heath Ledger’s acting or the high special effects budget, “The Dark Knight” could have ended up as laughable as Captain Australia.
The superhero genre is at a strange point in society. For those of us who grew up watching the “Justice League” and “Teen Titan” cartoons, the summer blockbusters bring back nostalgia. Although it might be hopelessly nerdy to read Batman and Robin comic books, it is socially acceptable, even cool, to watch “Iron Man” and “The Avengers.” In short, one must like superheroes, but not too much. As the real-life superheroes show, one should admire these caped crusaders but not wish for society to be protected by possibly disturbed individuals in tights.