As many people already know, I am a fully paid up Marvel fanboy. With superheroes so prevalent in our media at the moment, it truly is a time of the geeks with each new property causing me to squeal in excitement as they are adapted to the screen. But in one way or another, superpowered heroes have always been in my life and over the course of the last few decades, have helped to turn me into the person I am today. Only a few days after watching Captain America: Civil War last year, I came across a tweet which simply stated, “Steve Rogers makes me want to be a better person.”
It was something that made me smile but then made me frown as I realised that this used to be how I felt about Superman when I was a small boy. I guess times have changed as our current Superman appears to be a miserable loner, not the beacon of hope that he was in his Christopher Reeve incarnation that I grew up with. That said, I guess in being a miserable loner, I’m now closer to being Superman than I ever have been. Go me.
Even so, superheroes are often seen to be paragons, examples to look up to, especially to kids who just love to dress up as them. Anthony Mackie, who plays Falcon, once said that he realised the difference he’d made when young kids started dressing up as his character at Halloween. My Little Overlord in Training is very curious about Black Widow even though she hasn’t even seen any of the films yet (but it won’t be long). Representation is important and what heroes we give our kids will echo in their imaginations for a long time. Having just endured a long geekgasm over seeing a teenage Spiderman on screen, it put me in mind of the first time I encountered the web-slinger.
The year was 1984 and I had discovered comics. Like many boys at the time, I was deeply into Transformers and so the purchase of the tie in comic was an unsurprising inevitability. By the time of issue 6, probably in a way to boost sales as most cross-overs are, the Autobots encountered Spiderman and teamed up with him to ruin whatever plan the Decepticons had cooked up this week. Up until that point, the only superhero I really knew was Superman so to have this new, wise-cracking hero appear was a major revelation to me. Spiderman was everything Superman was not: funny, athletic and flippant and yet a bit of a goofball at the same time. A far cry from the dashing and stoic figure of Superman. I more or less switched allegiance on the spot.
As I began to absorb more of the Spiderman story, I came to find that he was young and idealistic and unlike many other superheroes that I rapidly found out about, he still had regular problems just like any other kid. School bullies, homework, trying to get girls to like you… all this on top of trying to battle ever increasingly strange and bizarre villains. It was the type of character that called to me, that seemed more down to earth and real than your average space faring alien from Krypton. Don’t get me wrong, my ideals of heroism were very firmly fixed in my mind thanks to Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman but Spiderman was just so much more relatable.
Of course the overriding morality that drives Spiderman are the words that Uncle Ben said to him (and was driven into our minds relentlessly by the Sam Raimi films), “with great power comes great responsibility”. It was something that made sense in the realm of comics where most empowered people could crush your head like a coke can but made less sense to me until a little later in my life. Once I was old enough to wield some power, albeit nothing more than a paycheque and a driving license, that morality still rung true with me. Even within our everyday lives, we hold the power to make other people happy, to help them to have a good day. With the tiny fragments of power that we hold, we can often be the difference between someone walking away with either a smile or a frown.
As time moved on, I drifted away from comics and onto other material. I was slightly too young to see much of the 1970s TV show but fortunately there was Spiderman and his Amazing Friends to keep me company as I raced through high school. However it was at the end of my school years that I suffered an incident that would leave me shaken for many years and would require another superhero to come to the rescue of my emerging psyche.
As an anxious person, it’s easy to get wrapped up in emotion and when you’re bullied as much as I was at school and when the bullying is relentless, at some point they’re going to boil over the top. I still don’t recall the incident with any clarity but I blew my top at someone and gained a reputation overnight for having a terrifying temper. My fortune changed immediately as people started to avoid me, fearful of the raging monster that lay underneath my nerdy exterior. Oh sure I still got bullied by those that dared but others were now wary, not wanting to provoke the beast that lies beneath.
Suddenly I found that there was a conflict inside of me that I had previously been unaware of. The often suppressed desire to lash out and attack anyone who treated me badly seemed to have festered and grown into something monstrous, something that wouldn’t be targeted at those who deserved it but at anyone who was close enough when I exploded. It was an inner rage that I came to find in stories about werewolves and Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde but long before I came to examine those classics, there was someone infinitely more accessible who I connected with immediately.
As a child of the 80s, I already knew who The Incredible Hulk was having been treated to the infamous TV series starring Bill Bixby. However as a young boy, the nuances of the hero’s situation were lost on me and instead I could be found diving behind the sofa whenever Dr Banner’s eyes went that freaky green colour. It was years later I would come to understand the Hulk as a modern day Jekyll & Hyde, the calm everyman and the raging beast within given form through gamma radiation. Reconnecting with the character years later, I recognised both sides of the coin both in the character and within me.
Over the years, the comics have treated Banner and the Hulk as almost different characters, having separated and unified them in various versions through the decades (the 90s were a bad time to be a Hulk fan). Even in his latest cinematic incarnation, Bruce refers to the Hulk as ‘The Other Guy’, separating him from his own personality. However what eludes him is painfully obvious to most viewers, that they’re both one and the same person . The same was true of me and whatever beast I feared lurking in me. Reconciling the differences was something that took a long time along with recognising the long continuum that stretches from calm to raging fury. Tension, anxiety and stress all could trigger an appearance by the monster and to this day, I’m told that my temper is still terrifying. However, I like to believe that it has these days it’s nothing but noise and bluster, venting steam at a situation I’m unable to control. But I’m still aware of the monster lurking in my anger and often I will retreat from a tense situation before blowing my top the same way that Dr Banner would run from danger in case it triggered his transformation. Despite there being a number of people I’d like to let rip at, I really don’t fancy their chances if they meet the ‘other guy’.
Maturity helps take a lot of the edge off of these issues and as one gets used to dealing with them, it’s possible to employ the same methods time and again. Just like a workman getting used to his tools, it’s easier to manage my moods than it used to be. But this is something that needs to be practiced, something that takes time to develop and when struggling with issues as diverse as identity and mental health, it’s important to be able to see the same issues in others. This is why we turn to stories to find our answers. Being able to relate to a fictional character can make us feel less alone in our struggles, especially if they face similar problems. It’s why I continue to believe that representation in media is tremendously important. So that issues such as relations, identity, gender politics and race can be seen within the relative safety of fiction, teaching us lessons and setting examples so that we can draw them into the real world. It allows us to see different decisions played out, from the good to the bad, all without affecting our own lives, a virtual sandbox if you will.
Finding our heroes in fiction doesn’t make our problems go away or make them any less real. However seeing the same issues played out in fiction allows us to examine them more independently with a protagonist that’s not us in the spotlight. I was lucky enough to have heroes I could identify with as a grew up, I just hope that this generation finds theirs too. In the meantime, if you want my advice, I’ll consult my What Would Spidey Do bracelet.
Images from Marvel Comics, Universal Television and Cakes and Comics