Taking it One Step Further: The Evolution of the Superhero

“I don’t mind being the smartest man in the world. I just wish it wasn’t this one.” –Adrian Veidt (Chapter XI Extras)


Ask anyone on the street what a superhero is and they might refer to the brightly-clad, tight-wearing, one-liner spewing men and women who race across the world in invisible jets, around the city on web-lines, and around the rooftops dressed as rodents. The superhero’s mission is clear: defend the innocent meek from the dark mighty, save the damsel in distress, catch colorful villains shouting “You will rue the day!” and then go home. But there are problems: in the world of the superhero, the villain almost absolutely returns immediately to start a crazy scheme once again, endangering lives. And if these villains began to become as real as the villains of our world, the stakes escalate to the point that giant Death Rays are nothing compared to corporate corruption, self-gain politics, and the impending doom of war. So how does a hero evolve? And can they still be the brightly-clad, tight-wearing, one-liner spewing men and women when they cross the defined black and white world of good and evil into a moral gray?

In Frank Miller’s the Dark Knight Returns Bruce Wayne faces a problem. He’s retired. He actually gave in to the world that had been putting pressure on superheroes. Now he’s pushing into his mid-fifties, racing cars, living as the playboy socialite he’d always pretended to be. He’s taken his worst enemies and, instead of the BAM! of his punches, he has tried to solve their problems with psychology and psychiatry. But then he realizes: he hasn’t prepared for his real-world enemies.

The world is darkening. Gotham is darkening. Politicians are weak and self-serving. Crime is escalating with the rise of a newer generation of crime, one not for petty theft or flamboyant schemes to take over the world, but for pure nihilism. “I walk the streets of this city I’m learning to hate,” Bruce says, “the city that’s given up, like the whole world seems to have.” (12). Even his own projects are corrupt: the psychologists working with Harvey Dent seemed more concerned with showing their success than whether their “Two-Face” is really cured. And people begin to avoid the truth of their problems. We see this on p14, on the news, after a mutant attack on a family. The newscaster, Bill, first blames the attack on a need for money; then he blames it on drugs; finally, he concludes it must be the heat wave.

And after wallowing in his own despair, his own confusion, his own torment, he finally relents to what he needs to do to save his city. As Knowles (2007) says  “eventually the avenging spirit of the Bat totally consumes Wayne, who becomes a full-fledged avenging angel” (p150).  Immediately after, Batman begins to shed the Wayne personality little by little (despite Alfred’s protests); he has no need to hide behind a foppish socialite, he has only his mission. In his mission he is renewed, almost like a baptism through violence, driven solely by what he deems needs to be done. And here is where we begin to see that he has changed from the oldschool superhero ideal–attacking villains and leaving cute Bat-shaped notes–no, now he is different. He now attacks with more violence, his targets are larger, and his mission is not solelyto prevent the deaths of innocents, but to change the city itself for the better.

“We live in the shadow of crime, Ted,” Lana Lang, a previous Superman character and in this story one of Batman’s most vocal supporters, debates on a news program for his cause. She says “With the unspoken understanding that we are victims—of fear, of violence, of social impotence. A man has risen to show us that the power is, and always has been, in our hands. We are under siege—he’s showing us that we can resist” (p66). Later she adds, in another news program, “It is a war, Morrie—though he seems to be the only one with balls enough to fight it”. (144).

During his crusade to clean up Gothan he face numerous challenges: Harvey Dent’s succumbing to his dark side; the rise of the Mutants; the re-emergence of the Joker after an almost decade-long coma and the city pulled between chaos and fright. But Batman tries to remain faithful and true to his goals, reaching larger and larger still to find the roots of the problem. Knowles (2007) relates an interview from Frank Miller in 1985 where he explained that Batman had “to be a force that in certain ways is beyond good and evil,” a moral force that is “plainly bigger and greater than normal men and perfectly willing to pass judgment and administer punishment” (p148). Batman is no longer a mortal man fighting two-bit thugs, he is a man attacking all forms of crime and reaching higher still as he becomes, according to Miller, a “god of vengeance” (p150).

And even after gaining too much attention, and the untimely arrival of a very impotent Superman used by the government for simple covert military attacks, Batman finds he has to evolve again before giving in. He learns, from Oliver Queen, formerly Green Arrow and currently a very covert eco and political terrorist, that he has become a symbol, but a loud symbol. He helps Batman understand that if he begins to do things more discreetly, to make changes more subtly, then the government can do nothing to stop him. That he may be making too much of a roar, with waves of negative consequences, as seen in the misguided attempts by the reformed gang that called themselves the Sons of the Bat, who attempt to clean up the city with non-focused acts of hyper-violence.

