A while back, my friend was writing a superhero pilot, and asked about developing the hero. He was surprised when I started talking about the setting. But after we talked for a while, he admitted that it made sense. Superhero tales almost always question what the hero’s role is in the world they inhabit. Are they protecting the serenity of the status quo? Are they dismantling a broken system? Are they just trying to be a glimmer of light in a dark place? Though all of these can provide a satisfying narrative, as I have grown older, I have become more suspicious of door number one. I find it especially unsettling given that it seems to point to the idea that the real-world status quo should be maintained at all costs – a state of affairs that is not just faulty, but can stoop to “alternative truths”, if you will.
Not that I want to talk about the real world here, of course. Well, not directly. The truth is, classic superhero tales have always taken a look at the psychic landscape of their day and reacted to it in any way that seemed to fit. Today, a crooked Captain America has seized power in the Marvel universe through lies and deception. The story was in the works while the election was still going on, but that chilling feeling was already in the air. Unrest. Distrust. An unending labyrinth of secrets, shrouded in darkness. Almost eighty years ago, Captain America got his start as a Nazi punching soldier when we needed one. And in the grieving, defiant, vengeful post-9/11 years, there was The Ultimates.
Ah, Mark Millar’s The Ultimates. A fittingly disturbing Bush II-era Avengers story. This was one of the more clever depictions of the world as it was then, interweaving uncomfortable political truths with humor, though for the life of me, I can’t tell if it was written as parody or the genuine article. Perhaps it’s both. But what’s even more interesting about this story of terrorist-fighting men from another time (in some cases more literally than in others) is how they retold it in 2012’s The Avengers. Combining both The Ultimates 1 & 2, the greatest difference was the tonal shift. Listing every difference between the two interpretations would take up a whole blog post, but a few of the changes are indicative of the whole. Gone was the warmongering; now, the theme was of protection, the assurance of a better tomorrow through the deeds of a band of heroes who were all different, but all dedicated to the same ideals. Kinda reminds you of a previous President, wouldn’t you say? As the world shifted, so did the story.
The world matters. The world is what the hero is fighting for. It might be a world that needs to be preserved, or redeemed, or saved, or seized. Whatever it is, the world is the hero’s reason for being. And knowing what makes the world worth it is what illustrates a hero. What the people need. What’s greater than the sum of their faults.
And I have to be honest, right now, I’m very curious what kind of hero our world will produce. Because, mark my words… they are coming.