And so, as he faces Superman in a well-prepared yet one-sided fight, he fakes his own death: earlier he took a pill to slow down his heartbeat or some such, leaving him the loser of the fight to the public at large, but the winner of the overall struggle to attain his goals. And this is when we see the end of his evolution into a person beyond mere “superheroics”: as Batman himself says “Here, in the endless cave, far past the burnt remains of a crimefighter whose time has passed…It begins here—an army—to bring sense to a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderer…” (199).  This is a greatly different Batman—one who, unlike his previous self, actually succeeded in converting his enemies into allies, making a large change in the status quo, and, like his original incarnation, operates more covertly, from the shadows. In a stark contrast to Superman–who is also working from the shadows–Batman is operating on his own goals, on his own scale.

When we examine Adrian Veidt, or Ozymandias, in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, we see an even clearer evolution, made all apparent as the plot reaches its climax in the ending chapters. The younger Adrian Veidt was the typical superhero: despite his apparent super-genius, he flipped and rolled and punched his way through petty thieves and bank robbers. In his shiny gold and purple leotard he righted wrongs and thought he was solving the ills of humanity, that is until meeting the Comedian for a third time during the Crimebusters meeting in ’66.

Like many comic universes, the emergence of a large group of heroes led to them all playing with the idea of being a team. Captain Metropolis, an aging hero from the “Golden Age” group “the Minute Men”, represents in many ways the problems of older heroes, and in turn, older attempts to change the world. He, almost comically, shows his fellow heroes a chart that he believed pointed out the problems with modern day America, problems that they as heroes should attack. On it were not notions that trouble a real world, like war, prejudice, murder, and the like, but notions that frightened the era of society for that time: namely promiscuity, black unrest, and anti-war demos. Also on the chart are what most heroes fight day to day, the surface-level of crime: riots, drugs, etc. This is where Alan Moore, the writer, shows his problem with the notion of superheroes. What they do only maintains the status quo, it never changes it. They deal with problems that keep society balanced, but they don’t tackle the real problems. This is where the Comedian comes in. The Comedian is the only one who sees the real problems, seen in his dialogue with the other heroes in Chapter II:

Ozymandias: “Surely that’s just an organizational problem? With the right person coordinating the group, I think…”

Comedian: “Oh an’ I wonder who that would be? Got any ideas Ozzy? I mean, you are the smartest guy in the world, right?”

Ozymandias: “It doesn’t require genius to see that America has problems that need tackling…”

Comedian: “Damn straight. An’ it takes a moron to think they’re small enough for clowns like you guys to handle. What’s going down in this world, you got no idea.
Believe me.”

Ozymandias: “I think I’m as well-informed as anyone. Given correct handling, none of the world’s problems are insurmountable. All it takes is a little intelligence.”

Comedian: “You people are a joke. You hear Moloch’s back in town, you think “Oh, boy, let’s gang up and bust him! You think that matters? You think that solves anything?”
… “It doesn’t matter squat because inside thirty years the nukes are gonna be flyin’ like maybugs… and then Ozzy here is gonna be the smartest man on the cinder…” (pp 10-11)

This, along with Captain Metropolis lamenting “Somebody has to do it, don’t you see? Somebody has to save the world,” wakes Veidt up. He realizes, as the Comedian says, that America’s problems are the things that they as “crime-fighters” battle. Taking on the next themed-villain does nothing in the larger scope of the world.

And so he begins to take into account everything around him. He realizes, as he relates in Chapter XI, “I fought only the symptoms, leaving the disease itself unchecked” he says. And showing a very human vulnerability, he adds “I felt helpless against forces greater than any I’d anticipated.” (19).

Additionally, he relates his concerns in the interview found in the Chapter XI Extras:

Nova: “Returning to your costumed career, why did you quit?”

Veidt: There were a number of reasons, but I suppose basically it boiled down to my increasing uncertainty about the role of the costumed hero in the seventies. What does fighting crime mean, exactly? Does it mean upholding the law when a woman shoplifts to feed her children, or does it mean struggling to uncover the ones who, quite legally, have brought about her poverty?”

“I guess I’ve just reached a point where I’ve started to wonder whether all the grandstanding and fighting individual evils does much good for the world as a whole. Those evils are just symptoms of an overall sickness of the human spirit, and I don’t believe you can cure a disease by suppressing its symptoms.”

We also see his evolution from the typical superhero archtype in response to the methods of his fellow hero, Rorshach, “He seems to see the world in very black and white, Manichean terms. I personally believe that to be an intellectual limitation “.  Evidence of his change is found in Chapter X as well, where Nite-Owl and Rorschach find that Ozymandias has also made his own chart on problems to tackle in America. Gone are the Norman Rockwell social problems of “promiscuity” and modern problems of “drugs”. Now there are large, worldly ideas, like “global population”,  “environmental decline”, and a nuclear hazard escalation index. (p19).

Drawing upon inspiration from his idol, Alexander the great,  he begin to think very differently, evolving to meet the world’s needs. On p10 of Chapter XI he relates the story of Alexander arriving at Gordium, tackling the “world’s greatest puzzle”, the Gordium Knot, which couldn’t be untied; and so he cut it in two with his sword. “Lateral thinking” became his motto. “An intractable problem can only be resolved by stepping beyond conventional solutions. Alexander understood that, two thousand years ago, in Gordium,” he says (p25).

And so it seemed Veidt continued to keep an eye on the past, taking a note from Pearl Harbor: he created a plan, very unlike a normal “superhero”,  but more like a mad scientist supervillain, to unite the world with a common enemy. Like the phrase, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, he devised a monster that seemed to be the cause of the death of half of the residents of New York City, with a psychic backlash he created that created thoughts of intergalactic invasion and alien horrors. This led to the gathering together all of the world, using a common and palpable fear to initiate unity.

In review of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt was accused of doing the same to unite the American people. According to Stinnett (2001) Roosevelt and his cabinet knew of the possibility of attack, having a list of eight things that could leave America open to attack from Japan, and instead of avoiding it, exacerbated it.

Stinnett (2001), quoted MCCollum, the Lt. Commander and Head of the Far East Desk of Navy Intelligence, in Washington:

“Young men ready to die for their country formed huge lines outside Army and Navy recruiting stations. Former isolationist leaders Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and William Randolph Hearst joined the cry, “Remember Pearl Harbor!” Ford converted his auto factories to assembly lines for tanks. Lindbergh helped boost aircraft production and the Hearst papers championed the Administration’s war efforts. America went from a peacetime economy to full war production virtually overnight. There was no military or moral limit to the American resolve to destroy the Axis powers and win the war.” (p253-254).

Prange, Goldstein and Dillon (1991) also agree, stating “Some individuals expressed a sense of moral relief that the United States had to come out of the bushes and in effect put its money where its mouth was” (p540). In addition, Donald Mitchell (1941) adds “It is our gain that these attacks have unified the American people as nothing else could possibly have done and put an end to the essentially dishonest policy of taking part in war without declaring it,” (p633).

Richardson (2005) shows many reactions from people during and after Pearl Harbor, such as Bill Chase, who talks about the sense of duty his fellow soldiers felt:

“In response to hearing about the attack while at a movie at the Lowes Paradise Theater in the Bronx, they all were told that leaves had been cancelled, and all personnel were to report to headquarters. Everyone suited up and had an air of duty… frequently recall the sober response and dutiful attitude of my fellow Americans that day, some of whom never returned. I am proud” (p120 to 121).

So in a sense, Veidt tapped into this same notion, gathering individuals of all kinds and hitting them in the heart with fear and loss. After about thirty minutes of trying to figure out what happened, the world almost unanimously agrees to come together.

There is resistance: Stinnett (2001) and Richardson (2005) both show people who were and still are very disturbed by the Pearl Harbor event. But despite various hints that the world may resist change and find reasons to destroy this unity, we still see, in Chapter XII, a poster on that states “One World, One Accord” (31).

While it doesn’t explicitly say that there has become a one-world-nation, it does show that Veidt has pushed the world into a different realm; through his own evolution, and through taking a completely controversial and weighty approach, he has changed the status quo. He is now away from the notion of Nostalgia that arises numerous times in the text, cleverly disguised as a perfume ad by Veidt, and closer to the new “Millenium” ideal that a letter from Angela Neuberg, in the Chapter X extras, speaks about. She says about the new perfume: “The imagery associated with it will be controversial and modern, projecting a vision of a technological Utopia, a whole new universe of sensations and pleasures that is just within reach.”

Both men may not have taken the normal routes to solving problems: but they realized, like in our world, sometimes “lateral thinking” is the only way to evolve and create a resolution to problems that can’t be tackled in the conventional sense. When all else fails, it takes a real hero to make a tough decision, be it to disrupt the social purgatory of a corrupted city or to unite an entire world at war.

Reference List

(forgive me, I believe this APA format, but it’s been a few years since I wrote this)

Knowles, C. (2007). Our Gods Wear Spandex: the Secret History of Comic Book Heroes. California: Red Wheel/Weiser.

Mitchell, D.W. (1941). The Nation: What the navy can do. 633.

Prange, G.W., with Dillon, K.V., & Goldstein, D. M. (1991). Pearl Harbor: the verdict of history. USA: McGraw-Hill Book Company. (Original work published 1986).

Richardson, K.D. (2005). Reflections of Pearl Harbor: An Oral History of December 7, 1941. Connecticut: Praeger Publishers

Stinnett, R. B. (2001). Day of Deceit: The truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor. New York: Touchstone.

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